Search For Your Ancestors in Historical Documents




State of Pennsylvania
Court Records Research

Sylvester K. Stevens and Donald H. Kent, County Government and Archives in Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1947), while a bit dated, explains the responsibilities of the various county offices, with a good description of the county courts.

The prothonotary has been the clerk of the court of common pleas since 1707. Court records here include divorces, naturalizations, peddlers’ licenses, registration of attorneys, oaths of county officers, equity, sheriff’s sales, juror lists, some tax records, and some civil court records. Other court records are with the clerk of courts.

Among the few published court records for Pennsylvania is Diane E. Greene, Cumberland CountyPennsylvania Quarter Sessions Dockets, 1750–1789 (Baltimore: Clearfield Company, Inc., 2000). Some court record abstracts have been published in various journals, such as The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine.

Other courts exist in Pennsylvania, although their jurisdictions are less likely to have genealogical impact. These include the supreme court (1722-present) and superior court (1895-present), with mostly appellate but some original jurisdiction. Federal court records are at the National Archives—Mid-Atlantic Region.

Pennsylvania Tax Records - Late eighteenth-century state tax records for various counties, covering 1765 to 1791, were published in Pennsylvania Archives, 3d series, vols. 11-32; some of these lists were reprinted by Family Line Publications of Westminster, Maryland (now Heritage Books). The 1781 tax list for Washington County in volume 22 of the Pennsylvania Archives was actually taken in 1782 (see Jane M. Fulcher and Raymond Martin Bell, “Washington County, Pennsylvania Intestate Records, 1789–1806,” The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine 31 [1979]: 51).

John “D” Stemmons and E. Diane Stemmons, comps., Pennsylvania in 1780 (Salt Lake City: the compilers, 1978) indexes 1779 and 1780 tax lists published in the Pennsylvania Archives, 3d series, volumes 12-18 and 20-22, as well as unpublished lists for Northampton County 1780 and Westmoreland County (Connecticut, not Pennsylvania), 1776-80. An addendum to the Stemmons’ work added lists for other counties, mostly for 1783.

Among the few surviving 1798 U.S. Direct Tax lists are those for Pennsylvania. They were microfilmed by the National Archives and are available at the Mid-Atlantic Region in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania State Archives, and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Indexes have been published for several counties and those for western counties have been published. Some of the lists for Berks and Chester counties are missing.

Tax records are typically found in the county tax assessment offices but may also be in the county commissioners’ office or with the prothonotary. The state archives has microfilms for some of these records (1715–1930s), and those of early lists for the western counties of Bedford, Crawford, Fayette, Washington, and others are at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Some assessment records have found their way into manuscript collections of county historical societies, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the state archives, as well as the Philadelphia City Archives.

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