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State of Pennsylvania
Court Records Research

Pennsylvania Court records cover a wide range of genealogy topics that can help you in your research, including land ownership, courts, taxes, and naturalizations. Since Pennsylvania court records cover such a wide variety of subjects, they can help you in many different ways. For example, they may help you locate ancestors' residences, determine occupations, find financial information, establish citizenship status, or clarify relationships between people. It all depends on the type of court records that your ancestors" names appear in. For Definitions of all court trems see the Genealogy Encyclopedia.

Pennsylvania Court Records

Since 1707 the clerk of the court of common pleas has acted as prothonotary. There are several records that can be found there, including: Divorces, Naturalizations, Peddlers' Licenses, Registration of Attorneys, Oaths of County Officers, Equity, Sheriff's Sales, Juror Lists, Some Tax Records, Some Civil Court Records.

The clerk of the courts holds other records of court proceedings. Although, several journals have published abstracts of some of those records. One of those journals and periodicals is the Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine.

There are other courts in the state, but most of them may not have information of genealogical interest. Those courts include the supreme court, which has existed since 1722, and the superior court, which has existed since 1895. Both of them act mainly as appellate courts. The National Archives Mid-Atlantic Region holds federal court records.

The Prothonotary / Clerk of Courts is the keeper/clerk of the civil records/division for the court and is responsible for filing, storing, and distributing official civil documents.

Pennsylvania Land Records

In 1682, the Land Records Office was opened in Pennsylvania. It was charged with keeping all records pertaining to land that was granted by the Commonwealth, or by William Penn, as well as keeping track of state boundaries and records regarding land owned by Pennsylvania itself. The warrantee maps, warrants, patents, and survey records that still exist today are held by the Pennsylvania State Archives. Researchers can obtain copies of them for a small fee.

The Philadelphia City Archives has copies of early Pennsylvania grant records, as well as an index to those records. References to the "Lower Counties" are referring to counties that now make up Delaware.

Virginia and Pennsylvania got into a conflict about the southwest corner of the state. The University of West Virginia at Morgantown and the Virginia State Archives at Richmond should therefore be consulted for records relating to that part of Pennsylvania, in addition to resources within Pennsylvania.

From 1753 to 1782 Connecticut claimed the area that included Wyoming Valley and Upper Delaware Valley and many settlers from Connecticut moved into those regions. The Wyoming Historical and Geological Society, which is located in Wilkes-Barre, and the Connecticut State Library have several resources and records relating to those settlements.

The Continental Army's Pennsylvania Line of soldiers who served in the Revolutionary War were offered land in western Pennsylvania. Those lands were known as "Donation Lands." That same area also included "Donation Lands," which were auctioned as part of the process for redeeming Revolutionary War Depreciation Certificates at the time. Any claims made to those lands are listed in the Pennsylvania Archives series 3, volumes 3 and 7, along with maps.

The recorder of deeds holds mortgage and deed records, which is where the search for land records should begin. The recorder of deeds office also holds buyer and seller indexes, also known as grantee and grantor indexes. However, some of them have been organized according to the Russell system, which can be somewhat difficult to use. Mortgages and deeds are often recorded in separate indexes. The recorder of deeds office may also hold chattel mortgage records. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania State Archives each hold microfilmed indexes for most county deeds that were recorded in 1850 and earlier.

Many courthouses have deeds that were never recorded. Some deeds have also been collected by historical societies, archives, and libraries. Many deeds were not recorded at the time of execution, but at a much later point in time. For example, around the time when titles were being searched for petroleum rights at the beginning of the 1900s lots of deeds were found that were from more than 100 years earlier and hadn't been recorded until that period in the 1900s. Names in deeds were often anglicized, but a lot of clerks recorded original German signatures into deed books, which can be valuable to researchers.

Any property-related documents are recorded by and organized by the recorder of deeds. Those documents may include: Deeds, Mortgages, Releases, Easements (Rights-of-Way), Subdivisions, Restrictions, Notaries, Public and Elected County Officers.

Researchers may also find other useful documents, such as foreign birth certificates, military service discharges, and cattle brands. All of those documents are publicly available except for the military service discharge records.

The Recorder of Deeds is responsible for recording documents related to property. Documents recorded in the office consist of, but are not limited to, deeds, mortgages, releases, easements (rights-of-way), subdivisions, restrictions, notaries, public and elected county officers. Other documents, such as Military Service Discharges, foreign birth certificates, as well as obscure documents like cattle brands, arealso recorded here. All document, except Military Service Discharges, are public record and are readily available.

Further Reading

Pennsylvania Probate Records

In 1682 an act was passed by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. That act required that all letters of administration and wills had to be recorded. The county register of wills is the best place to start the search for such records. Record books of letters of administration and wills can be found there, along with related original papers. Some counties organize those original papers according to what they are, such as bonds, and then arranges them according to the date on which they were filed. Many will books have been microfilmed, but other files should also be consulted.

Each county's orphans' court clerk, which may also be the register of wills for that county, keeps records relating to guardianship of minors and estate divisions. Estate records for a single estate may exist in both the orphans' court offices and the register of wills office. In most counties, there are docket book indexes available. Those docket books can point to existing records and where those records can be found. Many estate records for the state are on microfilm and some have also been abstracted and published. For example, Your Family Tree, the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society Quarterly, and the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania have all published some of them.

There are several published indexes available for years before 1900. Those indexes may include letters of administration, as well as wills. They may list the year of first estate action, volumes, page numbers, and file numbers, which can all help resources to follow the paper trail of an estate. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania State Archives, and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh each have some of those indexes available on microfilm.

Many original wills were written in German, especially in the counties of Lancaster, Berks, and York. However, English translations were also written and recorded.

The orphans' court clerk and the register of wills are often one and the same. They can also take on duties of the clerk of the court and the recorder of deeds as well. The population of the county generally determines how many clerks work for that county and how many tasks each one is in charge of.

The register of wills and clerk of orphans' court (for estate records) are often the same person, sometimes sharing the responsibility of the recorder of deeds and clerk of courts as well. Counties are classed by population, which determines the number of hats worn by one or more clerks.

Pennsylvania Tax Records

County tax records spanning from 1765 to 1791 have been published in Pennsylvania Archives series 3. Only a few U.S. Direct Tax lists from 1798 survived. That group of surviving records includes the Pennsylvania records. The National Archives has placed them on microfilm. They can be found at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, National Archives Mid-Atlantic Region in Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania State Archives. Many indexes for counties have been published, but the Chester and Berks county lists are incomplete. The county tax assessment offices usually hold tax records, but the prothonotary or the county commissioner's office may hold some of those records as well. Some of the records from 1715 to the 1930s are also available at the Pennsylvania State Archives. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has early records for Crawford, Washington, Bedford, and Fayette counties, as well as some other counties, especially those in the western part of the state. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia City Archives, the Pennsylvania State Archives, and other manuscript collections also have some Pennsylvania tax records on file.

Tax records are typically found in the county tax assessment offices but may also be in the county commissioners’ office or with the prothonotary.

Pennsylvania Immigration Records

Many of the early immigration records for Pennsylvania can be found in Pennsylvania Archives series 2, volume 17, pages 521 to 667. Philadelphia port passenger lists for 1800 to 1945 and indexes for 1800 to 1948 can be found at the National Archives Mid-Atlantic Region. Philadelphia port vessel and crew lists from 1789 to 1880 are bot considered to be immigration records, but they can still contain useful information on immigration at that time. The Free Library of Philadelphia and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania each have indexed typescript versions of those records on file.

The office of the prothonotary usually holds county naturalization records. But some records can be found in county or city archives, including those for Chester County and Philadelphia County. Some records have also been published. Those records include: Allegheny (1798-1906), Bucks (1802-1906), Philadelphia, Westmoreland (1802-52).

The Pennsylvania State Archives has state records, provincial records, and other records on file. Some of those records include supreme court records, which can also be found in Pennsylvania Archives series 2, volume 2.

Those living in Pennsylvania who were not British where required to swear allegiance to the province. Strassburger/Hinke Names of Persons Who Took the Oath of Allegiance to the State of Pennsylvania Between 1777 and 1789 (online) contains those records. Several of the records for Philadelphia in the 1800s can be found in Philadelphia Naturalizations: Records of Aliens' Declarations of Intention and/or Oaths of Allegiance, 1789-1880 (online). That is a reproduction of Historical Records Survey (1941).

The National Archives Mid-Atlantic Region in Philadelphia holds federal court naturalization records. That includes: Petitions for Courts in Philadelphia (1790-1991), Indexed, 1795-1990), Pittsburgh (1820-1979, Indexed 1820-1990), Erie (1940-1972), Harrisburg (1911-1917), Scranton (1901-1990), Wilkes-Barre (1943-1972), Williamsport (1909-1913), Index to the Latter Four Courts (1901-90).

Further Reading

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