As many genealogists come to find, all the records they need aren’t online. (You are all shocked, I know!) The amount of what’s available changes nearly daily as more and more records are becoming digitized but suffice it to say, you will have to go out and about to get your many of your ancestor’s records.
Besides local libraries, one of my favorite resources are the county clerk offices.(Some of the County Clerk offices are in amazing buildings like the one pictured above!)
I’ve been to several and noted that they are ALL different in some ways. Some have dedicated genealogy areas, some do not. Some have dedicated volunteers or even staff to find records, some do not. Some just let you almost have a field day with the original records, some (probably most) will not. It all varies.
First, what is the point of a county clerk? What does a county clerk do?
For the most part, a county clerk is responsible for public records. They can also be responsible for other things like issuing licenses (think marriage or even gun licenses), dealing with local elections, working with financial records, etc. It’s always important to check out the county of interest’s website for more information. For example, my county clerk is technically the clerk of the circuit court and is responsible for court issues and marriage licenses. So I wouldn’t go there for birth records or death records (those are in our health department) BUT, in my hometown in Michigan, I DO go to the county clerk’s office for birth and death records. Always check out the websites or call for more information!
So, what can you usually expect to find in a county clerk’s office?
Obviously, as I already showed, this can vary. But there are a few things you can expect to find:
- Vital Records – as one of the purposes of the county clerk is the official keeper of records, most will have access to vital records in their office. Birth and death records are normally kept here or in a county health building, or sometimes in both. Usually the websites will let you know where these records are and the years they are from.
- Marriage Records – this is normally going to be found here and is probably one of the easier records to find (not always the case though!). Again, check to see what dates the county has for recorded marriages. These usually start much earlier than recorded birth/death records. Also note that divorce are sometimes kept here too.
In areas with a smaller population, you can also find other records in the county clerk office. For example, some county clerk’s are also the county recorder, which deals in land records/deeds. Some county clerks also deal with passports. It really does depend.
So how do you get this information?
Doing some research before actually going to the office is your best bet. Find out what records are there and make a note of the records you wish to find. Have as much information on that ancestor as possible! This includes birth/death date if you’re looking for either of those records plus their full name (maiden name too if possible). For marriage information, try to have both parties names and even the date or date range if possible.
Also call them or check out their website and ask them about their research policies. Some might have a form you can fill out before you get there. Some may have a dedicated section in their office to genealogy. Some may have local genealogy society members that volunteer their time and researchers are to only come during those times.
And ALL will have restrictions on birth and death records. Marriage records are less likely to be restricted but that is always a possibility as well. Many times you’ll see a restriction like 100 years after the birth date for either birth/death. There are ways to get through the restriction but it usually includes proving kinship and normally it has to be something close, like parent, children, and sometimes grandchildren.
Here is how it works in my hometown:
- I make sure I have all the relevant information I can find on the ancestor. If I’m looking for a marriage record, I have an approx. date and names of the parties (although not usually the woman’s maiden name). For birth records, I make sure I know the birth date or approx. date and a name. For death records, I know the approx. death date and the name. My hometown county rule is for it to have been 101 years since the date of birth for either of those records, so I make sure the records do not fall into that restriction OR I fill out the forms to get around that before hand.
- I go to my county building where the county clerk’s office is held. After going through the metal detector and being sure ALL electronics are not with me (ALWAYS CHECK THIS POLICY!), I proceed to the office.
- The County Clerk office has HUGE books in corner shelving for genealogists. I head straight there. None of the clerks are dedicated to that section but will help you with questions and finding things as long as there isn’t a line of people.
- I first look through the indexes to see if I can find the birth/death/marriage book and page number.
- Once found I note it down (for citations of course) and then go to the book and find the information. Most of the time, these are simple registries. Depending on the year of the record, this may be all that is left of the record. If I want the official copy, I note down where it can be found from the index and then fill out a form to hand to one of the people behind the desk who then make me a certified copy for a fee. At this office, only certified copies are available for people to take and it’s about $15 per copy.
- If I couldn’t find them in the index, but I know the date of the event, I will find the appropriate register book for the time period and hunt line by line. If it’s more recent and I still can’t find the information, I will then ask my question at the desk.
It can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 2-3 hours for a research trip, depending on what I am looking for.
County Clerk offices tend to be the next step for most beginner genealogists after writing what you know and searching online. Be sure to check the county’s website or call them for information on restrictions, electronic policies, research policies, and what records are available. If the records aren’t there, they normally know where they are and can tell you where to go. Be aware that county records vary county by county (sometimes township by township) and it’s always best to know as much about them and their policies before going in to do research!
Happy hunting everyone!