Equity and Chancery Court Records: Valuable Genealogical Sources

If you have never looked into Equity Court Records (also called Chancery Records) for your family history research project, you’re in for a big surprise! There’s a wealth of information available in this little-used source. People often ask me “What do equity court records contain, and how can I use them to research my history?”

Equity records are what we often think of as small-claims court (rather than criminal court). In some early state records, they were used even more broadly.   You may be able to find records that cover such cases as:

- Divorce proceedings

- Probate disputes

- Adoptions

- Business/Partnership disputes and dissolutions

- Property complaints

Your ancestor could have been a defendant, plaintiff, or witness in any such cases.

Like in any court case, you can often find some personal details about the lives of your ancestors and their neighbors.  Recently I found a name change for a man in 1906.  The case was not about his name change, it was about his pending divorce, but in the course of the legal paperwork that followed (which stretched over four years), he was identified with his alias and signed his name with both names, allowing me to later find his parents and siblings.  Some of the most valuable things I love to collect in researching any family are their signatures, to help sort out identifications of men of the same name in a geographic area.

Where can I find Equity Records?

First, look at the county or counties your ancestor lived in.  Check the Equity Docket books for a short synopsis of the cases taken in a period of time.  The docket books work like an index, but beware that your ancestor may be involved in other cases (say, to witness for a neighbor’s claim) and not be listed by name in the docket.  If you recognize names of your ancestor’s neighbors or relatives, check for their cases as well.  These docket books are rarely online, but a few of them may be microfilmed.  Check the FHL catalog at www.familysearch.org to have the film sent (for a small fee) to your local Family History Center.

After I find something in the Equity Docket…

Don’t stop there.  Now look for the original case files.  If the microfilms are not at the FHL catalog, ask the county circuit clerk (you might call them if you live far away) if the original case files are still at the county court house or if they have been transferred to the State Archive.  You can visit the archive and view the original documents or microfilmed copies, or contact them to order photocopies.  Go to www.statearchivists.org/states.htm for a full list of State Archive websites.

More information on Equity Records

Check out the chapter on “Court Records” by Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, FUGA, Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA, and Arlene H. Eakle, Ph.D. in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. 

Have you ever used Equity Court records?  Tell us how it helped or changed your genealogical research.  Did you find anything surprising or new?  Let us know!