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Court of Common Pleas

From the creation of a county, a county court was formed. This court was comprised of local men who established and enforced the laws existent in the county. Crimes were punished. Licenses were granted. Road building needs were identified and men were assigned to the task. The poor and infirm were provided subsistence. Uncollectible debts were addressed. Bounties were paid. Dower rights were recorded. Jurors were named. Baseborn children were identified and punishments for the women were determined. Indentures were recorded. Militias were established and officers named. Moneys were appropriated. Administrators and executors of estates were appointed or accepted. Guardianships were granted. Headrights were granted.

In the colonial period and early 19th Century, the Court of Common Pleas generally met for two days monthly. During the dead of winter and sometimes in the harvest season, there might be a session that was skipped. If a murder was committed, there would be a special and immediate session. The meeting of the Court of Common Pleas was frequently a broad community event. People came to town those days not only to settle court matters but to make purchases, visit and keep up on local gossip.

The Court of Common Pleas are valuable records to establish residence for an ancestor. Prior to the 1790 census, there are few records that identify the common man in this country. The Court of Common Pleas involves nearly every adult male. At some point in time, he served on a jury, sold land, had a problem paying off a debt, served in a militia or was assigned to a road crew. Generally little information is given other than his name. But, to establish residence alone is important in this time period.

Although females rarely appear in the Court of Common Pleas, they do appear. In America, it was necessary in most colonies and states that a dower release be made. This "permits" the man to sell land. The wife gave her consent. Therefore, the given name of the wife is recorded. In other instances, women who had baseborn children were named. Their children were also named and their ages given. Generally by age 3, the children of this woman were put out to indenture. Women frequently were executors or administrators of their spouse's estate. They were named in the consequent probate recorded in the court. Females were infrequently involved in litigation. They may be named in a defamation suit. Or when threatened, they may with their spouse, have a restraining order placed against another individual. Females could go to court to bring an abuse charge against their spouse. Divorce cases, although rare, were heard and granted. In one instance, in Virginia, a women went to court and had recorded that a mare bit off her son's ear.

Black Americans also appear in court records. If a black was granted his freedom, that is a matter of court record. In some cases, the owner wanted to record his human "property" generally as related to a court or probate matter. In those cases, a black mother and her children may be named with ages of the children stated. It seems easier to find the identity and years of birth for these favored black children than that of the owner. Only given names are recorded.

Headrights may be used as evidence of immigration. A headright of fifty acres was granted in Virginia for every white male 16 and over who transported himself into the colony. These headrights give the name of the adult family member and the names of all of those who came in his family unit as well as the country from which they came.

Roads consisted of animal or Indian trail or did not exist in colonial times. Roadbuilding was a function assigned out by the county court generally to those who would benefit from that road. A group of three or more men would be assigned a road from one point to another point. Frequently these men were relatives either as father and children or by marriage. It was also frequent for a newly married man to be assigned as part of a road building crew with his father, brothers-in-law or father-in-law.

Licenses were granted through the county court. The most frequent licenses granted were permission to marry people, license to keep an ordinary, permission to establish a mill and license to practice law.

Near the time of the Revolution, there is an increase in cases of insurrection. During the Revolution, if a man did not serve, he was assigned to pay expenses of the family of a man who did serve. If a soldier was killed in the Revolution, a county payment would be set up for his wife and children. If a man refused to serve or pay expenses, he could be subject to penalty. Quakers were penalized at this time for refusing to serve in the military. All of these types of incidents could generate a court record.

Depositions are rare. But, in those cases where depositions are taken, a wealth of information may be available on an ancestor. Details of where the ancestor had lived may be given. Relatives frequently are named and sometimes also give testimony.

An entire family may be listed in a "warning out" - an early form of welfare control when indigent families warned to leave a county willingly or be evicted forcibly.


The Court of Common Pleas have been microfilmed. They may be obtained by loan through local Family History Centers. Search by county. Under the list of sources, select court records. When available, always choose the original records. Select the correct time period for your needs. Order the film.

The Court of Common Pleas are not easy to read. A person who feels taxed reading census records will likely find court of common pleas too difficult. Never trust an index. Read each entry for your surnames. Copy every instance when your surname or related surnames appear. If you do not copy word-for-word, at least copy the kind of record - road crew, juror, bounty, etc. When the record is a headright, deposition or guardianship, it is best to photocopy the record.