The Court of Common Pleas may hold the info you need to break down your genealogical brick wall–don’t leave the courthouse without checking!
You’ve taken that long-awaited trip to the courthouse. You’ve happily dug through vital records, probate, and deeds. You start to leave the courthouse when you pass by a series of indexes for the Court of Common Pleas. Stop and take the time to include this valuable resource in your research plan!
The Court of Common Pleas had jurisdiction over a wide range of criminal and civil matters. They didn’t just handle squabbles over unpaid debts, but also oversaw naturalizations, divorces, and land disputes, to name just a few. And although they can take time and determination to search through, within the volumes are genealogical gems such as the following:
- Divorces at a time when the marriage may not have been recorded by the county
- Insight into your ancestor’s life, business dealings, and sometimes criminal endeavors
- Details on land disputes, property and neighbors
- Settlement of contested estates
- And when we’re extremely fortunate, clear identification of relatives
Take the case of Peter and Catherine Wolf of Montgomery County, Ohio. The first glimpse I got of Peter’s wife was in a published biography of their son Elias: “[Peter] married Catherine Kaylor… [E]arly in the nineteenth century, they came to Montgomery Co., Ohio, where they both lived and died, she in 1864, and he in 1845.”[i] This was written by Elias’ son, lending credence to its content. But how to prove it? As is the case with most families of this era, records that confirm Catherine’s name were sparse. Peter died before 1850, so we never see the couple together in the census. (Censuses prior to 1850 listed only the head of household by name.) A search of property records did not identify Peter’s land, nor was his estate found in probate indexes. Where could we find Catherine?
The answer was in the Common Pleas proceedings. In July 1823, Catherine Wolf filed suit in Montgomery County against one Abraham Kinzey for labor performed – a value of $7.12 ½. Critical to our research, Abraham appealed the decision. He based his appeal on the fact that Catherine was married and thus had no standing to bring suit:
“… that at the time of the commencement of this cause and for more than six years before she the said Plaintiff had been and was and still is a feme covert that she was at that time the wife of one Peter Wolf now in full life…”[ii]
Montgomery County, Ohio Court of Common Pleas, June Term 1824, Wolf vs. Kinzey.
In this one civil record we found evidence that Peter Wolf’s wife was Catherine and they had been married for more than 6 years. While this still didn’t confirm that Catherine’s maiden surname was Kaylor, it supported the information their son provided for his biography. If he was correct about her first name, he was more likely to be correct about her surname as well. More research was needed to prove her surname, but this court case was key in proving that Peter Wolf had a wife named Catherine; that they moved to Montgomery County, Ohio prior to 1823; and that they were married at least by 1817.
The rest of the story…
It would be unfair to bring up the lawsuit and not tell you about its conclusion. Catherine failed to show for the trial in 1824 and lost the case. Not only did she not receive her $7, but she was also now responsible to pay $18.80 for Abraham’s defense costs.[iii] In 1825, she was jailed for not paying this debt, so her tactic was to use Abraham’s appeal against him. She filed as an Insolvent Debtor, which was essentially an early form of bankruptcy which also allowed her release from prison. In her suit, she maintained that she was “insolvent, a Married Woman, and by the Law of the Land was incapable to hold any property.”[iv] (This was exactly Abraham Kinzey’s reasoning for his original appeal.) She therefore couldn’t possibly pay her debt. In the end, while both parties accrued legal costs, neither paid the other a single cent on the original debt.
Montgomery County, Ohio Court of Common Pleas, May Term 1825, Petition of Catherine Wolf.
Through these civil proceedings, we were able to not only place Peter and Catherine Wolf in Montgomery County and show them as husband and wife, but also gain unique insight into this chapter of their lives.
Relatively few civil court records are digitized. While they’re typically available only at the courthouse or on microfilm, they are well worth the time and effort to look at, since they may very well hold the key to identifying and understanding your ancestors.
Are you stuck behind a brick wall? It’s possible that court records are the answer! Legacy Tree Genealogists has access to the world famous Family History Library and its enormous microfilm collection, including reels of common pleas documents. We also work with onsite researchers world-wide to review and obtain records not available anywhere else. We would love to help you find your ancestor. Contact us today for a free consultation!
[i] The History of Miami County, Ohio: Containing a History of the County; Its Cities, Towns, Etc.; General and Local Statistics; Portraits of Early Settlers and Prominent Men; History of the Northwest Territory; History of Ohio; Map of Miami County; Constitution of the United States; Miscellaneous Matters, Etc., Etc., (Chicago, W. H. Beers & Co., 1880), p. 520; digital images, Ancestry.com (http: ancestry.com :accessed February 2016).
[ii] Ohio, Montgomery County, Common Pleas Civil Minutes, 1807-1853, June term 1824, p. 43-45, Wolf vs. Kinzey, 7 Jun 1824; Special Collections microfilm, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio.
[iv] Ohio, Montgomery County, Common Pleas Civil Minutes, 1807-1853, May term 1825, p. 319-320, Wolf Petition as Insolvent Debtor, 30 May 1825.
Linda Knepshield says
I`m trying to find information on my ancestor Barnhard Knepshield from Prussia, Germany with very little to no success can you please help me? he was born in 1762 and he was in washington`s army when he came to Pennsylvania in 1775 (roughly).
Jessica - Legacy Tree Genealogists President says
Hi Linda – we will contact you directly to answer your questions. Best wishes!