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State of Tennessee
Court Records Research

Tennessee Court records cover a wide range of genealogy topics that can help you in your research, including land ownership, courts, taxes, and naturalizations. Since Tennessee 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.

Tennessee Court Records

It can be hard for researchers to utilize Tennessee court records. After all, not many indexes exist and those that do are often incomplete. Researchers should note that records may be organized alphabetically according to certain statements, such as "I" standing for "in regards to" or "A" standing for "adoptions." Records may not always be organized alphabetically by names of individuals. Other records, such as mortgage or lien records, may be organized under other headings, such as "B" for "bank of commerce." Other record keeping systems may include: "C" for "Commissioners/Commission", "J" for "Jury", "W" for "will"

Records may be filed by "S" for "Sheriff" in cases where the sheriff sold a certain piece of property. Courts often ordered sheriffs to sell property to pay taxes or settle estates. If the state was party to a case, such as in the distribution of state land grants, there may also be an "S" for "State." listed.

Another reason that court records from Tennessee can be difficult for researchers to interpret is that there were many different courts that each kept their own records.

Minor equity and civil cases in some of the bigger counties are heard by superior courts of law and equity. The county court generally held probate records, but the circuit court or the chancery court may have kept records when wills were contested. Chancery court jurisdiction extends to property disputes, while circuit courts are responsible for hearing adoption, divorce, ad criminal cases.

Courts of common please and quarter sessions were also part of the early Tennessee court system.

The original records kept by courts may include: Boxes of Loose Papers, Order Books, Case Folders, Minute Books, Other Files

Researchers should carefully examine all of those resources. The FHL and the TSLA have many of those records available on microfilm.

Around 1,000 typed county court record volumes were transcribed by the WPA, covering almost all counties in the state. Those records are on microfilm at the TSLA and available through inter-library loan programs. A card indexed that is organized according to county is also available. The collection includes minutes from circuit and chancery courts, as well as county court records, estate settlements, and wills. Unfortunately, the records are full of typographical and transcription errors. So, the researchers should also look at the original records when possible. The records for many Tennessee counties may be found in more than one location.

Naturalization records from prior to 1906 can be found in each county. Some of them have also been included in various publications.

Tennessee Land Records

Only a little bit of Tennessee land was actually free land, which was eventually given to those who served in North Carolina's military. The TSLA's Public Services Section has a card index available on microfilm. It lists early grants and land records. Survey certificates, county register of deeds records, and land warrants can also be found at the TSLA. In fact, they now hold the earliest land grants on microfilm.

The archives is home to all of the official Tennessee land grant copies, which have been filed in bound volumes. There is also a master index on microfilm. It includes: North Carolina grants in Tennessee, 1783-1800, including North Carolina state grants. The North Carolina State Archives also holds copies of those land grants. Tennessee general grants from 1806 to 1927.

Grants that were issued from 1807 through 1838 by district land offices: East Tennessee District grants, from 1807, Hiwassee District grants, from November 1820, Middle Tennessee District, from 1824, West Tennessee District, beginning in 1826, Mountain District, opening in 1828, Ocoee District, starting in 1838

The TSLA holdings are listed in a publication called "Land Grants in the Tennessee State Library and Archives."

In 1783 the North Carolina Military Reservation was created in what is now the middle of Tennessee. At the time it was the western part of Tennessee. It covered the area of the northern Cumberland River down to the Tennessee/Kentucky border. On April, 18 1806 the southwestern part of the middle of Tennessee became the Congressional Reservation. The southern boundary of the North Carolina Military Reservation was the northern border of the Congressional Reservation. The part of the Tennessee river that flows to the north formed the western border of both reservations. There are several publications that list middle Tennessee and North Carolina Revolutionary land grants.

The FHL has microfilmed copies of land grants from the part of Tennessee to the Walker Line's south. The original documents can be found in Frankfort, Kentucky at the Kentucky Land Office, along with an index of those records.

Obtaining a Tennessee land grant was a 3-step process. To begin with, applicants had to make an entry (claim). Entries included: Name, Date, Acre Amount, Location (Generally Along with Name of Nearby Watercourse), Entry Number

The second step was to survey the land, assuming that improvements had been made to it. The survey also had to take place 5 years or less after the entry was made. Surveys listed property boundaries and other details about the area. There may also be a plat (map or drawing) of the property. Surveys typically listed: Name, Number of Acres, Date, Entry Number, Survey Number

The entry book will show when the entry was transferred to someone else prior to the completion of the survey. The "sworn chain carriers" (SCC) are listed in the survey, which could also be transferred to another individual before the grant process began.

Finally, there was the grant process. The applicant had to use the entry and the survey to file for a land grant. He was also required to pay a certain amount (usually not very much) for each acre of land. Grants were numbered separately from surveys and entries. The county and the state each hold copies of land grants. Many can also be found at the TSLA, along with survey abstracts and entries. Some originals can also be found in county offices.

The register of deeds kept land records from the time when each county was organized. Those records may still be available at count courthouses. Property and land records may list: Real Estate Transfers, Personal Property Transfers, Leases, Mortgages, Entries, Surveys

County deed records can be found on microfilm at the TSLA. Researchers can access them, but must give a date, name, county, and record type when they request information. Board of Air record transcripts may also be included in some land books. The Board of Aid was created during the 1900s as a program to assist the public. Wills and other items may also be listed in land books.

Several county land records have been published in various works.

Tennessee Probate Records

Probate cases are still handled by the Tennessee county courts. Each county clerk's office holds related records, including administrations and wills. In cases where a will was contested the relevant records may have been kept by the chancery or circuit courts. There are separate probate courts in Davidson County and Shelby County.

The WPA transcribed several early will lists and court records. The county clerk's office may hold copies of those records. Many have also been filed at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. The FHL also has most records on microfilm.

Loose papers, probate files, and related documents have been preserved by many projects over the years, beginning in 1979 in Franklin County. In 1981 another project was started in Shelby County. The TSLA has microfilmed records on file. Many other counties are also in the process of recording their records in that way.

Minor civil and criminal cases, as well as guardianship cases, are also heard by county courts. Some records have been destroyed, but most counties have records dating back to when the county was formed.

Most court orders have not been indexed, but they contain valuable information. That information includes appointments, dower, year's support, and probate records. Other places may hold some earlier records of wills. For example, it took until 1929 for wills from Scott County to be placed in will books. Earlier wills from that county were included in the minute books from the county clerk. Deed records may also include early will documents. Certain counties also kept separate books for bonds, Orphans' Court actions, and estate settlements.

Tennessee Tax Records

The Constitution of 1796 stated that " "Every freeman of the age of twenty-one years and upward possessing a freehold in the county wherein he may vote, and being an inhabitant of this State, and every freeman being an inhabitant of any one county in the State six months immediately preceding the day of the election, shall be entitled to vote." It also stated that those men would be taxed. Those early tax records can be used to fill in data that is missing because of lost census records. Many tax lists have been published.

When original tax records still exist, they can often be found in either the TSLA or the various county courthouses. A tax record card index for pre-1835 tax records can also be found at the TSLA. They are listed by county, date, and name of district. The Lawson McGhee Library's McClung Historical Collection contains several original tax lists as well. Those include: Washington County, 1778 and 1787, Greene County, 1783, Carter and Sullivan counties, 1796, Grainger County, 1799

The TSLA holds 1836 to 1839 original tax schedules for most of the counties in the state. The FHL, the Indiana State Library, and the Allen County Public Library also have early tax record copies for Tennessee on microfilm.

Male inhabitant voter tax lists from 1891 have been located fairly recently. They can be accessed on 9 reels organized by county at the TSLA. Microfilms of tax lists from trustee offices are also available there.

Tax records are available at the county courthouses and in the Tennessee History Commission. Where county records were lost, the state auditor’s copies are especially valuable. Some Personal property tax records have been published for some counties.

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