Saturday, May 18, 2013

My Latest Courthouse Visit

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As I've blogged about lately, I've been adding all the sources to my database for my 16 great-great-grandparents. Doing that has inspired me to update my to-do lists for my grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents. This, in turn, inspired me to visit the courthouse located where I grew up in Lake Charles, Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana. I realized I had never been there and had no land or succession records for my paternal grandparents, great-grandparents, and my great-great-grandfather who lived in Calcasieu Parish.  And since we were going to be visiting the area for my husband's niece's college graduation, why not go a day early and visit the courthouse?

In preparation for my visit, I watched the Legacy Family Tree webinar "That First Trip To The Courthouse" by Judy G. Russell of The Legal Genealogist. (Technically, this was not my first trip to a courthouse, but it was my first trip to this courthouse and probably my first visit to a courthouse since 2009). Judy always provides sound advice and suggested learning all that one could about the courthouse before actually visiting.

I visited the Calcasieu Parish Clerk of Court website and first noted the Office Hours & Holidays page. Lucky for me, I found that I was not planning my visit on some obscure local holiday and the normal hours were 8:30 to 4:30 Monday-Friday. I also learned that there were two parking lots behind the courthouse.

I also checked out the pages for the various departments to determine what types of records are there and which department maintains what records. I only had one day, so I decided to narrow my focus to Successions (aka Probates in most states) and Conveyances (aka Deeds in most states). I learned from the departmental pages that Successions were handled by Civil Records and that Conveyances have their own separate department that also includes mortgage records. I also noted that although Conveyances had its own department, the photocopies for Conveyances were handled by Civil Records. In addition, I noted that there was an Archives department housing criminal records, civil records, successions, and marriages from 1910-1994. Photocopy fees were listed as $1.00/page.

Judy also suggested bringing plenty of coins, particularly quarters, for photocopying. However, I really didn't feel like doing this if I didn't have to, so I called ahead and found out that coins were not necessary for photocopy fees. The guy acted like I was crazy for asking and told me I could just do research on the computer. Um, I was asking about photocopies, not research, but okay. Confused at this point, I politely explained to him that I just wanted to verify before visiting because I have experienced this before at other courthouses. Then he explained that they took cash or check for photocopy fees. This just goes to show that Judy is right when she states that "the courthouse employees are there to help modern-day people solve modern-day problems." This guy had no clue what other courthouses do because he's not a traveling courthouse-loving genealogist.

Of course, as all trips to the courthouse go, things NEVER go as expected. You can try your hardest to learn everything you can before you go, but there's always something you don't anticipate. However, my best advice is to try your hardest not to get flustered and give up. My first challenge was figuring out where the Clerk's office was in the massive courthouse building. After circling two or three times, I finally found it at the back of the courthouse, not far from the parking lots.

Once inside, I decided to start with successions. I quickly found a listing showing the location of each department. When I walked into the Civil Records office, I was immediately asked if I needed help.  I told the employee that I wanted to find the succession files of several people and that I had a list of the names and death dates. She asked me what I meant by this. Again, I was confused. I thought I was pretty direct by saying that I had a list of names and dates for which I wanted to find succession files.. Besides, did she really want me to go into my family history spiel? Surely not. Judy warned about not bothering the courthouse employees with the details of your research.

Then I figured out why she asked. She was scared that I had 30 or 40 names. Why was she scared? Because patrons are not allowed to do their own research in successions. I have never experienced this at a courthouse before, so I never thought to call and ask ahead of time. The website did mention that succession research could be requested by mail or fax for a research fee and photocopy costs. However, I just assumed that walk-in patrons could do their own research. Not so. Although I was sad that I could not do my own research, the employee was very nice and she did look up the records for me. She was able to find the three most recent ones and referred me to the Archives department for the older records. Luckily, I only had 6 or 7 total that I needed. What would have happened if I had had 30 or 40? Obviously, once again, it was apparent to me that courthouse rules are made for modern-day people with modern-day problems. Most modern-day people walk in the succession office needing one file.

My next problem was that I did not anticipate how many pages a succession file could be. And at $1.00/page, my costs were quickly adding up. I had only taken $60 out at the ATM and had left my checkbook at my mother-in-law's house. Not a huge problem because Lake Charles is not a huge city and it didn't take me long to run back to the mother-in-law's and grab the checkbook. The courthouse employee agreed to hold the third succession file for me while I left to get more money. Note to self: bring at least $100 next time.

I returned and purchased the pages of the third succession file. I then moved onto Archives to find the older succession files. Before delving into to much information, I asked the employee there if I would be allowed to do my own research in the archived successions. She said that I would not, so I politely thanked her and moved onto Conveyances & Mortgages. Why waste time having them do the research while I wait when I could just mail or fax the request for research? No need to waste time in person.

I was a lot more successful with the land record research. I walked in the office and explained to the employee at the Research desk that I had done research in land records before but never at this courthouse. I asked him to explain where the indexes and records were located. He was very helpful and explained that the index for land records could be researched via computer beginning with the year 1945. The actual land records beginning in 1987 were also on the computer. He pointed out the location of the computers as well as the index books for land records and the location of the mortgage index books as well. Aaahhh, finally, I was able to do my own research. How exciting!

I found all the land records I was expecting and even a few I didn't expect. I searched the vendor indexes for 1934-1981 and vendee indexes for 1920-1981. My great-great-grandfather, Oscar Trahan, first moved to the Lake Charles area between 1930 and 1934, which is how I picked my starting point (the index book containing 1930-1934 began in 1920). I ended with 1981 only because I had limited time (hubby needed the car for his hair appointment).

I made notes in my notebook of all the file numbers, volumes, and page numbers and then brought the information to Civil Records. Patrons do not do their own photocopying either, even in the land records. While waiting for my photocopies, I went across the hall to Archives again and found out that I could actually do my own research in the indexes to the records they had. I just couldn't research the actual records. I started looking at the succession indexes through 1986, but didn't really find what I wanted, so I wandered back over to Civil Records and waited for my photocopies. I was $1 short on my photocopy fees, and I offered to get the quarters out of my car (those ones I was planning on bringing), but the really kind employee there told me not to worry about it.

All in all, I was disappointed that I couldn't do some of my own research, but since the employees were so helpful and kind, it somewhat made up for it. Why can't patrons do their own research in public records? Well, I think it's a space issue and not a records access issue. There did not seem to be a whole lot of space in the Civil Records office where all the succession files were located. The Archives department was even smaller. It was getting a little crowded in the Archives office when I was looking through the succession indexes. There's only room for about 2 researchers (maybe).

Also, an interesting thing I learned is that it takes a LOT of patience to be an employee in the clerk's office. SERIOUSLY. People come in there all day long not really knowing exactly what document they want. The courthouse employees have to ask lots of questions to help them figure out what they really want. In fact, other than the attorneys and title companies, I think I was the only person who knew what I was looking for. So if a courthouse employee ever gets testy with you, it's only because they've been trying to read minds all day and now you are trying to tell them all the details about Grandma Mary's crazy divorce from Grandpa Jim.

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