Tennessee Court Records
This entry was originally written by Wendy Bebout Elliott, Ph.D. FUGA for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
Court records for Tennessee can be difficult to use. Indexes are seldom, if ever, complete. Names may be indexed under various letters of the alphabet, but not necessarily by the individual’s name. “A” for adoptions or “I” for “in regards to” are examples. Mortgaged estates may be indexed under the name of the bank holding the lien or mortgage, such as “B” for Bank of Commerce. Records may be indexed by other than surname, for example, “C” for commissioners/commission, “J” for jury, and “W” for will. In cases where property is sold by the sheriff, records can be found under “S” for sheriff, who was ordered by the court to sell the property to settle the estate or for back taxes. “S” for state may indicate records in which the state was a party, such as state land grants recorded in court records.
Tennessee court records can be complicated to use because there were various courts in which activities could be recorded. Some larger counties have superior courts of law and equity that hear minor civil and equity cases. Probate records normally were under the jurisdiction of the county court, but if the case was contested, then it could be filed in chancery or circuit court. Chancery courts have jurisdiction over property disputes, and circuit courts oversee criminal cases, divorces, and adoptions. Early courts included courts of common pleas and quarter sessions.
Original court records, including minute and order books, boxes of loose papers, case files, and folders, are maintained by the county. Each source should be thoroughly examined for pertinent entries. Many of these were microfilmed and are available at the TSLA and through the FHL. Marjorie Hood Fischer, comp., Tennessee Tidbits, 1778–1914, 4 vols. (vol. 1, Easley, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1986; vol. 2, Vista, Calif.: RAM Press, 1988), is a continuing series that contains abstracts of minutes from county courts, circuit courts, and chancery courts. Volume 1 includes abstracts from Blount, Davidson, Dickson, Fayette, Giles, Greene, Hardin, Haywood, Hickman, Humphreys, Lincoln, Putnam, Rutherford, Washington, and Williamson. Volume 2 covers Bedford, Claiborne, Dyer, Fentress, Jackson, Madison, McMinn, Obion, Roane, Robertson, Sevier, Stewart, Washington, and Wilson.
Under the WPA, approximately 1,000 typed volumes of county records were transcribed for most counties in Tennessee. These are microfilmed and available on interlibrary loan from the TSLA. There is a card index inventory to this compilation arranged by county. Court records included in this collection are wills; county, chancery, and circuit court minutes; and estate settlements. Because these WPA transcripts contain numerous transcription and typographical errors, the original records should always be reviewed.
In several counties, the records are dispersed in two or more facilities.
Before 1906 naturalization records are found at the county level. Some compilations are published, such as:
- Smith, Mary Sue. Davidson County, Tennessee Naturalization Records, 1803–1906. Nashville: Byron Sistler and Associates, 1997.