Finding original county records online

A few weeks ago, Gary asked me how to find original county records at the Latter Day Saints website. Hazel Townsend, a Rankin researcher who has spent more hours in county courthouses than I have in school classrooms, asked me the same thing. This week, a friend had a question about when a certain will was dated and proved because she couldn’t access the original record.

If three excellent researchers aren’t able to find original county documents online, someone probably ought to write an article describing how to do that. Here’s one. Frankly, it is much more fun to go to county courthouses, but finding records online is faster and far less expensive.

First, create a free account at this website  and sign in.  Not only is it free, but the website won’t pester you with emails. They DO ask for your birthdate and gender, and want to know whether you are a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. You don’t have to be a member to open a free  account.

Here’s the current page where you can sign in or create an account at the above link  …

Once you have opened an account, click on the “search” link at the center top of the page (see above image) and select “catalog” from the drop-down menu. Below is an image of the “search” page that will appear. The default setting on this page is for a “place” search, which is what you want if you are looking for original county records.


The only thing you have to do on that page is enter the desired county in the long horizontal box and click “search.”  If you are looking for a will recorded in, say, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, you would enter “United States, Pennsylvania, Lancaster County.” If you simply enter “Lancaster,” though, the website will produce a list of options for you. You will get a “search” result that is a list of the types of records available for Lancaster. The first part of the list looks like this …

Here is the part of the list that includes “Probate records (15),” which is where to look for a will recorded in Lancaster …

Let’s assume we are looking for Adam Rankin’s 1747 will, so we would select “United States, Pennsylvania, Lancaster – Probate records (15).” When you do that, a list of various materials containing Lancaster probate records will appear. This is only a partial list:

Most traditional books aren’t available online. For example, the first entry in this list is an abstract of wills published by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. If you select that option, you will get a record telling you where you can find that book.

If original county records are your target, select an item which names the county as the author.

To find Adam Rankin’s 1747 will, select the last option in the screenshot, the one in purple typeface: “Wills, 1730-1908; Index to Wills, 1729-1947,” authored by Lancaster County.

The result will again be a screen that is too large for me to capture in one image. Here is the top part of the screen …

Notice the option in red boldface: Pennsylvania probate records are available online. I will leave it to you to explore that option. If you are looking for Adam Rankin’s will, it won’t be helpful because that site has a poor photo of the Lancaster will index, and the page number for Adam’s will is unreadable. Hard to find a will without a will book and page number, unless you’re in the mood to search through the film one image at a time.

Let’s stick with what works and will apply to other records, such as deeds. Here is the bottom part of the screen …  it’s hard to read. Sorry. I haven’t figured out how to work around some WordPress limitations and my own techno-ignorance.

Select “Index to Wills 1730 – 1830” by clicking on the little camera in the right-hand column. When films are not available online, the image of the camera will have a “no” sign over it (the red circle with a diagonal line running from upper right to lower left).

Here are the first few of the 158 images in this film. You can see them all just by scrolling down. Click on any one to enlarge it, and you will see that you are in an alphabetical index. By trial and error, you can quickly locate the “R” entries. I’ll save you some trouble: go to image 116 of 158.

At that image, you will see that Adam Rankin’s will is recorded in Will Book J at page 108. If you already had the will book and page citation, that’s great: you could go straight to Will Book J and skip the index.

Assuming you are in the index, go back to the page with the camera images on it and select the image containing Will Book J. The fun begins: trying to fine page 108. You can find it at Image No. 351.

And there you are … “by the mercies of God,” you have an image of Adam’s will as originally recorded in the county will book of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1747.

Keep in mind that the clerk of court made this entry into the will book. He was copying the original will that had been filed with the court for probate. But this is not the original will signed by Adam and two witnesses.

Here is an image of the entire will book entry, which I hope is legible.

If you can read it, you will see that the will is “deated” (sic, dated) May 4, 1747. On September 21, 1747, at least one witness, James Pettigrew, appeared in court to prove the will so that it could be admitted to probate. (Both witnesses may have appeared, but my screen shot cuts off the remainder of the probate court’s boilerplate entry). The dates conclusively prove that Adam died sometime between May 4th and September 21st. He probably died in September, because most executors presented a will for probate as soon as possible – but that’s not proved by this document.

You may have seen claims that Adam died on either May 4thor Sept. 21st. Ironically, those two dates are the least likely to be Adam’s exact date of death out of all the days in the entire four-and-one-half-month period between will execution and proof. All one can say for certain is that Adam Rankin died in 1747 between those two dates.

Now you might want to explore the website and see what other goodies are available. One caveat: family trees posted at have the same evidentiary weight as trees posted on Zero, in other words …

See you on down the road.


6 thoughts on “Finding original county records online”

  1. Nice tips! I’ve found so much information on the FamilySearch site and I think a lot of people don’t know that a lot of the records aren’t searchable. I usually go in through the Search->Records and select the location on the map. Once you select the state, you can see a list with links to the records available to search and those that are image only. I’m going to try your method using the catalog.

    Are you familiar with the site? It’s another great free resource for Maryland records.

    I’m a Willis descendant through Senah Willis and have been enjoying your articles.

    1. Kathryn, I’m going to try your method at FamilySearch going at it via Search -> Records. Haven’t tried that before! Sounds like a good option. Amazing what I have learned from people who read this blog.

      My husband Gary says he is familiar with your Senah Willis. He’s the Willis and MD researcher in the family. He agrees that MDLandRec is a great site. He might contact you about your Willises …

    2. Kathryn

      Thanks for the comment. Yes I’m familiar with the site. We probably should do an article on that as well since it is a goldmine of information. I wish all states would create a similar site.

      I am descended from Senah’s younger brother Zachariah.

      Gary Willis

      1. Gary,

        I wish the other states would create something similar too. I have a lot of ancestors from Ohio and it’s a lot harder to research the land records from a distance. I’ve been meaning to do a post on the MDLandRec site too. It’s been awhile since I’ve used it and I need to get back into it for another one of my lines. Feel free to get in touch on the Willis families.


  2. Very informative. Me thinks you could teach a class on this. I know you probably don’t want to but you would be amazing.

  3. By coincidence, I was watching the movie, “The Greatest Showman” about the life of Phineas Taylor Barnum. I was curious about the possible liberties that they took in the film. As it turns out, the man is more complex and interesting than the movie would suggest. The article I read ‘on line’ mentions that Barnum had a reversal in the great recession of 1837; that was world wide; and extended into the 1840’s. It is probably no coincidence that my Winn ancestor moved from KY to MO at this time. His father died in 1838 perhaps having his health stressed by the economic conditions. This was a huge deal like the Great Depression that began in 1929. This is the most likely reason your ancestors moved farther west (economic failure and the chance for a new start). I also know that often on the frontier that whisky was the most convenient way to ship grain to market where there were no roads and only trails. Hence the still was common on many frontier farms. Perhaps James Alexander and his son were not heavy drinkers, but the victims of a financial collapse and practical in their attempt to bring their crop to market.

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