Friday, May 10, 2024

Kentucky's County Courts

 In Kentucky, there are two separate courts in the county system - the county court or monthly court and the circuit court. The function of each court is different. Understanding the difference in these courts can help determine which court holds the information needed by the genealogical researcher. This article will discuss the county court with a discussion of the circuit court at a later date.

The county court was composed of the county justices of the peace. The function of the county court is to conduct the business of the county - appointment of guardians of minor children; appointment of administrators, executors and curators of estates; granting of tavern, coffeehouse, marriage and ferry licenses; processioning of land, the laying out of new roads and building of bridges; emancipation of slaves; recording of wills, inventories and sales of estates; appointment of jailers, road surveyors, and tax collectors; binding out of apprentices and various other duties.

While the county court is known as a monthly court, often only 10 sessions were held during the year. Each session of the county court might last for several days, depending on how much business had to be heard and discussed. At each session, the county clerk or his deputy, was responsible for recording the minutes of all business discussed. These minutes were transcribed into the county court order books.

The following is an entry from Livingston County, Kentucky County Court Order Book A, no pagination, dated 5 May 1801: "On motion of Thomas Gist ordered that he be permitted to keep Tavern at his ferry in Smithland he having entered into bond with Surety."

An entry from Caldwell County, Kentucky County Court Order Book A, p. 296, 23 Aug 1813 reads as follows: "Clerk of the Court ordered to bind out Nathaniel Snow, orphan of Nathaniel Snow, aged 14 last march, to Sylvanus Palmer to learn the trade of a cooper."

Not all counties have such complete entries in the order books. Webster County’s clerk seemed to write in some sort of shorthand that makes it difficult to tell what he was recording. But no matter how difficult it is to read some entries, neglecting to use the county court order books is a mistake. I have found absolute jewels of information tucked between the covers of the order books.

The county court order books are usually still located in the county clerk’s office in the courthouse. Some counties, however, have opted to send the older order books to the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives in Frankfort. Lyon County is one of the counties that has done this. The county court order books have been microfilmed and are available for reading at the Archives and are available also though  This is one source you will want to become familiar with.

Originally published 17 Nov 2007 and repeated 10 May 2024.

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