Friday, October 26, 2012

Kalamazoo County Circuit Court Records

My recent trip to Kalamazoo was fun, productive and tiring. With so much to do I had very little down time, but that's the way it usually is when I go home. Genealogically speaking, I was able to cross a number of things off my list. One big thing was to look at the court records relating to the Christmas morning murder of my grandma's sister (Christmas Morning Murderer Gets Off Easy). I'll describe what I found later because I still haven't had time to read everything over and process it. For now I'll share a few tips for finding old circuit court records in Kalamazoo based on my recent experience.

The circuit court records I was looking for were criminal cases or chancery cases (divorces and other cases in which a judge had to determine what was fair in a dispute between two parties). If you want to examine records for either of these types of cases the first thing you will need to do is to find the docket and case number. Depending on the year in which the case was filed you will need to look in the clerk's office at the court house on Kalamazoo avenue or in the index at the WMU Archives. Here are the lessons I learned while tracking down records.

Always look in the index yourself. While at the court house I asked to examine the chancery index book to search for a few divorce cases. The clerk brought out one book, but not ones covering other years I was interested in. Instead, she asked me for the specific names I was looking for and came back to inform me she couldn't find them. I thought that was strange, but didn't press the issue as I was out of time. The following day at the WMU Archives, I was searching the chancery index on microfilm looking for any cases involving my people. I wanted to jump out of my chair when found two of the divorce cases the court clerk said she couldn't find. Though the microfilmed chancery records at WMU only go into 1934, and therefore I couldn't immediately satisfy my curiosity, the index goes through at least May 1941. The names I was looking for were clearly written so I can only conclude that the court clerk was in a hurry and overlooked them. As we genealogists are more used to searching for certain names (and can pick one out even when we aren't looking for it) always ask to look in the index yourself, rather than relying on someone who has nothing invested in the project.

Circuit court records are not always on site. Old records (prior to 1980) still in possession of the Kalamazoo county circuit court are located “six hours north” of Kalamazoo. So, if you want to look at them you need to plan ahead. Armed with the docket and case number from the index you can request that the records be retrieved from wherever in the upper peninsula they are stored. I guess in the case of a nuclear holocaust they will be safe. You should request the documents about a week in advance and keep in mind that deliveries are received on Tuesdays. Even at the WMU archives, old court records that have not been microfilmed are located off site so you should ask that records be pulled in advance of your visit.

Not all chancery cases were microfilmed by the LDS. A year ago I found out the hard way that the LDS church did not microfilm all chancery cases. You can imagine my surprise when I scrolled through the microfilmed records at the WMU Archives only to discover that the case number I was seeking was notably absent. It seems that the LDS selected divorce cases or those in which the names of the parties involved were different for microfilming. I had two cases in which a mother sued her kids (it turns out they were mooching or stealing from her). The records were available, but had to be retrieved from storage. Unfortunately, I was at the end of my visit. I waited in suspense for my mother to return to the Archives to peruse the documents and call me to tell me what the cases were about.

Be prepared to take a lot of notes or bring a lot of cash. The court house does not allow cameras. I don't know if mobile scanners are permitted. This is unfortunate as copy charges at the court house are pretty steep at $1 per page. After quickly flipping through the files I requested I carefully flagged items for copying and handed the stack of records to one of the clerks. Much to my dismay she informed me that copying of the court stenographer's record was all or nothing. I could not cherry pick pages for copying. As I was pressed for time, had found many things I wanted to examine more closely and I had already waited a whole year to see the records and could not come to the courthouse whenever I had a spare moment, I pulled some more money from my wallet.  I would also recommend that you count the number of pages you wish to have copied so you know exactly how much it should cost.  And be sure to inform the clerk that you do NOT want certified copies because that costs more.

Now that I'm back home I hope to find the time, eventually, to thoroughly read over everything. I hope to find some useful information in the pages of the stenographer's record that I had not initially intended to copy. At least now I can pore over it at my leisure.


  1. 6 hours north? Did they keep them in the Sault Ste Marie?

  2. The clerk didn't say specifically where they were stored, but that is a reasonable guess. I can't imagine why they are stored so far away.