California Courthouse records change extensively from county to county in both level of quality and volume. You will find different kinds of court records that are most likely to possess information related for your genealogical research below.
California Court Records
The California court system has four levels of jurisdiction: the municipal court, which largely took the place of the earlier justice of the peace court at the local level; the superior court, a countywide court that handles both civil and criminal cases and cases involving minors; the six district courts of appeal, which review all cases coming from the superior courts except those involving the death penalty; and the state supreme court, which takes extraordinary writs, all appeals in death penalty cases, and may review all other appeals.
Each of these courts has a clerk of the court, and correspondence regarding a particular case should be directed to the clerk of the court having jurisdiction over the litigation. If there is doubt as to which court to seek information from, the State Attorney General’s Office, 1515 K St., Sacramento, CA 95814, can provide this information www.caag.state.ca.us. The California State Archives has many state and county court records. The archives’ website (see California Archives, Libraries, and Societies) has inventories of records listed by county. See Also Research In Court Records.
California Land Records
The earliest land records relate to the Spanish (1769–1822) and Mexican (1822–48) eras and are mostly in Spanish. During the Spanish period, California was divided into four districts for purposes of administration: San Diego in 1769, Monterey in 1770, San Francisco in 1776, and finally the district of Santa Barbara in 1782. The bulk of the surviving records are in the county recorders’ offices. The most notable collection of this period is undoubtedly the recorder’s collection (1781–1850) in Monterey County. It covers a multitude of proceedings as Monterey was the seat of government for Alta California. Santa Cruz has a similar set of documents (1797–1845), and the San Jose clerk’s archives hold various records from 1792.
For the period of Mexican jurisdiction, there are two major collections, one in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco, with the larger group of land records in San Francisco.
Under both the Spanish and Mexican regimes, land in California was allocated first to pueblos for the use of its towns and its inhabitants, second to presidios for use of the military in defending the citizenry and in keeping the peace, and third to the Catholic missions for the purpose of extending the church’s theology to the native population.
Almost as soon as the last of the edifices in the chain of missions was completed in 1833, the Mexican government secularized all mission lands (about one-sixth of Alta California) and allowed these lands to be bought for private use. By 1846 some 500 ranches were parceled out, generating numerous records and documents.
Spain had begun the practice of allowing concessions of private ranchos when, in 1784, Governor Pedro Fages bestowed ranchos upon three of his soldados de cuero (leather jacket troops) that he had led into California in 1769. These ranchos were San Rafael, San Pedro, and Los Nietos. By 1851, when the U.S. Board of Land Commissioners and the courts of record began hearing land claims cases, there were over 900 private land claims of named ranchos and an additional twenty-six unnamed grants. From 1851 through 1856, the Commission heard 813 cases in which title to over twelve million acres was decided. Of these, the board approved 520 claims and refused to recognize 273. Only a fraction of these decisions were overturned by the courts. Since the land commission met in San Francisco, a great hardship was created for the Southern California claimants. The California State Archives has a database of these records on its website.
Records pertaining to Spanish and Mexican land claims were bound into seven volumes by the U.S. Surveyor General’s office, a part of the Department of the Interior. For details, write to the U.S. Geological Survey Office, 119 National Center, Reston, VA 22092. The records of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM; Record Group 49), Private Land Claims No. 183, are located in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Robert Cowan writes in Ranchos of California: A List of Spanish Concessions, 1775–1822 and Mexican Grants, 1822–1846 (Los Angeles: Historical Society of Southern California, 1977) that there were 3,500 people in Alta California, and by the end of the Mexican administration in 1846, the population had increased to almost 7,000. The Alta California records for the period of the Mexican-American war (1846–48) may be found in the archives in Los Angeles, Monterey, San Francisco, and Sonoma counties.
During the Spanish and Mexican occupations, a government agent called the alcalde was the equivalent of our present-day mayor; however, his powers were greatly enhanced and his jurisdictions were singular in that he performed many functions not commonly associated with that office today. Several counties have preserved their alcades’ records for the period when California statehood became official. Counties with such records include Contra Costa, El Dorado, Marin, Monterey, Napa, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Sonoma, Sutter, and Yuba.
California is a public-domain land state; consequently, land acquired by the U.S. Government in 1848 was disposed of by means of patents. The first of ten land offices opened in Benicia and Los Angeles in 1853. Those properties that continued to the final patent are indexed and on the Bureau of Land Management website www.glorecords.blm.gov. Patents and copies of tract books and maps are located at the BLM California State Office, 2800 Cottage Way, Ste. W-1834, Sacramento, CA 95825-1886 www.ca.blm.gov.
After the patent process the lands went into private hands and became a record of the county. These are filed with the county recorder for each county, with many on microfilm at the FHL.
Land records for sales between private individuals throughout the state begin with the formation of the county, with the possible exception of those counties where there have been unusual circumstances, such as the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. Contact the county recorder for the county in which the land is situated. In some instances the parent county must be searched as well.
The county recorder is usually in charge of land documents, except where the records are so old that they have been placed in an archive within the county or in the state archives in Sacramento. Ultimately, the county board of supervisors is responsible for the records and repositories. In order to chart the ownership of land in California, the records are executed with a “chain of title.” This record begins with the oldest entry of the land down to the most recent.
A compilation of indexes to real property owners was begun in the 1980s. In the alphabetical lists (for 1984, 1988, and 1989, available at the California State Library), a researcher can find the names and mailing addresses of all property owners. Because the state no longer allows open access to all driver’s license applications, and city and county directories are not available for all locations, the Property Owners Index is quite useful for tracing living persons. See Also Guide to U.S. Land Records Research
Land Definitions – The following definitions will be useful for anyone conducting research in California.
Haciendas: Not widely used in California, it is the Mexican equivalent of rancho.
Ranchos: Land grants made by the government. The first one made in California was for 140 varas near Carmel. Of some 800 ranchos that were in existence when the U.S. government took possession of California, just over 500 were later confirmed by American courts.
Pueblos: Towns for civilian settlers, a tract four square leagues or 17,500 acres.
Presidios: Land granted for the use of the military to carry out its duties to defend the province against foreign invasion and to keep civil order. Title was actually passed in fee simple. Presidios were established in Santa Barbara, Monterey, San Diego, and San Francisco.
Missions: Land set aside for the use of the Roman Catholic Church in its work with the Indians native to the area. Title was not passed to the mission, nor to an individual. After the Act of Secularization, the missions were broken up and the lands were mostly granted to those making a petition to the government.
Districts: There were originally four districts set up for the administration of each province of Alta California, as mentioned earlier. Later, Los Angeles was added to the list. Each district had a presidio and a mission, although there might have been more than one mission in each.
California Probate Records
The court that has jurisdiction over an estate is the superior court in the county in which the person resided at the time of his or her death. When a probate case is opened, the clerk of the court keeps a journal for that particular numbered file and maintains that file when the case is closed. Files can be searched at the office of the clerk of the superior court in which the probate occurred. Check for the file and then request the entire journal. The “Petition for Final Distribution” is ordered when all of the legal requirements have been met and the estate is to be distributed to the heirs. Many counties have had their probate materials microfilmed, especially for the nineteenth century, with copies available at the FHL. See Also Guide to U.S. Probate Records Research
- California Probate Record Books (amazon.com)
California Tax Records
The U.S. Internal Revenue Service Assessment List for California, 1862–66 is available at the California State Library in Sacramento. The lists include names, location and description of business, and tax rate for individuals taxed.
Similar to tax records in their yearly listing of residents are the “Great Register” of California, which are miscellaneous county voting registers that exist from the mid-nineteenth century. The registers were compiled and printed about every two years. Before 1900, they show name, address, and age (but the age may remain the same after a man’s first entry). From about the mid-1800s, physical descriptions are included, but after the 1898 register, only the name, address, party affiliation, and sometimes occupation are listed.
Before 1892, the lists are county-wide, but usually alphabetical only by first letter or surname. They are particularly valuable for foreign-born voters, as the date and court of naturalization are listed. Copies of the “Great Registers,” (1866–1944) are at the California State Library, which also has alphabetical card file abstracts for some of the earlier registers for San Francisco. Records from 1946 are with the individual county registrars of voters. See Also Guide to U.S. Tax Records Research
- California Tax Record Books (amazon.com)
California Immigration & Naturalization Records
California provided several ports and points of entry for immigrants. San Francisco, in the north, is the largest. In the south, at the mouth of the Los Angeles Harbor are the ports of San Pedro, Wilmington, and Los Angeles; however, these are considered one port of entry in passenger arrivals by sea. Southern land points of entry include San Ysidro, Campo, and Tecate in San Diego County, and Andrade in Imperial County from Mexico.
The California State Library has microfilms of the National Archives arrivals lists, and these are also available on microfilm at the FHL. Many immigrants in this period were from China and Japan, but a good number were from Europe, Australia, India, Chile, Peru, and elsewhere. Below is a list of NARA resources and some compilations.
Other record types can serve to document immigrants from outside the United States and emigrants from within the United States, such as records for the Russian Consular in San Francisco (1862–1928), which document Jews, Poles, Ukranians, Lithuanians, and Finns, among others.
Ancestry.com has a database that is an index to passenger and crew lists of ships and some airplanes arriving at Los Angeles, San Pedro, San Francisco, and Ventura, California between 1893 and 1957. In addition, the names found in the index are linked to actual images of the passenger and crew lists, copied from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm. See Also Guide to U.S. Immigration Records Research
- California Immigration Project (usgwarchives.net)
- California, Southern District Court (Central) Naturalization Index, 1915-1976 (familysearch.org) Collection of approximately 273,000 naturalization index cards of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, Central Division (Los Angeles) in two alphabetic sequences. The first sequence represents naturalizations 1915-1930, the second naturalization from 1931 to 1976. The cards include the person’s name, the petition number, date of petition, volume and page number of the petition. Some cards also include the declaration number, the date of declaration, volume and page number of the declaration, certification number, and date of issuance. This corresponds to NARA publication M1525: Naturalization Index Cards of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, Central Division (Los Angeles), 1915-1976.
- California Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882-1957 (search.ancestry.com) This database is an index to passenger and crew lists of ships and some airplanes arriving in California* between 1882 and 1957. In addition, the names found in the index are linked to actual images of the passenger and crew lists, copied from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) microfilm
- California, Northern U.S. District Court Naturalization Index, 1852-1989 (familysearch.org) This collection is a card index to naturalization records in the district and circuit courts of Northern California. The circuit court(s) include: the Special Circuit Court, 1855-1863; the Tenth Circuit Court, 1863-1866; the Ninth Circuit Court for the District of California, 1866-1886; and the Circuit Court for the Northern District of California, 1886-1911. The District Courts included are: the Northern District of California, 1852-1916; the Southern Division of the Northern District, 1917-1966; the Northern District, 1966-1973; and the Northern Division of the Northern District, 1973-1989. NARA publication M1744: Index to Naturalization in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, 1852-ca. 1989.
- Naturalization Records of the Superior Court of Los Angeles, CA, 1876-1915 (fold3.com) Naturalization records of the Superior Court of Los Angeles, California, 1876-1915.
- Naturalization Records in the Superior Court of San Diego, CA, 1883-1958 (fold3.com) These records include petitions for naturalization, oaths of allegiance, and sometimes supporting documents like certificates of arrival.
- Naturalization Petitions for the Southern District Of California, 1887-1940 (fold3.com)
- California Immigration Record Books (amazon.com)
California County & City Government Links
California is divided into 58 counties. Each county is the local level of government within its borders. The links in the table below link to county and city government offices and is limited to government-maintained websites. This list of county and city government links is limited to government-maintained websites. If you know of a California county that has an official government web site but is not linked, or if the link is in error, please contact us so we may edit our database. California State Government is located in Sacramento.