Illinois 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.
Illinois Court Records
France was the first nation to send settlers to the area that is now Illinois. It was also the first nation to organize a judiciary system in the region. The governor of Louisiana controlled the Commandant of Illinois, who presided over civil cases and major criminal cases. Lesser cases were handled by town judges, who were appointed by the Commandant of Illinois. The Provincial Council, which was established in 1722 to try criminal and civil cases, is the earliest court in Illinois for which records still exist.
Virginia established the county court system in “Illinois County” in 1779. It followed a revised version of the laws of France, but English common law also had a large influence on it. For example, anyone who owed money to creditors would have been tried by jury and then placed in jail. In 1784 “Illinois County” was given to the United States by Virginia. However, the system of government in the area that Virginia had set up remained until 1787, when the Northwest Ordinance was created. From 1788 to 1805 there were courts of quarter sessions in Illinois. They were reinstated in 1809 and remained until 1811. The courts of common pleas existed from 1788 to 1809, as well as from 1811 to 1818. From 1795 to 1805 the Orphans’ Courts were open. In 1818 justice’s courts were opened, but they were abolished that same year. Circuit courts lasted between 1795 and 1812. They were brought back in 1814 and stayed open until 1818.
In 1818 the state constitution of Illinois created circuit courts. Illinois Supreme Court justices served those courts by riding in circuits that covered certain counties. Some circuits covered multiple counties. Those courts tried civil cases involving amounts over $20, as well as some criminal cases, naturalization cases, and appeals from cases heard originally by the justices of the peace. Over the years, state judicial elections have been add, as well as county and local elections.
Each county’s circuit court clerk is now in charge of certain actions, including report filing, jury selection, probate action recording, and maintaining the various records of the courts. There are currently 21 Illinois circuit courts. Some records have been stored in various archives, but most are still in the possession of the various court clerks for each county.
In 1845, county courts were formed in Jo Davies County and Cook County. However, county courts were not used statewide until 1848. Early county courts presided over only misdemeanors and probate court cases. County judges also ran county commissioner’s courts in the areas where the counties were unorganized. They handled the daily operations for the county and administrative functions.
In 1870, the constitution was changed to make a uniform system of county courts in Illinois. The only exception was Cook County, which still has its own circuit court system. County courts handled tax delinquency cases, as well as probate cases and cases of apprenticeship. In 1872 they were given jurisdiction over cases of justice of the peace appeals and cases of misdemeanors. Eventually, they were also given other responsibilities, including hearing adoption and divorce cases. The county circuit courts essentially absorbed the county courts in 1964. The county judges served as circuit court associate justices.
The Illinois Regional Archives Depository (IRAD) has a collection of county court records on file. Many of them date back to the 1700s, including some for St. Clair County. The records include documents covering the following types of cases:
- Criminal and Common Law Proceedings
- “Feeble-Minded” Petitions and Warrants of Commitment
- Insanity Proceedings and Case Files
- Bankruptcy Inventories
- Condemnation of Property for Railroad Use
However, researchers should keep in mind that the repository’s collection is limited.
The state supreme court is the top judicial level in Illinois. It has jurisdiction over appellate cases from lower court systems. From 1818 onward the state seat was where the supreme court was held. However, in 1848 it was held at one of the 3 grand divisions in the state, and that trend continued until 1897. Springfield has been the site of the supreme court ever since 1897. Many of the state supreme court records can be found on file at the Illinois State Archives. See Also Research In Court Records.
- Illinois Servitude and Emancipation Records, 1720-1865 (search.ancestry.com)
- Slavery petitions and papers (search.ancestry.com)
- History of the Circuit Court/Circuit Clerk (cyberdriveillinois.com)
- The laws of the Northwest Territory, 1788-1800 (search.ancestry.com)
- Illinois Court Record Books (amazon.com)
Illinois Land Records
Deeds, mortgages, and leases are the responsibility of the recorder of deeds. In some counties there are county recorders to register all property transactions. Smaller counties give the responsibility to the county clerk. Land records usually have grantor and grantee indexes, with property records beginning with the creation of the county.
A Congressional act was passed in 1791 that granted 400 acres of land to any families who lived in Illinois country or Vincennes in 1783. Those who lived across the Wabash River in Vincennes, Indiana at the time were also included. Preemption rights for land that was occupied was granted by an 1813 act.
Illinois was a public-domain state. So, land was distributed by the federal government. In 1804, the first Illinois General Land Office (GLO) was opened at Kaskaskia. That office began selling land in 1814. There were 10 land districts in Illinois. Township plats, patents, and tract books from those districts are available through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The National Archives, Washington, D.C. holds case files for land entries.
Original public land sales in Illinois utilized a credit system. However, that system was quickly found to be difficult to manage. Several land buyers wound up unable to pay for the land that they purchased. That led to the credit system being abolished in 1820. All land was required to be paid for when purchased from that point forward. The same law that implemented that change also reduced the minimum land purchase to 80 acres, which was lowered from 160. In addition, the per-acre price was raised to $2, which was up from the original $1.25. Accounts that were previously unpaid were able to be extended, thanks to several congressional acts.
The files from those transactions are called “U.S. General Land Office Records for Illinois.” Those files may include ancient British and French grants, militia grants, and “Circulars Received from General Land Office.”
The Illinois State Archives has created a 3-part index to land sale records from public domain sales in Illinois. The first part lists all purchasers in the state alphabetically. The second part divides the listings according to county and lists each purchaser alphabetically within the county. The third part is arranged according to the section and township of the land, as well as the range.
Those records include more than 500,000 names. Lands sold by all 10 of the federal land offices in Illinois are also included. Other lands listed include canal, school, internal improvement, and Illinois Central Railroad lands. The Illinois State Archives can supply the alphabetical listing of land purchasers on microfiche for a fee. Copies can also be viewed in various research centers, including the National Archives – Great Lakes Region and the Newberry Library. The index can also be viewed on the website for the Illinois State Archives.
Property transactions in some counties are recorded by county recorders. However, county clerks have the responsibility of recording those transactions in the smaller counties. Property records date back to when each county was formed. Most of them are accompanied by grantee and grantor indexes.
Parcel or tract indexes may also be available in some counties. Those indexes are organized by quarter section, geographically. County courthouses hold land records from the Illinois Central Railroad. See Also Guide to U.S. Land Records Research
- BLM Land Records (glorecords.blm.gov)
- Illinois Public Land Purchase Records (search.ancestry.com)
- Land registration in Illinois (search.ancestry.com)
- Land tenure in the United States (search.ancestry.com)
- Lowell M. Volkel, War of 1812 Bounty Lands in Illinois (Thomson, Ill.: Heritage House, 1977)
- Theodore L. Carlson, Illinois Military Tract: A Study of Land Occupation, Utilization and Tenure (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1951).
- Michael John Neill’s article “Using a Tract Index for Land and Other Records” (Illinois State Genealogical Quarterly 29 : 195)
- Illinois Land Record Books (amazon.com)
Illinois Probate Records
Wills, administrations, and probate matters are at the office of the circuit court.
In 1819 the county commissioner’s court clerk was given original jurisdiction over probate matters. That court also served as county administrator. Probate duties may have included guardianship cases for minors, as well as cases relating to estates and wills. When commissioners’ actions were appealed, the county circuit court had jurisdiction over those cases. The county probate court took over probate jurisdiction in 1821.
In 1848 county courts were created in Illinois. At that time, they gained probate jurisdiction. Counties that had populations greater than 50,000 as of 1870 were given their own probate courts. That minimum population requirement kept changing several times over the years that followed. Circuit courts gained control of probate functions on January 1, 1964.
A large collection of Illinois probate records, which is constantly growing, can be found at the Illinois Regional Archives Depositories. Those records date back to 1813. The Springfield depository’s Perrin Collection includes the Kaskaskia Manuscripts, which contain some early records from estate cases.
The county circuit court clerk may hold records that cannot be found in regional repositories, such as the Illinois State Archives. Researchers should also examine the FHL catalog, which lists its county record holdings. See Also Guide to U.S. Probate Records Research
Illinois Tax Records
The Treasurer maintains tax records from the early years and makes them available to the public. The Treasurer also receives and records inheritance tax. Original and microfilmed tax records at Illinois Regional Archives Depositories include taxable land lists, assessors books, railroad tax books, road tax records, and collectors books, the earliest record dated 1817. Other county tax records are located in county seats.
The “Territory of the United States North West of the River Ohio” presided over the first tax authorization known to have taken place in what is now Illinois. The land was split into three classes of soil and surface and then taxed according to acreage. Each 100 acres of land that was not cleared or improved was taxed. The tax was 10, 20, or 30 cents per year, depending on the soil quality. Any unpaid taxes led to public auctions to dispose of the property. Unfortunately, none of those tax records appear to have survived.
Much of each county’s archives is made up of tax records that were recorded after Illinois became a state. In 1819 the first tax laws were enacted. There was a poor tax, as well as taxes on indentured mulattoes and negros, slaves, land, and bank stock. The counties collected those taxes, but the income from them was divided between the state as a whole and the counties. As of 1824 taxpayer lists were no longer used. School and road taxes were imposed beginning in 1825. The Illinois Regional Archives Depositories is home to both microfilmed and original records, including:
- Taxable Land Lists
- Assessors’ Books
- Railroad Tax Books
- Road Tax Records
- Collectors’ Books
The oldest record on file there is from 1817. However, other records can be found at the county seats and may date back to earlier years. See Also Guide to U.S. Tax Records Research
- Illinois Tax Record Books (amazon.com)
Illinois Immigration & Naturalization Records
The Circuit Court Clerk office holds Naturalization records, including petitions, declarations of intention, certificates, and certificates of allegiance, and granting of citizenship are also located in the clerk’s office, as well as an index to civil case files. Some naturalization records have been found with the deeds.
Illinois was not considered an American port of entry for immigrants, but it was a primary destination for many of them. So, it’s not surprising that there are several naturalization records available for Illinois. Those from before 1906 can be found in county circuit court records. The FHL and the Illinois Regional Archives System also have some on file. Unfortunately, the 1871 Chicago Fire destroyed the records of naturalization for Cook County. The National Archives – Great Lakes Region also holds quite a few Illinois naturalization records. Those records include a Soundex naturalization index for the years of 1871 to 1950. It covers many of the counties in northern Illinois, including Cook County for 1871 to 1906. Researchers should contact United States District Court – Chicago, Naturalization, Rm. 2062, 219 S. Dearborn, Chicago, IL 60604 for information on naturalizations that occurred in that district court from 1959 onward. In index of all naturalizations performed by that court from 1871 to the present is available. See Also Guide to U.S. Immigration Records Research
- Illinois Immigration Project (usgwarchives.net)
- Illinois, Northern District Naturalization Index, 1840-1950 (familysearch.org)
- Research In Immigration & Naturalization Records (ancestry.com)
- Illinois Immigration Record Books (amazon.com)