Washington 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.
Washington Court Records
The district courts, superior courts and supreme court make up the court system in the state of Washington. The supreme court, which is located in Olympia, has jurisdiction over the state and hears any appeals that come from superior court cases. Public interest cases, cases challenging the laws of the state and cases involving constitutional laws are all heard by the state’s court system.
There are only twenty-eight state trial courts of record. They are the state’s supreme courts, which have supreme jurisdiction over everything, as their names suggest. They hear appeals from the superior courts, but they also have original jurisdiction regarding felony cases, some misdemeanors and criminal cases. All cases may be held in front of a jury. The Washington State Archives house microfilmed superior court records.
The superior courts for the state hold all of the state’s probate records. They can be found at the county courthouses, but many are also available at the various branches of the Washington State Archives. There are 62 district courts. They have concurrent jurisdiction with superior courts in matters involving felony case preliminary hearings, as well as misdemeanors. Both criminal and civil cases may be tried in front of juries. Any appeals in the district courts are heard in the superior court system. Very few records are kept for the current district courts because they are not what is known as courts of record, which means that they are not required to keep certain records
Territorial Court Records – Washington Territory came about as a result of 1853’s Organic Act. That same act created a judicial system for the territory. That system included justice court, probate court, district court and the state supreme court.
There were originally three judicial districts in Washington Territory. The first one covered the eastern region, while the second covered the southwestern portion and the third covered the northwestern region. The central Washington region got its own judicial district in 1886.
Each of the District Court Judges sat on Washington Territory’s Supreme Court. Any appeals for the district courts went to the supreme court. The Territorial Legislature set the supreme court meeting times and court convened in Olympia. The U.S. Supreme Court heard any appeals from Washington’s supreme courts.
Any cases involving Washington Territory’s laws or the U.S. Constitution were presided over by the district court. Cases of Chancery (Equity) and Admiralty were also presided over by the district court. Any disputes involving maritime or sea-related matters were cases of admiralty. Up until 1864, divorce cases were also under the jurisdiction of the district court. After that time, the Territorial Legislature was also allowed to grant divorces. Appointments and bonds of officials, bar admissions and naturalization paperwork were all filed with the district court as well. Justice and probate court appeals were heard by the district court.
When probate and justice courts were established, any cases involving less than $100 in damage were heard by the justice court. Those included both civil and criminal cases. Often, Justices of the peace would hear complaints and then send those cases to the district court, which had the proper jurisdiction.
There are more than 37,000 criminal, probate and civil cases from the Washington Territory District Courts collected and on file at the Washington State Archives. See Also Research In Court Records.
- U.S. Circuit Court Criminal Case Files, 1790-1871 (search.ancestry.com)
- Washington, County Records, 1856-2009 Collection of various records including vital, probate, school, tax, naturalization and other records.
- Washington Court Record Books (amazon.com)
Washington Land Records
The federal government used land grant acts to get settlers to move into areas that didn’t have high populations. That’s how Washington became a settled region.
Each single man was given 320 acres of land for free, while each married couple received double that amount. That land was given away in what was then Oregon Territory, which included what is now Washington. The land was distributed in 1850 and all distribution was to be distributed by December 1 of that year. All settlers were required to stay on the land for a four-year minimum term. However, in 1853, the term was reduced to only half of that time. Washington Territory got the same land grants beginning in 1854, thanks to an act passed by congress.
The National Archives-Pacific Alaska Region, which is located in Seattle, holds land donation records for 1851 to 1903. However, the records are separated according to whether they were for Washington Territory or Oregon Territory. Either the FHL or the National Archives have abstracts and indexes for many of the land claim files. They are listed as Abstracts of Washington Donation Land Claims, 1855-1902 (National Archives, 1951). The Donation Land Records for Washington have been index and published by the Seattle Genealogical Society. There are also microfilmed copies of the Washington Donation Land Records, which can be found in the state’s major libraries.
The wonderful thing about donation land grants is that they contain a wealth of genealogical information. They list the name of the person who is taking over the land, a description of the land and the person’s marital status. The wife’s maiden name is also listed, in cases where the land owner is married. Birthplace, date of birth, citizenship and other information also may be listed in those documents.
Land district settlement conditions (homesteads) or cash entries (payments made in cash) accounted for many of the other land entries in the state. Each district opened at a different time. They are: Olympia (1854), Vancouver (1860/1861), Walla Walla (1871), Colfax (1876), Yakima (1880), Spokane Falls (1883), North Yakima (1885), Seattle (1887), New Olympia (1890), Waterville (1890)
Eligibility requirements for those land entries dictated that a person needed to be a U.S. citizen or be able to prove that they were in the process of becoming one. The person had to be at least 21 years old or be the head of their household as well. Widows were also eligible. Anyone who was eligible was allowed to purchase as much as 160 acres of land. Anyone who lived on the land after 1862, when the National Homestead Act was passed, could buy that amount of land after making improvements, growing crops and living on the land for a period of five years. The General Land Office kept those records. It later became the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM. The BLM has records of land transactions, which the land office kept in tract books. Any lands that were patented have been indexed by the BLM.
Land transferences were common at the time. After a person took possession of the land from the government, they could sell that land. Some land was also transferred in divorces or when the original owners died. Other land was lost due to foreclosure. The county auditor recorded each mortgage or deed. Those records can be found in county courthouses or at the Washington State Archives’ regional branch. See Also Guide to U.S. Land Records Research
- BLM Land Records (glorecords.blm.gov)
- Washington, County Land Records, 1850-1954 (familysearch.org) This collection includes land and property records with indexes from Clark, Grays Harbor, King, Kitsap, Lewis, Mason, Pacific, Pierce, Thurston and Wahkiakum counties.
- Washington Land Record Books (amazon.com)
Washington Probate Records
Estates and wills were originally under the jurisdiction of probate courts in the state of Washington. The probate courts were also given the power to determine guardianship for those who were insane or for minors. They presided over both insanity hearings and adoption proceedings. The state superior courts took over all of those responsibilities in 1891. The county clerk then took possession of all of the records from the probate courts. The Washington State Archives now has many of those records on file. See Also Guide to U.S. Probate Records Research
- Washington, County Probate Case Files, 1832-1950 (familysearch.org)
- Washington, County Probate Records, 1853-1929 (familysearch.org)
- Washington Probate Record Books (amazon.com)
Washington Tax Records
The county handled Washington’s taxes, which were for personal and real property only. County treasurers and county assessors hold those record. However, some of the older records are on file at the Washington State Archives. Although not all of the county tax records still exist, the regional branches of the Washington State Archives can be great places to start your tax records searches. The Washington State Archives also has microfilmed inheritance tax records for 1901-1981, which was when that tax was discontinued. See Also Guide to U.S. Tax Records Research
- Washington Tax Record Books (amazon.com)
Washington Immigration & Naturalization Records
When the railroads gained a hold in the 1870s and 1880s, the entire immigration pattern for the western part of the United States was altered.
The railroads began to advertise so-called “free” land in both Europe and the United States. That caused many people to immigrate to the state of Washington. There were 250,055 settlers who were foreign-born in the area by 1920. Some of them were Swedish, while others were from Canada, England, Ireland or Norway.
In 1894, several Dutch families came to Washington from the Dakotas. Many of the Dutch settlers who settled the area in the 1890s and 1900s chose to settle specifically around Puget Sound, including the Whidbey Island area. Dutch communities sprang up in Prosser, Zillah and Moxee City, but the largest in the state was Lynden, which was located in Whatcom County.
Both the Italians and the Finns eventually merged into the American melting pot, but the Washington Finns and Italians started out as laborers.
Most of the coastal truck farmers of Washington were of Japanese descent. Many of them could be found on the outer edges of Tacoma and Seattle. There were 17,387 Japanese people in Washington in 1920, but only 939 of them lived to the east of the Cascade Mountains. Those that did were farm workers in the Spokane and Yakima County areas, mainly.
The Japanese people were moved away from the Pacific Coast when World War II started. They were placed in relocation centers until the war came to a close. 14,559 Japanese people were take in to the Minidoka Center in southern Idaho from Washington. Another 200 Japanese people were moved to California and forced to stay at the Tule Lake Center.
When the war ended, many of the Japanese people who were moved to Idaho from Washington chose to stay and be truck farmers in Idaho. Records for Seattle’s Buddhist Church from 1938 to 1942 can be found at the University of Washington Library Archives Manuscript Division.
In the mid-1800s, African Americans did move westward. However, it wasn’t until World War II, when industrial plants popped up in Washington, that a large number of them came to the area. Mexican people also came to the area during the war because ranchers needed more workers on their farms.
The Chinese people at the time were mainly miners and railroad workers. There were 3,000 Chinese people living in the territory by 1885. The majority of them lived around Puget Sound. When a mob attached 700 Chinese people working as miners on September 4, 1885 in Rock Springs, Wyoming, it sparked several riots against the Chinese in Washington. On November 3, 1885, Tacoma’s Chinatown was destroyed and hundreds of Chinese people were removed from their homes. That caused several hundred Chinese residents of Washington to voluntarily move to either San Francisco or British Columbia in order to avoid further conflicts.
In 1889, there was a large fire in Seattle. Many Chinese people came back after that fire and took up permanent residence. The Chinese Benevolent Society and the Chinese Baptist Church were established in Seattle in 1929 and 1896, respectively. Seattle was also home to several other Chinese family organizations, including the Freemason Hall.
Many Germans from Russia also came to the area. Some settled in Whitman County and many wound up as farmers in Colfax and St. John by the turn of the 20th century.
The majority of the 1887 Endicott colonists were affiliated with the Columbus, Ohio-based Evangelical Lutheran Synod. However, several of the colonists decided to attend different churches because of the Ohio Synod’s strict doctrine. In 1893 Seventh-day Adventists settled in Endicott, although they didn’t construct a church until 1912. Most churches in the area conducted services in German because they were attended by many German immigrants. The American mainstream absorbed the German-Russian populations in Endicott almost completely by the time World War II began. Richard Dean Scheurmans’ The Historical Development of Whitman County’s German-Russians (Seattle: University of Washington, 1971) and The Volga Germans: Pioneers of the Northwest, also by Richard D. Scheurman and Clifford E. Trafzer (Moscow: University of Idaho, 1980) both hold detailed accounts of the German-Russian colony at Endicott.
Tacoma, Bellingham, Ballard, Seattle, Skagit Valley, Stillaguamish, Stanwood and Everett all had large groups of Scandinavian settlers. The Pacific Lutheran University, which was controlled by the Norwegian Lutheran Synod, was founded to Tacoma’s south, in Parkland. See Also Guide to U.S. Immigration Records Research
- Washington Immigration Project (usgwarchives.net)
- Washington, County Naturalization Records, 1850-1982 (familysearch.org) The records include petitions, declarations of intention, certificates, depositions and final papers. The records are arranged chronologically.
- Washington, Seattle, Passenger Lists, 1890-1957 (familysearch.org)
- Washington Immigration Record Books (amazon.com)
Washington County & City Government Links
Washington contains 39 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. If you know of a Washington 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. Washington State Government is located in Olympia.