Home of History: Archival Research in the Northumberland County Courthouse

In Search of Old Shamokin, December 2020 edition. Find more local history in the Weekender the last Saturday of every month.

The digital age has reinvented the way researchers of all kinds obtain information. For historians and genealogists, digitized newspapers, vital records, and an immense variety of books can now be accessed from home, adding historical research to the ever-growing list of pursuits which have “gone virtual.” Even those studying a topic as specialized as local history or genealogy can conduct most of their research online. Sometimes, however, the romance of research in the field still beckons–and for historians of Greater Shamokin, that romance resides in the Northumberland County Courthouse in Sunbury.

The iconic 1865 Italianate courthouse structure, known to most as a familiar symbol of the county seat and a landmark in its own right, is also home to the county’s largest and oldest collection of original historical records. Almost every type of transaction recorded at the county level and disclosed to the public in the past two hundred years–whether a real estate sale, a last will and testament, or a lawsuit–is preserved in the Northumberland County Courthouse’s offices. While its most frequently accessed collections have been digitized for reasons of convenience and preservation, every record still exists in its original format–a bound book, a typewritten document, a will hastily scrawled in the original handwriting of its author. The courthouse is not a museum, nor a library, nor an online database–but for historians, it is something even better: a vast, raw quarry of information, as organic as an archaeological site.

While access to the courthouse is currently limited due to COVID-19 restrictions, with the Prothonotary temporarily closed to the public and the Register and Recorder available by appointment only, genealogists and historians in Northumberland County who have not yet had a chance to explore courthouse resources should be sure to plan a visit at the first safe opportunity.

Most researchers will spend the majority of their time in the office of the Register of Wills and Recorder of Deeds, which also contains marriage licenses and map books. Researchers of an historical business, institution, or individual will also benefit from a visit across the hall to the office of the Prothonotary, home of civil and criminal proceedings.

For students of architecture, or those interested in the history of land ownership, the Recorder of Deeds is indispensable. Real estate has its own genealogy, and the family tree of land is made up of deeds. With every sale, the original deed is copied and recorded at the county level, and each deed contains a reference to the deed which preceded it, as well as the date and the book and page number where it can be located. In this way, it is generally possible to trace the pedigree of a parcel of land back to its original owner, or the larger tract of land from which it was subdivided. This method is also used by attorneys when conducting title searches.

Since the owner always retains the original deed, only a copy is filed with the Recorder of Deeds. In modern times, a digital copy is made, while older copies were either handwritten or typewritten by courthouse clerks and hardbound in Deed Books.

Few historical records are as illuminating for genealogical or biographical research as wills and probate records. Copies of wills are easy to locate in Will Books maintained by the Register of Wills. Unlike deeds, however, the original will as well as a variety of other documents associated with the estate are kept on file in the records rooms of the courthouse basement. Though the amount and type of documents filed will vary depending on the estate, some can be a gold mine for researchers. In some cases an inventory of the estate may have been filed, listing in detail the contents of the decedent’s residence and any other property, stocks, or bonds they may have owned. For genealogists, this is a chance to glimpse an ancestor’s daily life and personality in a way that no other record can offer–a rare and intimate look at the homes they lived in, the furniture and decorations they preferred, and even the clothes they owned.

Civil and criminal court proceedings from the 18th through the early 20th centuries can be researched on opposite sides of the Prothonotary’s office. On the criminal side, the earliest cases are summarized briefly in bound books, while comparatively newer cases may have their original documents contained in file packets similar to those of estate proceedings. Indices to civil cases may be consulted in the prothonotary’s office, while the actual books or files are stored in the records rooms. A business dispute or unpaid debt can offer clues to the life and status of an ancestor or historical figure, whether defendant or plaintiff, and some case files may even include a court transcript, allowing the researcher to hear their subject’s side of the story, in his or her own words.

Copying and handling procedures vary depending on the courthouse office, so researchers should always consult a clerk before accessing historical records. Where available, digitized records should be utilized in place of handling fragile originals. Most of the courthouse’s deed books can also be accessed remotely through the LANDEX Webstore for a fee.

The era of digitization has preserved countless vulnerable records and made history exponentially more accessible to the public, a trend which will and should continue, particularly in these times of isolation. But whether you prefer to download a land record from the comfort of home or go spelunking in basement archives, the Northumberland County Courthouse continues to exist in both worlds–a little of the present, and a lot of the past.

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