What were Chancery Courts in Ohio? And why should I care?

another story
No, really.  This is good stuff to know!


If you have researched in a courthouse in Ohio, and have ever come across something called “Chancery Court Records”, and have asked a county clerk’s assistant “what are these?”, the response is “I have no idea.”  Or they will say “They’re really old.”

Seriously?  Oh, yeah.  Many County Clerk employees are simply too busy to browse through old indexes and languidly peruse old case files.  You they simply don’t bother knowing anything about Chancery Courts.

Between the 1850s and 1968, Ohio counties had two very distinct court channels, Probate Court, and the Court of Common Pleas.  Following an amendment to the Ohio Constitution in 1968, the states eighty-eight Probate Court’s became a division of their county’s Court of Common Pleas.   To do this, the State Constitution was amended by the “Modern Courts” amendment.   Now Common Pleas has a general division, a juvenile division, a probate division.

BUT PRIOR to the early 1850’s, there were such things as Chancery Court’s in each of the counties.

Simply put, a Chancery Court in Ohio was a court of equality, a place where non-criminal cases were heard where both parties on each side of a case were more or less equal before the eyes of the law.

In Chancery Court records we see suits where one party sues another party over something.  This includes:

  • Siblings who sue one and other for land partition.
  • Gentleman A buys a horse from Gentleman B and discovers that the horse has non-disclosed issues (health, inability to do work that the seller claimed said horse performed for the seller, etc.)
  • Failure to pay a dowry after the wedding.
  • Failure to return a dowry after said daughter leaves her newlywed husband who is “unable or unwilling to perform the duties of a husband, aside from providing food, shelter and normal commercial provisions of life and livelihood.”  Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
  • Barking dogs.  (No.  seriously – people complained about barking dogs in the 1830’s.)   And the like.

What we find in Chancery Court suits are some pretty good stuff that didn’t qualify for criminal action, or the immediate settlement of the an estate.

So why should you care?

Well, considering that Ohio did not mandate birth or death records prior to 1867, a Chancery court can prove relationships.

Chancery Courts were pretty much the “People’s Court” of their era.  Chancery Courts can tell you who sued who (over a chicken, or over acreage), why they were suing, and in some cases let me repeat, the actions can document and prove relationships.

But wouldn’t a will do that?  What if the person you are looking for died without a will prior to 1850?  Then you go to the Chancery Court Records.

See?  A-ha!

Tomorrow we’ll take a quick look at such a case between siblings needed to resolve a closed estate.