Pennsylvania's Prothonotary Office
© Stephanie Hoover - All Rights Reserved

To a genealogist, Pennsylvania's prothonotary records can run hot and cold, primarily because they can be fairly "modern" when compared to the recorder of deeds or register of wills. And, it can seem like the "junk drawer" of the court system because of the diverse nature of its holdings. But like every junk drawer, it also contains some unexpected treasures.

The word "prothonotary" means "first notary" or "first scribe" depending upon whom you ask. Under either translation, the prothonotary is responsible for maintaining files, dockets, books and or indices of all civil proceedings occurring in the county.

Before 1790 the prothonotary was appointed by the General Assembly. From 1790 to 1838 the governor made these appointments. Since 1838 the people of the county in which he serves have elected the prothonotary.

Generally speaking, the primary records kept by this office are documents relating to civil lawsuits and arbitration cases; municipal, state and federal liens; complaints in divorce; mortgage foreclosures; condemnations; district justice appeals and other similar actions.

Holdings most critical to genealogical researchers are, quite likely, the naturalization records. Beginning in 1790 declarations of intent, petitions, and certificates were filed and recorded among the naturalization dockets. Indexes to these books were also kept. Of all of prothonotary records, these seem to be the best and most consistently preserved.

From the perspective of creditors and debtors, the most critical holdings would be judgments. A law passed in 1827 required that every judgment and award of the court be noted in a docket book and index. While not rich in typical genealogical data, judgments for or against an ancestor can provide interesting detail.

Sheriff's deed books should be included in all property searches conducted on ancestors. These provide record of property seized, and the amount for which it was sold. This sale and seizure, of course, were a means of satisfying an outstanding debt. The records date from the county's inception.

Starting in 1917 individuals wishing to conduct business under a fictitious name were required to file a petition with the prothonotary. Another interesting business record is that entitled "Bolter and Baker Brand Marks." These were recorded in the 1860s to identify the manufacturers of flour and bakery products sold in the county.

Election papers kept by prothonotaries from the 1830s to the 1930s detail the election process from nomination to election returns, sometimes including names of voters and their affidavits of the right to vote.

A unique record is the soldier's license. Civil War soldiers who wished to work as peddlers had to petition the prothonotary for this license and the request may include details of service.

Registries maintained by the prothonotary include physicians, dentists and dental hygienists, law students and attorneys, mid-wives, veterinarians, stallions, and - for a brief period after the turn of the 20th century - automobiles, among others.

Tavern licenses were kept on file at the prothonotary's office as well.

When researching prothonotary holdings, keep in mind that not all records have been preserved for all counties. It is always a good idea to contact the prothonotary's office for specifics. And, be forewarned that some records contain items that would, in modern society, be antiquated, politically incorrect, or both. Examples would be Bradford County's "Record of Married Women to Secure Separate Earnings" and Adams County's "Register of Negroes and Mulattoes." Remember that preservationists cannot be revisionists - these records are only of historical value if they are maintained in their original condition. ~SH

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