TENNESSEE'S COURT SYSTEM:
One of the things that will help any researcher in Tennessee is understanding the court system. These vary from state to state so here is southeast Tennessee's. These will be defined as they were in the 1800's...not in the present. Civil cases were cases involving grievances between two parties. State cases were usually criminal cases such as horse theft, murder, etc. Court records are invaluable when it comes to documenting family history & establishing relationships.
Sessions - One of the lower courts. In the early times of some counties this court was much like Chancery Court. On occasion one will see a Justice of the Peace holding court in some Civil cases. Minutes for these cases may or may not have been recorded in county minute books.
County Court - Some of the earliest county court records were the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 Veterans filing for their pensions. They had to go to their county seat to give testimony as to their service. Many of these records were lost during the Civil War or court house fires but can also often be found in the individual pension files at the National Archives. One will also find records pertaining to county formation, earliest tax records, a few land transactions, jury lists of prominent early residents, as well as other items. These courts were held within each county.
Chancery Court - You will see both Civil & State cases in Chancery court. It was the system in which will/estates were probated, initial indictments were handed down in some criminal cases, property disputes etc. In the early years not all counties had Chancery Courts. They were held as DISTRICT Courts. Until 1878 Chancery Court for McMinn and Blount was held in Madisonville, Monroe Co., TN. You'll need to know this if you're chasing a court document...one more time to forget about those county lines. Chancery Court for Polk and Bradley was in Cleveland, TN. Chancery Court records are, by far, the most valuable for genealogy purposes.
When researching wills and estate records please understand a few details....
a. Not everyone left a written will. This will be defined as 'testate' or 'intestate'. Intestate meaning there is no will located or written. There will be COUNTY court records for an estate if someone died holding property of many kinds.
b. The county courts would appoint executors or administrators for the spouse and family and you'll often see 'dower laid out' for the widow's support...most often for one year. This was so the family would have a means of support while the estate was settled.
c. You'll sometimes see INVENTORIES for these estates. The court would have the executors list each possession, sale of same, debts owed and debts collected, for example.
Circuit Court - This is the court where most of the criminal cases were heard. We sometimes see cases carried from one court to the other. Most of this being from Chancery to Circuit. You will sometimes find neighbors and family members listed with individuals in circuit court cases.
Superior or Supreme Court - A court of appeals for cases that couldn't be settled otherwise. You'll sometimes see cases taken to Supreme Court for judgment. Southeast Tennessee's Supreme Court was in Knoxville, TN. Although, records will be located at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. www.tennessee.gov/tsla
As each county is listed below the availability of copies of court cases will depend on the county's archives/archivists. Notations are made for each. The State of Tennessee has a very reasonable recommended fee schedule. Most archives will adhere to this but each county will have their own fee listings. If you have no luck in a county you can check into the availability of records on microfilm at Tennessee State Library and Archives. The majority of all early records are filmed. In many southeast Tennessee Counties you will see Works Progress Administration records (WPA). WPA had many of the earliest records transcribed into typewritten form om the late 1930's and these were later microfilmed. For instance, Roll 52, TSLA, microfilm contains most, but not all, Tombstone Inscriptions, County Court Records & wills and inventories. Many of these can be gotten on interlibrary loan or purchased for a reasonable price. Don't worry if you don't have a reader, most libraries still have them and will allow use of them.