|A random county courthouse from commons.wikimedia.org|
My experience will be based on courthouses in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. I suspect that most states west of the Mississippi are similar, but you should be aware that each state and even each county is different.
Preparation is key - there are lots of records to look at, so you will want to know what you're looking for. First, have family group sheets ready for all your ancestors who lived there because you'll want to know all the family members and their birth, marriage, and death dates.
Make sure you know what churches they attended and where they are (or might be) buried.
Check when they were naturalized as those records are often at the county courthouse.
Make a list of ancestors who died while resident in that county (not necessarily the place of death) and be ready to look for the probate of their estates. Generally people who owned real estate went through probate, and even some people who only had personal property did so as well.
Next, look on the county website to see what records are available electronically. I once went to the Fort Bend County, Texas, courthouse only to learn when I got there that they charged a dollar a page to print land records in the courthouse but that they could be printed for free if you accessed them online. Other places charge a dollar a page online but a quarter in the courthouse, so you never know.
Determine as exactly as possible when and where your ancestors lived and owned land - the more precisely you know the location, the less time it will take to find their deed records. If they were within city limits, try to get the street address. If they lived in the country in state-land states (most of the states west of the Mississippi), you need the section, township, and range. Or if you know how many miles they lived from a certain town, you can figure out the section, township, and range from maps at the courthouse. The courthouse should have maps available to locate their property exactly if you know the address or the legal description.
I have an Excel spreadsheet for each couple where I write the land transactions they were involved in. This way I don't forget any details, and I don't have to sort through chicken scratches in a notebook when I get home. I've uploaded the template to Google Drive so that you can download it.
Look at the county website to see which departments have which records. For instance, in Oklahoma the county clerk has the deed records, but in Kansas they are held by the register of deeds. Check the department hours and holidays while you are on the website. And then a day before you leave, give them a call to see if they will be open - if the county judge's funeral is the day you plan to go, your entire trip may be wasted.
In the next post, I will explain how legal descriptions work.