By Dennis G. Sharp

Guide to the Public Records Collection   ~   Images from this issue

A finding aid, such as this guide, with scope and content descriptions, is one way that archivists can make documents and records more accessible to researchers. Yet just making records accessible does not mean that they will be used. Archival theory dictates that the archival value of a record is proportional to its potential research value. Yet, it is not easy to predict what types of records researchers will use, or how they will use them in the future. Moreover, the methodologies of historians have changed substantially in the last thirty years, and this trend will undoubtedly continue. Yet, archivists are in a good position, with our experience working with researchers, and also our knowledge of the discipline of history, to accurately gauge the potential uses of records. Therefore, this essay is designed to suggest, and hopefully to generate, uses for San Diego City and County public records. This essay supplements Richard W. Crawford’s 1986 essay on uses, by focusing on uses for the more recently acquired public records in the San Diego History Center Research Archives. Several new uses for public records originally described in Crawford’s essay will also be addressed.

In order to use these records one must first be aware of what a public record is. The Society of American Archivists’ publication A Glossary for Archivists, Manuscript Curators, and Records Managers defines public records as “documents created or received and accumulated by government agencies in the conduct of public business , which may or may not be open to public inspection.” All the records described in this guide fit within this definition. All are available for research purposes to the general public. Included are San Diego City and County records, court records, as well as Federal records.

A large portion of the Research Archives public records pertain to real property, or land ownership. Included within this category are Declarations of Homestead, Patents, Pre-Emptions, Deeds, Probate Court records and Mechanics Liens. Declarations of Homestead are records that pertain to the distribution of California lands in the mid to late nineteenth century. Declarations of Homestead (1860-1875) are claims to land based on the provisions of the California Homestead Act of 1851. A standout among these claims is that of Jose Estudillo for his property and house in Old Town.1 Patents (1877-1902) are instruments certifying that all requirements for the acquisition of government lands have been met and that transfer of title has been granted. Declarations of Homestead and Patents are an excellent source of study for researchers interested in the effects of Federal and State acts on land ownership and development in San Diego County. Site histories, chain of title and biographical information can also be obtained from these records.

Deeds, legal instruments that transfer title to land, are another good source for the study of land ownership and land development. City Deeds (1850-1947) contain the transfer of rights or easements to the city, while County Deeds (1850-1950) contain both rights and easements transferred to the county and city, and also the transfer of title between private individuals. City Deeds are an excellent source for researchers interested in the development of San Diego’s infrastructure. The development of streets, walkways, sewers and public buildings can be traced through these records. County Deeds are a good source for chain of title and property history, as well as genealogical research.

City Lot Books (1890-1930) are also a good source for property history. These records are essentially yearly assessments of property values, but they also contain the name of the property owner, the number of acres, the value of improvements on the property and the mortgage number. This record series would lend it self well to either a history of property values for a particular property, or even a statistical study of changing property values over time in San Diego.

Another record series concerned with property is the Probate Court Case Files. Probate Court was established for the purpose of hearing cases that pertained to title to estates, usually after the death of an individual, but sometimes for other reasons such as committal for insanity. Probate Court Case Files were included in Richard W. Crawford’s original guide. These were records that date from 1880, when the Probate Court was put under the jurisdiction of the Superior Court. Recently the San Diego History Center has received the earlier Probate Court Case Files (1850-1908). These records date from 1850 to 1879, when the Probate Court was separate from other courts. They are an excellent source of study for both genealogists and historians. Inventories, letters, wills and other documents in these cases contain information on, not only what families owned and family relationships, but also how people conducted their daily lives. The inventories are a particularly good source for determining cultural context. Notable among these cases is the probate case of Cave Johnson Couts. Initiated in 1874 after Couts’ death, this case was continued up to 1908. The case contains a will, testimony, copies of deeds, letters, inventories and other documents that detail the acquisition and extent of the Couts estate.2 These records could also be of particular interest to historians researching the decline of the Californios under the California legal system.

For those seeking information on past contractors, or even on past construction techniques, Mechanics Liens would be extremely useful. These records are claims or liens against property for the costs of construction. They include the names of contractors, the services performed, the costs of services and materials, and listings of the materials used. A researcher interested in, for example, road paving techniques in the 1880s, could use a Mechanics Lien against George Marston by the Coronado Beach Company in 1887. The lien states, “the said pavement shall consist of a road way being first prepared with a bed of gravel or broken rock, and there after covered with bituminous rock or asphaltum….”3 This source verifies that county road paving techniques have changed very little in the county since 1887.

Environmental historians, or anyone interested in land use and natural resources in San Diego County will find Mining Claims (1870-1933) and Pre-Emption Claims (1868-1892) of particular interest. San Diego’s active and diverse mining past can be revealed through the Mining Claims. These records give detailed descriptions of the claims and their boundaries. Moreover, this record series is complete enough that a statistical-quantitative method of analysis of mining in the county could be generated. One could also use these records in a study of how mining effected human settlement and culture in San Diego. Pre-Emption Claims, claims for use of federal lands, are a good source for the study of cultivation, grazing and water use in San Diego. Genealogists will also find both of these record series useful in determining occupations of individuals or families.

Marriage Licenses and Certificates from the County Recorder’s Office are of particular value for biographical or genealogical information. This record series contains 300 volumes and covers the period 1871-1959. Each document contains the date of marriage, the maiden name of the bride and also the nativity and place of birth of both the bride and the groom. Besides biographical information, these records can also be used by historians in various other ways, such as to compile a statistical study of marriage in San Diego. For example, one could compare the number and type of marriages during particular periods. One might compare marriage statistics before and during World War II to show the war’s impact on marriage in San Diego.

The Research Archives also has several very useful collections from the City Planning Department. These include a complete and current collection of Environmental Impact Reports (1972-), Historical Site Reports (1967-), and Historical Site Board Minutes (1969-) and Agendas (1973-). These records can be used to determine the history of particular sites, homes or buildings. They are also a great source for the study of historical preservation over the last forty years. Environmental Impact Reports often contain cultural and archaeological studies for particular sites. Another information rich resource is the City Plans Collection (1908-1996). It includes overall city plans such as the John Nolen City Plans of 1908 and 1926 and the General City Plans of 1961 and 1967. It also contains infrastructure plans, such as the 1962 Master Plan of Freeways and Major Streets, and plans for specific areas, such as the 1927 General Plan for Balboa Park, the 1972 Redevelopment Plan for Horton Plaza and the 1966 Border Area Plan. Researchers interested in city planning will find these plans extremely useful. Yet they are also a great resource for research in any of a broad range of topics, from city infrastructure development to border issues.

Coroner’s Inquests (1853-1904) are an excellent source of study for individuals interested in researching crime and violence in San Diego. They also contain biographical information on individuals, and are a great source for the study of culture. Within the inquests are often testimonies of friends, family members and associates that describe how these individuals conducted their daily lives. For example, there is little information available on the lives of Chinese fisherman in San Diego. Yet testimony from the 1878 coroner’s inquest into the death of a Chinese fisherman, Ah Sing, opens a window to a day of fishing gone horribly wrong. Ah Sing’s wife testified:

On Thursday it was very rough; the boat capsized in the kelp and threw us both out. I got on the bottom when it turned right side up. I tied him to the boat with a rope and the tossing of the boat was what hurt his head. I pushed the boat toward him and caught him by the head. We had no fight. I could not hail the steamer when it was coming up but did so as it went out. He had been dead for 24 hours when the steamer rescued us. The deceased came from China four years ago. He had no property except the boat. We lived in La Playa.4

Researchers seeking the voices of people not previously historically documented should take advantage of these inquests.

The Research Archives also has a large number of record series from the County Board of Supervisors. Newly acquired records include an extensive collection of early road records covering the period 1852 to 1926. These include the Board of Supervisors Road Record (1877-1902), Easement of Right of Way (1898-1903), Road Register (1864-1912), General Road Fund (1923-1926), Abstract of Road Districts for County Surveyor (1853-1895) and the Highway Commission Minutes (1908-1922). These records contain copious information on the development of San Diego’s roads and highways. Anyone interested in the development of county roads and infrastructure will find the Board of Supervisor’s Road Record and Highway Commission Minutes invaluable. Within these minutes is the deliberation and discussion of the Board and the Highway Commission regarding funding, development and maintenance of roads. The Easements of Right of Way are a good source for the study of county government land acquisition for the purpose of building roads, yet they are also a good source for genealogical information, such as family land ownership.

Another highly useful series from the Board of Supervisors is County Ordinances (1883-1933). Ordinances are an excellent source for anyone interested in the development of local laws. Most of the County Ordinances pertain to County administration or governmental changes, regulation of certain industries or businesses, taxation and public works. However, the County Ordinances are also an excellent avenue for understanding local environmental issues and concerns. For example, there are numerous ordinances regulating hunting and fishing. Most of these ordinances were meant to preserve valued fish and game species, yet some led to the virtual extinction of unwanted species, such as the Ordinance of 1928 that established a bounty for mountain lions killed within the county.5

Researchers interested in past county public welfare programs will find four other record series from the Board of Supervisors of great use. These series are the Indigents Ledger (1893), the Report of the Committee Appointed by the Board of Supervisors to Investigate Charges Made Against the Management of the San Diego County Hospital and Poor Farm (1895), Monthly Reports of the County Hospital and Poor Farm (1896, 1900) and Welfare Commission Reports (1920-1923). These records contain both statistical and biographical information on County Hospital and Poor Farm inmates and individuals receiving aide from the county. The Monthly Reports of the County Hospital and Poor Farm are particularly rich in information on inmates, including name, age, nativity and the type of aide received. Detailed information on the management, staff and daily business of the County Hospital and Poor Farm during the early 1890s can be found in the testimony of the Report of the Committee Appointed by the Board of Supervisors to Investigate Charges Made Against the Management of the San Diego County Hospital and Poor Farm. All of these records would be of great use to anyone writing a history of public welfare or homelessness in the county.

Two other record series from the Board of Supervisors, Incorporation of Cities (1881-1967) and Liquor Licenses Applications (1894-1913), are also good sources of study. The past sale and consumption of alcohol in the county can be researched through Liquor Licenses Applications. Growth, the spread of urbanization and the evolution of cities in San Diego County can be traced through the Incorporation of Cities record series.

The uses that have been presented in this essay are by no means exhaustive. This essay does, however, address most of the current types of uses that historians, genealogists and other researchers would have for these public records. Historians will find many of these records series, such as mining records, very extensive and well suited for primary source material. Genealogists will find a substantial amount of biographical information in many of these series. Moreover, all types of researchers can use many of the these record series, such as Marriage Licenses and Certificates, Deeds and Environmental Impact Reports for legal research, or just to satisfy their own curiosity about relatives, or the history of a particular property or site. It is sincerely hoped that this essay will enlighten and persuade individuals researching San Diego City and County to use these public records. They are an invaluable resource.




1. County Recorder, Declarations of Homestead (R2.128), 2: 26.

2. In the Matter of the Estate of Cave Johnson Couts. Probate Court, Case Files (R3.52), no. 25.

3. County Recorder, Mechanic’s Liens (R 2.97), 3: 113.

4. County Clerk, Coroner’s Inquests (R 2.69), no. 9-07. This inquest was featured in Mains’l Haul 35 (Summer 1999) : 6-13.

5. County Board of Supervisors, Ordinances (R2.70), 3-4, no. 334.

Dennis G. Sharp was born in Lynwood, California in 1963, and was raised in neighboring Downey, California. He came to San Diego in 1983 to serve in the Navy. He attended San Diego State University, where he received a B.A. in History in 1994. Currently he is pursuing a Masters’ Degree in History while he works for the San Diego History Center as Assistant Archivist and Oral History Program Director.