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Researching Court Records

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Court Records
Court Procedures
Equity Cases
Probate
Divorce Actions
Types of Court Records
List of Court Record Types
Researching Court Records
Selected Proceedings and Courts
Justice of the Peace Courts
List of Useful Court References
Topics

This article originally appeared in "Court Records" by Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, FUGA, Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA, and Arlene H. Eakle, Ph.D. in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

Contents

Adoption Records

Adoption records usually result from court processes, although there are three methods through which adoption can take place: (1) agreement without judicial proceedings, (2) agreement filed in a court of law and accompanied by court order, and (3) petition filed in a court of law and accompanied by a court order. The first method is not considered legally binding in most states today.

Under Roman civil law, which forms the basis of the legal systems in Louisiana and Texas, adoption was an integral part of family law and was often used to increase prestige and family wealth. Native Americans also practice adoption to varying extents. English common law, upon which the legal systems of most of the states are based, had no provision for adoption until 1926. Even though adoption statutes in America precede this date by nearly a century in some states, the majority did not provide for legal adoption until the latter half of the nineteenth century. Hence, legal adoption of a child by two people who are not the biological parents is a fairly recent action. The table below indicates when the first statutes granting adoption were passed in the original thirteen states and selected others and the court that was given jurisdiction by the state codes.

State Date Court
Connecticut 1864 Probate
Delaware 1890 Orphans’
Georgia 1855 Superior
Hawaii 1903 Circuit
Illinois 1855 County, circuit
Indiana 1867 County, circuit
Kentucky 1860 Circuit, equity, criminal
Maine 1867 Probate
Maryland 1892 Circuit
Massachusetts 1851 Probate
Missouri 1853 Recorder of Deeds
New Hampshire 1862 Probate
New Jersey 1877 Orphans’
New York 1873 Surrogate
North Carolina 1872 Superior
Ohio 1859 Probate
Oregon 1864 County
Pennsylvania 1855 Common pleas
Rhode Island 1872 Probate, municipal
South Carolina 1882 Common pleas
Tennessee 1852 County, circuit
Texas 1850
Vermont 1853 Probate
Virginia 1891 Chancery
West Virginia 1882 Circuit
The years given refer to the passage of an adoption law or statute. Prior to these years, adoptions in many areas were formalized by private acts of the legislature or by session laws. See Probate to find pre-1900 session laws. A useful work is U.S. Children’s Bureau, Adoption Laws in the United States: A Summary of the Development of Adoption Legislation and Significant Features of Adoption Statutes, With the Text of Selected Laws. Bureau Publication No. 148. Emelyn Foster Peck, ed. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1925).
While adoption records have been sealed off from public view in almost every state, that was not always the case. This court document is that of child Bertha Hergt, adopted by William and Bertha Zander in 1875. Note the initial misspelling of the name that was probably corrected after the document was recorded. This example points to the importance of considering alternative spellings when records are not found where they were expected to be.

Adoptions, even those later recognized by court action, often begin within the family. For this reason, family traditions are important. Learn what family members know, including favorite nieces and grandsons who have been confidants of family members most likely to know the facts.

Next, check the facts in actual documents. The documents and traditions in the case of Harry Chester Lee, below, are examples. According to a granddaughter:

Great-Grandma Bandina Hinkle Lee, as you know, was Grandpa's [Harry Chester Lee's] adopted mother. However . . . his . . . real mother was Aunt Mary [Bell Hinkle] Garwood, Bandena's [sic] sister. I know she died [1927] after I was born & indications show Grandpa knew it. It must have been very hard for the poor woman, because she was living in Chicago by that time & she couldn't acknowledge her granddaughter & her first great grandchild. Anyhow the narrative is very interesting.

This Harry Chester Lee was born 21 June 1883, in a Chicago foundling home under the name of Chester Perry. Bandina Hinkle Lee picked him up from the foundling home at the age of three days, and he lived with her and her husband, Benjamin P. Lee, until they adopted him, at age thirteen. Bandina was Mary Bell's half-sister from Peoria County, Illinois.

A 1974 letter requesting the adoption papers brought the information from the presiding judge of Cook County Circuit Court that "all adoption files in Cook County are impounded."

Attempts to find a documented connection between Harry Chester Lee (Chester Perry) and Mary Bell failed. Cook County birth records yielded no data for Chester Perry. An inquiry to Cook County Court regarding maternity was not answered, and there were no other records on file in Cook County. It is interesting, however, that Harry cared for Mary Bell Garwood in her later years. He was present at her death and provided the information on her death certificate. He also selected and paid for her burial place and funeral marker. Family members concluded that she was Harry's mother.

The Adoption Process

The petition sets out information concerning the child (or sometimes adult requiring custodial care) to be adopted, the biological parents, and the adopting parents. State statutes vary in the amount and type of data required, but generally they contain the name, residence, and age or date of birth of the child; a description of any property the child might possess; the agency or person having present custody of the child; sometimes the sex, race, religion, place of birth, brothers and sisters (if any); names and residences of the parents or guardian; and the adoptive parents' names, residences, ages, religious affiliations, marital status, place and date of marriage, and fitness to adopt. In many states, if the child is illegitimate, the father is not recorded. Massachusetts, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania require that no indication of illegitimacy be given.

All parties who have an interest in the proceedings are notified of the date and time of the proceedings. Copies of these notifications are found in the case file. In Vermont, publication of adoption proceedings and proposed name changes had to appear for three successive weeks in the local newspapers before the hearing was held. Then the clerk of the probate court was required to submit annual returns of all such proceedings and name changes to the secretary of state.[1] In this case, duplicate records are available in newspapers and in state archives.

Consent of the biological parents and their sworn and written statements relinquishing their rights to the child must be part of the case file. If the child is in the care of a guardian or institution, the guardian or institution provides consent. Children over a certain age-varying from eight to fourteen-are also required to give formal consent to the adoption.

Only a few states do not require a formal investigation of the adopting parents and the child. In other states, the proposed home, financial status, health, mental condition, occupation, and social standing in the community of the adopting parents are investigated along with the physical and mental condition and heritage of the child. Reports of these investigations become a part of the case file.

The hearing may be closed or open according to the judgment of the court. Evidence, testimony, and the above documents presented at the hearing provide the basis for a judgment and court decree. The decree may be interlocutory (requiring a waiting period of six months to one year before the adoption is final) or final (no waiting period). Usually, as part of the decree, the child's name is changed to that of the adopting parents and the birth certificate is also changed accordingly.

If any party involved disagrees with the adoption, the case file will contain petitions for pending appeals to reconsider, annul, or revoke the decree. The grounds and procedures for such appeals vary considerably from one state to another.

In an attempt to protect both children and adoptive parents, some states have passed laws restricting adoption records. Most states limit access to adoption records only to the parties involved (with court permission). In a few states, the decree is open to the public, but the case files can be examined only with court permission. Some states leave the choice of access up to the court.[2]

Records of adoptions that predate these laws are usually found among the regular records of the courts having adoption or family law jurisdiction, though in many courts, even the index references to adoption cases have been completely marked out so as to make those specific entries illegible. Ask to see the court docket or indexes covering the period of time of the search. Check carefully all surnames relating to your pedigree, for a relative may have adopted the child. Note the number and name of the case and ask the clerk for the case files you wish by number and name only, not by subject. If you want copies and cannot make them yourself, request them by page or document date, not by name of document.

In some courthouses, there is little problem because the records are in files accessible to the public, and coin-operated copy machines are nearby. For sealed records, you will have to follow the rules of access set down by the court or the legislature. In most cases, the individual concerned must request the records in person.

For information on the historical laws and traditions of adoption, see E. Wayne Carp, Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives.[3] Carp describes indenture and adoption in nineteenth-century orphanages, while contributing authors present a historical comparison of Catholic and Jewish adoption practices in Chicago, 1833-1933, and a look at the Washington Children's Home Society, 1895-1915.

Rights of Inheritance

The primary purpose behind early adoption laws was to provide a legal heir for the adoptive parent. Hence, in most states adopted children inherit just as though they were "heirs of the body." In some jurisdictions, rights of inheritance are severely restricted. Property that is designated for "heirs of the body" by the testator cannot be inherited by adopted children in Maine, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Vermont, Utah, and West Virginia. Parents cannot inherit from adoptive children in Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.[4]

Citizenship

Alien children adopted by American parents do not automatically become citizens of the United States; however, the residence requirement is lowered to two years. The proceedings for children are less complicated than for adults.

Admiralty Courts

Before 1697, no special courts of admiralty existed. Maritime matters were handled by existing common law courts sitting with juries. The English government asked these courts to enforce the Trade and Navigation Acts, but jury members, who had themselves been guilty of violating those same laws, were reluctant to convict their fellow citizens. These breaches included failure to enter, clear, and register vessels, neglecting to carry the proper certificate, trading in ships not English-built, navigating without the proper number of seamen, smuggling, and illicit trade. The Boston Tea Party was a revolt against the harshness of these acts.[5]

In 1697, American Courts of Vice-Admiralty were established by the English government in the chief seaports or districts (groups of colonies). They were completely separate from the courts of the colonies in which the seaports were located. The governor served as vice-admiral of the colony but usually appointed someone to be the judge of the court. Prosecutors attempted to bypass sympathetic juries by bringing their cases before the vice-admiralty, where jury trial was prohibited and prosecutors could hope for convictions. Colonial judges, however, were also hesitant about convicting Americans of violating the admiralty laws, particularly smuggling and illegal trade.

In 1763, a vice-admiralty court for all of America was established in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with British officials and judges. It heard its first cases in 1764, but protests from the colonies forced its removal to Boston, with branch courts at Philadelphia and Charleston. This court gradually fell into disuse, although it was not formally abolished.

With the outbreak of the American Revolution and the collapse of the British courts, the Continental Congress suggested that each state provide a court of admiralty or return admiralty jurisdiction to the regular courts. Jury trial was a prominent feature in the courts. The U.S. Constitution later vested admiralty jurisdiction in the federal district courts. See the table below for a state-by-state summary.

State Title of Court(a) Date Formed Appeals to Congress Allowed Jury Trial
Connecticut County Maritime Courts (Long Island Sound counties) 1776 No
Delaware Court of Admiralty Before 1778 No
Georgia Court of Admiralty 1777 No
Massachusetts District Admiralty Courts (3) 1775 No After 1778
Boston 1776 No
Maryland Court of Admiralty 1763; renewed 1776 Yes 1776(b)
North Carolina Court of Admiralty 1777 No 1777
New Hampshire Court of Admiralty 1776 Yes
New Jersey Court of Admiralty 1776 (abolished 1799) No
New York No court established. British-occupied after 1776.
Pennsylvania Court of Admiralty for Port of Pennsylvania 1778 (abolished 1780) After 1780 Before 1780
Rhode Island Maritime Court 1776 Before 1780
Court of Admiralty 1780
South Carolina Court of Admiralty 1776 After 1777 1776
Virginia Court of Commissioners in Admiralty 1775 After 1779, cases between two persons of the state excluded 1776
Court of Admiralty 1776
Based upon 131 U.S. Reports, Appendix, xx–xxii. Jurisdiction of state admiralty courts transferred to U.S. District Courts in 1789, under the Federal Judiciary Act, 1st Congress, Sess. I, Ch. 20 (Statute 1, 24 September 1789).
a. Almost all states permitted trail by jury for prize cases.
b. Maryland Admiralty cases 1776–1812 are indexed at http://www.mdarchives.state.md.us/msa/refserv/genealogy/html/govtdocs.html; Maryland’s records of its Court of Vice Admiralty, 1754–1775, are transcribed at http://www.mdarchives.state.md.us/msa/speccol/sc4600/sc4646/html/title.html.

Admiralty Jurisdiction

Originally, admiralty courts limited their coverage to the mouths of rivers and the seacoasts of America. Gradually, their jurisdiction was expanded to cover a wide variety of cases. This breadth of action yields some valuable data for genealogists.

Jurisdiction of matters included seamen's wages-the most common cause the courts treated-bottomry (mortgaging a ship as security for payment of a loan), charter parties (contracts between merchants and mariners for merchandise to be carried), partnership (where two or more agree to share and share alike in some venture and one or more refuses to keep his part of the bargain), salvage (retrieving goods from wrecked vessels), claims for injuries to property or persons, contracts for building and furnishing ships, claims for money loaned or advanced, collisions, brutality, neglect of duty, insufficient food, and impressment (being kidnapped and forced to serve against one's will). These courts also had jurisdiction over prizes-enemy vessels and their cargo seized during wartime. Such cases were common in New York and South Carolina. Violations of pine masts were also handled by the admiralty courts-the king reserved all white pines of more than twenty-four inches in diameter and three feet in height for ships' masts for the Royal Navy. Anyone caught cutting them was tried before an admiralty court.

Admiralty courts had civil and criminal jurisdiction over merchants who dealt with mariners, owners of ships, and all persons having any relation to maritime transactions: those who built ships; those who equipped, manned, and supplied them; those who landed, loaded, and unloaded them; those who freighted them; those employed in their service; and those who damaged, injured, or violated their duty to or on public streams, fresh water, ports, rivers, and creeks with the ebbing and flowing of the tides as far as the high-water mark on shores or banks. If your ancestors lived along the shoreline, most of their legal business would have been transacted in admiralty courts, not the local county courts.

Admiralty records have been preserved on both sides of the Atlantic. English records are in the Public Record Office among the records of the Lords of Trade, Board of Trade, and High Courts of Admiralty. Many of them have been calendared or abstracted and printed by order of Parliament. Some English records fell into the hands of American courts during the American Revolution. For example, the records of the Vice-Admiralty Court of New York are at the National Archives-Northeast Region.[6] American records are found among the files of the court that exercised jurisdiction. Records for the state admiralty courts are in the state archives; some extracts have been published.

In addition to the regular court records, such as dockets, minutes, and case files, admiralty courts include such evidence as ships' records and records kept by seamen: ship registers, enrollments, licenses, crew lists, manifests, passenger lists, seamen's contracts, clearance papers, logbooks, private letters, and other correspondence carried by ships and seized as part of its cargoes.

For additional reading on admiralty courts, see the reference section at the end of this chapter.

Appeals Courts

Appeals courts review cases begun initially in other courts upon request of one or more litigants in the case. Some appeals courts also transfer cases from lower courts for review upon crucial points of law. This power is called certiorari. Few appeals courts are concerned with questions of fact. That is, no witnesses testify, and no jury determines the facts of the case. The court accepts the evidence of the previous trial and reviews questions of law-points on which alleged errors have been committed by the lower court. An exception is the Maryland Provincial Council, which will hold a full retrial. Usually, however, appeals made on new evidence are sent back to the lower court for retrial.

During the colonial period, most appeals courts also had original jurisdiction in cases involving land title, admiralty, probate, equity, divorce, criminal cases involving life or limb (capital cases), and all civil suits over £20 (increased eventually to £100).

Usually these appeals courts consisted of the royal governor and his council in judicial session, following the model of the Privy Council of the King. Naturally, they were reluctant to surrender such judicial powers. These courts were called by various titles: Court of Assistants (Connecticut), Court of Magistrates (New Haven), Supreme Court (New Hampshire), General Court (Virginia), Court of Appeals (New Jersey and Georgia), and Provincial Court (Maryland).

In some of the colonies, the legislative assembly also handled appeals: Connecticut, Maryland, and Virginia assemblies heard divorce and land title cases until 1683, then these were transferred to the governor and council. Rhode Island and New York assemblies heard equity cases. In contrast, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts established supreme courts very early with jurisdiction equivalent to that of the English Court of King's Bench, and Delaware specifically vested equity jurisdiction in its Common Pleas Court after 1726.

After the American Revolution, most state constitutions established supreme courts as the highest appellate courts in most states, although, in theory, appeal can be made to the United States Supreme Court.

Appeals courts also issue these standard administrative enforcement writs: mandamus, ordering government officials to perform their duties; certiorari, ordering the review of a case from a lower trial court; habeas corpus, ordering the presentation of the accused before a magistrate for trial; and quo warranto, ordering an officeholder to prove by what authority an office is held.

The courts of ultimate appeal during the colonial period were the King in Privy Council and/or Parliament. Such appeals were expensive and time-consuming, involving amounts over £100 to £500 in value and taking almost two years to reach a verdict. As a result, only 265 cases were appealed. Some legislative assemblies restricted appeals to the king, and the Palatines (the Carolinas and Maryland) required the proprietor's permission to appeal.[7]

During the American Revolution, appeals were limited to admiralty and military cases heard by the Continental Congress. The unsettled conditions and costs involved resulted in few appeals until the new government began to function. Then claims and cases were appealed to Congress as well as the Supreme Court.

Some state supreme courts did not assume conventional shape until after the Revolution. For example, Kentucky, at one point in the early eighteenth century, had two courts of appeal to handle an enormous number of land title disputes, and the Texas Supreme Court in the Reconstruction period was so erratic that its rulings are never cited as serious precedents.[8]

Special courts of appeal were created from time to time to meet specific needs. In Virginia, the General Court (governor and council) heard criminal appeals well into the nineteenth century, before they were transferred to the Virginia Supreme Court. In Tennessee, it was impossible to survey land prior to settlement, resulting in overlapping and duplicate claims. The Tennessee Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals tried these land cases until 1834. In North Carolina, the circuit court judges met regularly in a Court of Conference to discuss important cases and points of law. Gradually, it became a regular supreme court. New Jersey's Prerogative Court and Maryland's Court of Delegates handled probate of wills and administration of estates.

Intermediate appeals courts relieved the workload of the state supreme courts, and they are courts of last resort for most cases. County and superior courts, such as Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions for appeals from justice, and municipal courts are examples.

Records of appeals courts are similar to those discussed previously under civil, criminal, and equity cases, with two important exceptions: trial briefs and court opinions.

Trial Briefs

Since appeals courts did not usually hear trials, summaries of evidence and testimony-trial briefs-transmitted the facts of the case. These summaries have survived in most courts, and they are extremely valuable where the original case files no longer exist. Each judge in the court had a copy, with copies for the case file and trial attorneys. The earliest are in manuscript, but surprisingly soon they were printed. Supreme Court briefs were printed and bound from 1832 on.

Finding Appellate Court Opinions

Courts for which printed reports are available.

Court opinions are decisions of the judges in each case along with reasoning and references to precedents. The first opinions were given orally and noted briefly in the court minutes or orders. Written opinions were required of all Supreme Court judges by a congressional act of 1834, and they became popular in other appeals courts, for they could be printed, circulated, and cited in similar cases, thus saving a great deal of research and correspondence.

Many appeals court records have been summarized, indexed by plaintiff (some defendant cross-indexes are available), and printed. More than six thousand volumes representing some 500,000 different cases were in print volumes (called "case reporters"; see the chart shown below)in legal libraries across the United States by 1896.

Number of Volumes Name of Court Reporter Years Covered Report Volume
1–4 Dallas 1790–1800 U.S. Reports 1–4
1–9 Cranch 1801–15 U.S. Reports 5–13
1–12 Wheaton 1816–27 U.S. Reports 14–25
1–16 Peters 1828–45 U.S. Reports 26–41
1–24 Howard 1843–60 U.S. Reports 42–65
1–2 Black 1861–62 U.S. Reports 66–67
1–23 Wallace 1863–74 U.S. Reports 68–90

Many more have appeared since then. Regardless of the publisher of these volumes, these case reporters essentially feature the same basic information about an appeals case:

  • Caption: the name or names of parties in the case.
  • Docket Number: the number assigned by the court to track a case through the litigation process (new docket numbers are at each level of the litigation process).
  • Citation: the citation or reference to the place where the case has been published.
  • Names of Attorneys and Judges.
  • Opinion: the decision of the judge.

The large number of persons and actions represented within these pages make case reporters a rich and important source for family historians. Using the reporters (and compiled indexes, called "digests") may at first be challenging, but most law libraries provide printed instructions for their use. In addition, there are excellent easy-to-read guides published online by university law schools for their students. A useful aid is a free tutorial offered by the law library of Georgetown University at http://www.ll.georgetown.edu/tutorials/cases/one/index.html. It is titled "Cases and Digests Research Tutorial" (E. B. Williams Library Tutorials).

Another way to learn about case reporters and their indexes is to read "Court and Legal Records," by Benjamin Barnett Spratling III.[9]. A portion of Mr. Spratling's clear and practical advice is summarized as follows:

Case Reporters

Many decisions made by judges of appellate courts are published in case reporters in summary format. Not all appellate court decisions are in reporters, and most of the published opinions are those appealed from trial courts. Case reporters are published for individual states, for regions, for federal cases, and for certain specialized areas within the law, such as bankruptcy. These reporters are found in law libraries; the major law libraries (often connected with universities) have case reporters for all states.

Because reporters are arranged chronologically, the books covering the years of an ancestor's residence in a particular area is one way to check case reporters.

Each case reporter volume is indexed by a "table of cases," usually found at the front of the book. The table of cases can list all plaintiffs and defendants found within the case reporter or, in early years, only the first named plaintiff in each case.

American Digest System

To bypass having to search the indexes of each case reporter volume, the American Digest System is a series of what might be termed "master" or "cumulative indexes." The digests provide reference to cases in several different reporters. The American Digest System is a massive collection with volumes issued periodically to index case reporters for the entire United States. The series consists of many volumes but one of primary interest to genealogists would be 1906 Decennial Edition of the American Digest: A Complete Table of American Cases From 1658 to 1906 vols. 21-25.[10]

These five volumes index thousands-although not all-appellate court cases in the United States. Only plaintiffs are indexed. There are quirks in the indexing system; Mr. Spratling provides pointers for overcoming them and for interpreting the citation that leads to the correct volume or volumes of the case reporter. If a particular volume is not in a library, the citation will permit the researcher to request the price for a copy of the reported case from the appropriate state law library.

The Federal Digest

The Federal Digest[11] is a series that indexes records of the Supreme Court of the United States, the U.S. Circuit courts of appeals, and the district courts of the United States. These publications will be found at most law libraries and at U.S. Document Depository libraries. Of interest to family historians are:

  • Volumes 66, 67, and 68 of The Federal Digest. These contain an index (by name of plaintiff of cases from 1754 to 1941.
  • Cases Decided in the Court of Claims of the United States. This reports cases from 1863 to the present. Volume 89 is an index to vols. 1 through 89, which cover 1863 to 1939. Reports of the Court of Claims Submitted to the House of Representatives covers an earlier period, from 1853 to 1863, but may be found only in larger libraries.
  • Federal Cases (Circuit and District Courts), 1789-1880, is a thirty-one-volume set reporting federal cases. Vol. 31 is the index to the first thirty volumes of reports. It is a plaintiff and defendant index.

The table below is a summary of published reports from federal courts. Microfilm copies of these court records are available for purchase from the National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, Washington, DC 20408.[12]

U.S. Appeals Court/Cases Dates Titles and Contents of Reports
Supreme Court 1790 to present U.S. Reports. First 90 volumes identified by court reporter; reprint of vols. 1-90 labeled U.S. Reports with reporter's name; vols. 91 on titled U.S. Reports Cases indexed at University of Houston http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/supreme_court/supreme_court.cfm.
U.S. Court of Appeals 1781 to present U.S. Reports 1781-87 printed in 2 Dallas (vol. 2, U.S. Reports). See http://www.fedcir.gov.
U.S. District Courts 1789 to present Gerogetown Law Library The Federal Reporter, selected cases only.
U.S. Court of Claims 1855-63 Reports of the Court of Claims Submitted to the House of Representatives
1863 to present Cases Decided in the Court of Claims in the U.S. Vol. 30 indexes vols. 1-29; vol. 54 indexes vols. 30-54; vol. 62 indexes vols. 55-61
U.S. Court of Military Appeals Decisions of the Court of Appeal
U.S. Court of Customs and Patent Appeals 1930 to present Reports of the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals of the U.S. Each volume has a plaintiff-defendant index
U.S. Court of Customs Appeals 1909-29 Reports published by the Treasury Department under various titles. Indexes in each volume
Prize Cases Appealed to Continental Congress 1776-80 Includes Committee on Appeals cases referred to Court of Appeals. 109 Cases listed 131 U.S. Reports 1889), xix-xlix. Each listing gives the title of the case, a brief description, court from which the appeal was made, dates of appeal and consideration, whether referred to committee or court
Prize Cases of Revolutionary War, Committee on Appeals 1776-80 38 cases
Prize Cases of Revolutionary War 1776-80 56 cases from all states except New York, Court of Appeals which had no prize court
Source: Laurence F. Schmeckebier and Roy B. Eastin, Government Publications and Their Use, 2nd. rev. ed. (1969; reprint, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms International, 1987).

Online Indexes

Since the advent of the twenty-first century, the emphasis is no longer on printed indexes but on websites that are subscriber-based. Although the number of institutions or law firms that subscribe is limited, most major law libraries do have access. Consult the availability at these sites for research in more recent indexes.

There are a number of free sites that offer searching of case decisions, although years and regions may be limited. Some examples of free sites are: Over 610 selected historic cases (as early as 1806), are indexed by parties at Cornell University Law School's Legal Information Institute. Supreme Court decisions since 1893 are indexed and fully searchable at FindLaw. A database compiled by the U.S. Air Force of Supreme Court decisions 1937-1975 and 1992 forward, is online at http://www.access.gpo.gov/su_docs/supcrt/index.html. Full text of decisions, 1937 to 1975, is at http://www.fedworld.gov/supcourt.

A new project at the USGenWeb provides good possibilities for court records research. Historic court case reports are being transcribed for searching online at http://www.rootsweb.com/~archcrtc. The index and print pages are imaged until each page is transcribed into searchable text. As of 1 February 2006, various years of state supreme or appellate courts are online for five states: Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, and North Carolina, as well as a U.S. Supreme Court volume that covers from organization to 1827.

Claims Courts

The right-first guaranteed by the English government and incorporated into federal and state constitutions-to petition the government for redress of grievances provides an excellent source of genealogical data because our ancestors used it so freely.

Common grievances were compensation for supplies and provisions supplied in war; for unfair dealings of the government and its personnel; for unpaid wages, pensions, or other compensation promised; for lack of protection against local enemies and foreign powers; and for jurisdiction and boundary changes.

Although this discussion is limited to claims against the U.S. government and its courts, equivalent actions and records can be found in state court files and among the records of counties, towns, and cities.

List of Claims Made Against the U.S. Government is a summary of the types of claims made from 1774 through World War II with the agency responsible to deal with them, the record group number, and a brief description of the contents and/or location.

Most claims against the U.S. government before 1855 were presented to Congress and referred to committees on claims of the Senate and the House of Representatives (see #Private Claims and Claims Committees of the U.S. Congress). The inability of these committees to examine in detail all the claims submitted, together with the difficulty of getting Congress to appropriate the necessary funds to pay favorable claims, amounted to a denial of justice to many citizens. In addition, the number of claims became too great. A separate Court of Claims, established in 1855, did not solve the problem because it had no authority to render judgment. Its job was to investigate claims and forward all evidence, testimony of witnesses, law briefs of solicitors and claimants, and opinions and recommendations of the court to the Committee of Claims, House of Representatives, for final consideration of those cases recommended favorably. Those reported unfavorably were placed upon the calendar for Congressional consideration. This amounted to having each case tried twice and solved nothing. In 1863, the court was given power to render final judgment in all cases with the right of appeal to the Supreme Court for cases involving more than $3,000. From 1855 to the end of 1881, it heard more than 13,000 cases. By an amendment passed in 1868 to the Act of 1863, the clerk of the court was required to submit an annual return to Congress containing a list of all judgments rendered by the court, the amount of redress granted, the parties involved, and a brief synopsis of the nature of the claim.

The procedures and practices of the Court of Claims are very similar to those followed in regular courts of law except that all testimony and evidence is in writing. Twenty-five printed copies of all briefs must be filed (if the case is under $3,000, the briefs are printed at public expense) with the clerk of the court at least one day prior to the hearing of the case. No court costs are required except those of the claimant's personal attorney. Cases must be presented by legal counsel. There is no jury. Before 1868, all claimants had to prove that they had been loyal citizens of the Union during the Civil War. Since that time, the amnesty oath pardoning Confederates has voided this provision. Summary of United States Court of Claims describes the court's growing jurisdiction.

The National Archives has published listings of the case files and related records with descriptions of what they contain, how they are filed, and indexes that can be used in Preliminary Inventories 47 and 58 . Some of this information is available online. Therefore, it is not necessary to go into detail concerning these records here. The table below, prepared for the convenience of the researcher from these inventories, indicates the kind of records produced, the dates covered, and the locations of the original records themselves. Congressional records-both original and printed-contain pertinent information concerning the Court of Claims and its cases through the annual reports submitted by the court. The procedures outlined earlier for use with claims presented to Congress can be followed to use Court of Claims information.

Original Records Dates Covered Located
Original indexes, dockets, minutes, judgments books, register of attorneys 1855 to present Court of Claims
Case files: general jurisdiction 1855-1939 Court of Claims, Record Group 123, National Archives
1939-46 Federal Records Center, Suitland, Maryland
1946 to present Court of Claims
Other 1855-1943 Court of Claims, Record Group 123, National Archives
1943 to present Court of Claims
Attorney General records 1855-1945 Court of Claims Section, Department of Justice, Record Group 205, National Archives
1945 to present Attorney General Office, Department of Justice
Reports to Congress 1855-63 Committee on Claims, records of House of Representatives, Record Group 233, National Archives
Printed Records Dates Covered Located
Reports to Congress 1855-63 Congressional Documents and Reports, government documents libraries
Court reports 1863 Cases Decided in the Court of Claims of the United States, vols. 1 to present available in most large law libraries. Each volume indexed separately, general indexes vol. 30 (vols. 1-29); vol. 54 (31-54); vol. 62 (55-62)

Even though the court and parts of its jurisdiction were not established until the latter half of the nineteenth century, documents and evidence sometimes date from the Revolutionary War period. In addition, many claims are submitted by and awarded to heirs of the original claimants.

For example, the French Spoliations cases, arising from incidents in the 1790s but continuing for a century, include ledgers, account books, insurance policy registers, notarial records, letter books, day books, executors' accounts of liquidation of estates, ships' registers and logs, lists of crew members who served aboard vessels, and so on. Case files also include certificates of appointments of administrators, executors, legal representatives, powers of attorney, and proof of death. The Court of Claims, in an effort to substantiate the claims submitted, ordered evidence collected from customs and marine records in French ports and archives. Authenticated copies of these French materials, together with English translations, were sent to the State Department, and certified copies were introduced as evidence in the claims cases. Even though these records are copies of copies and thus subject to error, most originals have since been destroyed or lost. Maritime records kept by U.S. Customs officials at ports of entry-registrations, registers, oaths, proofs of ownership, licenses, enrollments-were also included.

Among the case files of the Congressional-jurisdiction records are muster rolls, certificates of death and burial, oaths of allegiance, inventories of property, statements and records of military service, records of courts-martial, and tax lists. The naval bounty claims contain lists of seamen who served on vessels during the Spanish-American War. The U.S. Court of Claims did not handle claims for pensions, although many were submitted to Congress.

Coroners' Records

The coroner's foremost responsibility is to conduct inquests when a death occurring within his or her jurisdiction involves the possibility of foul play, violence, or suicide. The inquest determines if a criminal act has been committed and, if so, the potential guilty party. In some jurisdictions, the inquest is ordered by the court, in some by justices of the peace, and in some by the county attorney. In fact, in jurisdictions where an official coroner is not appointed, the justice of the peace or the county (district) attorney serves in this capacity. More recently, coroners have been replaced by medical examiners-especially in urban areas.

In every county in the nation, by law, accidental deaths, or deaths where the cause is questionable, must be investigated by the county coroner or medical examiner. Because we associate coroners so closely with murders, we may forget that they are likely to be involved in the following types of death: suicide; accident; sudden death of a person in apparently good health; person unattended by a practicing, licensed physician at death; death involving suspicious or unusual circumstances; criminal abortion; poisoning or adverse reaction to drugs and/or alcohol; disease constituting a threat to public health; disease, injury, or toxic agent resulting from employment; death during medical diagnostic or therapeutic procedures; death in any prison or penal institution; death while involuntarily confined in jail, prison, hospital, or other institution or in police custody; whenever a body is to be cremated, dissected, or buried at sea; any unclaimed body; any dead body brought into a new medico-legal jurisdiction without proper medical certification; and D.O.A. (dead on arrival) at hospital. The results of such investigations may generate reports in the form of a few lines or several reams of paper. Case files are frequently full of personal information and rare glimpses into the personalities under investigation.

As with almost every other kind of record collection used by family historians, the existence and condition of the coroner's records may vary from state to state and from county to county. They may also vary dramatically in content from year to year. As a rule, twentieth-century inquests are more detailed, sometimes running several hundred pages. Inquests for earlier years may consist of only a few lines in a ledger.

The coroner's qualifications and personality frequently determined how and what kinds of records were kept. In most counties in the United States, the coroner is still an elected position-and, according to some, the job may be one of the most powerful in a given county. Some counties have completely done away with coroner's positions, and inquests are now under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner's office.

Cook County, Illinois, for example, moved away from the coroner system in December 1976. At that time, inquest records came under the jurisdiction of the Cook County medical examiner, and the coroner's verdict (or a determination of guilt), previously a part of the procedure, was no longer included in the record. It is probable that a television journalist's exposé on the Cook County coroner's procedures was responsible for significant changes in procedure. Before the story broke, it had been acceptable to pull less-than-qualified individuals off the street to serve on an inquest jury. The $24 per day paid to jurors had special appeal to vagrants in the area. As a part of the exposé, a television camera panning the jurors caught most of them asleep while evidence was being presented, and waking just in time to decide if the death in question was accidental or a suicide.

While inquest records began as early as 1878 in Cook County, it was not until 1911 that individual inquest files included personal details. But even a few lines in a ledger can provide important leads to follow.

An inquest "upon the body of Alexander Goetzinger Murray," dated 19 May 1903 in Cook County, presented the following verdict: "The said A.G. Murray now lying dead at 205 North Pk Ave in said City of Chicago, County of Cook, State of Illinois, came to his death on the 18th day of May A.D. 1903 on the lawn at the NE corner of Washington Boul. and Franklin Ave, Austin, Illinois, from valvular disease of the heart." Names of the jurors were of little help, but the list of witnesses together with their addresses provided some good hints for follow-up research. Interestingly enough, the most important clues came from the "description of property found on the body," in this case, a lodge button that led to an investigation of Masonic records.

In a typical "history of case for statistical purposes," a 1935 Chicago inquest proved to be full of genealogical and general-interest details. The form asked for full name of deceased, address, age, sex, marital status, color, birthplace, how long in United States, how long in city, birthplace of father, birthplace of mother, religion, housing conditions, present occupation, employed by whom, past occupation, wages or salary due, amount of life insurance and to whom it was payable, value of personal and real estate property, level of education, number of dependents, and ten questions regarding the decedent's physical and mental health at the time of death. The last questions ask for cause of accident or catastrophe, the place of death, and the recommendation of the jury.

The coroner’s verdict on the cause of death of Joseph Kustak in 1933.

When Joseph Kustak died, the coroner's jury determined the cause of death to be accidental. He had "bumped a bedroom door against a shut off gas valve, causing an accidental flow of gas." But there were pages of testimony where relatives and acquaintances told the jury what they thought of his state of mind when they had last seen him. The information on the form, combined with witnesses' accounts, provided an unusually vivid portrait of the deceased.

While these examples provide a rough overview of what may be found in one city, there are equally fascinating records for just about every other county in the nation.

How does one go about finding coroners' records? First, examine family traditions and records for any potential clues that would point to this collection of records. In some cases, a death certificate will state that a coroner's inquest was held. Anytime there is a suspicious death or a death by any of the aforementioned causes, an investigation may be in order. Newspaper accounts of unusual deaths are often the best way to key in on dates-an important tip, since most coroners' records are not indexed and may be found only by date of the event. Fortunately, some of these records (such as the last two cited here) have been microfilmed and may be available at the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Family History Centers.

In recent years, a number of coroners' and medical examiners' record indexes have become available online through state and local archives and historical agencies. The Illinois State Archives, for example, has posted an index to such records online.

Courts-Martial Records

The purpose of military courts is to insure orderly operations and exact obedience. The United States has traditionally maintained a small standing army during times of peace, depending upon local militia or civilian conscripts to supplement these soldiers in times of war.

Local militias and state-authorized troops made up the bulk of American armed forces from colonial times until the Civil War. During the Revolutionary War, the soldiers who formed the Continental Army were drawn from these local units. As a result, records exist both at the federal level for the continental troops and at the colonial/state level.

Before 1689, all military offenses were tried before regular law courts. With the passage of the English Mutiny Act in 1689, courts-martial heard military violations at the county/town and colonial levels.

Every able-bodied man from the ages of sixteen to sixty (except those specifically exempted by law), fully armed at his own expense, was required to serve in the county or town militia. These militia units were required to hold at least four private (local) musters and one or two general (county) musters per year at which they were to drill and to become proficient in the use of arms. At all musters, the captains of the companies were to keep an attendance record on each man and a record of the offenses and delinquencies of attendance and equipment of all men of the respective companies and report the same to the courts-martial. The courts-martial convened once a year in each county after the general muster of the county. In this militia court sat a majority or all of the captains of the county. They reviewed the ages and capabilities of all those on the muster lists, dropped those too old or disabled, inquired into the absences and delinquencies reported, and imposed fines. Militia watches were outlined, assigned, and reported on also. In some jurisdictions, the militia captain was also responsible for tax assessment, and tax districts coincided with militia districts.

The professional, standing army of the United States dates from 1789. In times of war, it is supplemented by National Guard and reserve units, state militias, and civilians conscripted directly from the unorganized militia-all males of military age. There are three types of military jurisdiction: military law, or the Code of Military Justice; martial law, or temporary rules enforced by soldiers governing both military and civilian populations; and military governments, or administrative functions exercised by military personnel and organizations over civil populations as a result of war.

The Code of Military Justice outlined by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1776 to govern Washington's volunteers has evolved into the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which was adopted on 31 May 1951 to make all branches of the armed forces subject to the same courts, trial procedures, and appellate review.

The National Guard is subject to this system when under federal control, and states have adopted similar provisions when operating under state authority, in training or local emergencies., Reserve units are subject to military law while on active duty and during annual training camps. All members of the U.S. armed forces are subject to the code at all times. This code is enforced in military courts-martial. Although provided for by the Constitution, these tribunals derive their authority from the executive branch rather than the judicial and thus are completely separate from the regular system. Cases are not reviewable by civil courts, nor can appeal be made to civil courts. The table below describes the types of United States Courts-Martial:

Court Membership Offenses Punishment
Court of inquiry Appointed upon request of the accused Any non-capital or capital offense Determined by the nature of the offense. If there is sufficient evidence for court martial, records are admissible as evidence in later trial
Summary court-martial* One commissioned officer Any non-capital or capital offense Confinement at hard labor for 1 month, restriction for 2 months, or forfeiture of 1/2 of 1 month’s pay
Special court-martial Three or more commissioned officers Specific cases of a non-capital nature Discharge, confinement at hard labor for 6 months, forfeiture of 2/3 of 6 month’s pay, reduced rank. Officers punishable only 60 days by confinement and forfeiture
General court-martial Five or more commissioned officers and 1 law officer** Any offense, especially subject to capital cases and those punishable by death Any punishment not forbidden by the Military Code
* Cadets and officers cannot be tried in a summary court-martial.
** The law officer instructs the court on points of proper law

Courts-martial exercise exclusive jurisdiction over all persons subject to military law for violation of the military code. Military offenses under the code include insubordination, failure to obey orders, being absent without leave, and disrespect for officers; courts-martial exercise concurrent jurisdiction with civilian law courts over offenses such as murder, theft, rape, and burglary. Under this system, violators may be tried, convicted, and punished twice for the same crime.[13]

Courts-martial files deposited in the National Archives, Judge Advocate General's Office, contain records of the general courts-martial, courts of inquiry, and military commissions for the period 1809 to 1938. Included are documents describing the personnel and organization of the courts, changes and specifications, pleas and arraignments of the defendants, papers and exhibits submitted to the court for consideration, proceedings, findings, and sentences, reports of reviewing authorities, and statements of actions by the secretary of war and the president. The table below summarizes these records:

Records Dates Record Group Number Comments
Records of general courts-martial and courts of inquiry, U.S. Navy 1799–1867 125, NARA m-film M237 Originals cover 1799–1943. Partially name-indexed. Must know approximate date; for some records must know offense as well. Records include name, rank, ship or station, alleged offense, place and date of trial, sentence. May include medical fitness for duty, prison reports, requests to change discharge from dishonorable to honorable. Dossiers include transcript of testimony.
Proceedings of general courts-martial, Marine Corps 1798–1866 27 Arranged chronologically, must know date of court-martial.
Civil War Courts Martial 1861–1865 125 In 1997, author-researcher Thomas P. Lowry began reading the nearly 80,000 court martial files of Union soldiers. Lowry has since published several titles pertaining to these files, i.e., Curmudgeons, Drunkards, and Outright Fools: Courts-Martial of Civil War Union Colonels. (Lincoln, Neb.: Bison, 2003). See also, Trevor K. Plante “The Shady Side of the Family Tree: Civil War Union Court-Martial Case Files” Prologue 30:4 (Winter 1998) at http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1998/winter.
Court-martial records, Office of Judge Advocate General (U.S. Army) 1805–1939 153,NARA m-film M1105, Registers of the Records of the Proceedings of the U.S. Army General Courts Martial, 1809–1890. 8 rolls. Case files for general courts-martial, courts of inquiry, military commissions. Arranged by case number. Name index, 1891–1917. The National Archives is compiling a name index for pre-1891 files. Some files include dates of birth, places of residence, dependents, as well as transcripts of trial. Separate series of files exist for 1805–15 (incomplete) and for 1861–65. Registers showing name, rank, unit, place, and date of court provide a partial index to all series. Files dated before 1812 are incomplete.

In 1776, when Congress established authority for military courts, no sentence of a general courts-martial could be carried out until confirmed by Congress. This proved to be impractical and was soon modified to apply only to high-ranking officers or death sentences. A little later, the president of the United States had to confirm all convictions of the death penalty in military trials. Noncommissioned soldiers could appeal only to the authority who appointed the military court. Under the National Defense Act of 4 June 1920, a Board of Review was established for review of all general courts-martial cases before punishment could be carried out. In 1952, Congress provided for a Court of Military Appeals through which civilian judges could review all military convictions and appeals from lower tribunals. In its first year, it heard 108 suits on appeal and in 50 percent of the cases reversed the decision rendered by the Board of Review.[14]

Martial Law and Military Governments

Martial law consists of rules temporarily applied to civilians under the direction of military officers. Authority for martial law must originate from Congressional grant or presidential power and is enforced by military tribunals. If local units of government are unable to cope with war, insurrection, invasion, or other disruptive forces, Congress or the president can order a military government to replace these local units and supply administrative controls. Examples include federal occupation of Southern territory during the Civil War (martial law) and the Reconstruction government exercised in Southern states following the end of the Civil War, when the South was physically and financially unable to direct its own affairs. The jurisdiction of military forts in Indian Territory of the American West is another important example.[15]

References

  1. General Statutes of Vermont (1863) (Reprint, Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1987), 416–17.
  2. See Walter Lee Sheppard, “Confidential and Sealed Records: Their Effect on Genealogical Research,” American Genealogist 50 (1974): 203–9.
  3. E. Wayne Carp, Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002).
  4. Jean J. McVeetney, “Comparative Study of Laws of Adoption of Minors,” Women Lawyers Journal 47 (1961): 13–21.
  5. See O. M. Dickerson, The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1951).
  6. Some of these records have been edited by Judge Charles M. Hough, Reports of the Cases in the Vice-Admiralty of the Province of New York (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1925), but these represent only about 40 percent of the total number. See Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, The Archives: A Guide to the National Archives Field Branches (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1988).
  7. See A. M. Schlesinger, “Colonial Appeals to the Privy Council,” Political Science Quarterly 28 (1913): 279–97; and Joseph Henry Smith, Appeals to the Privy Council From the American Plantations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1950). For Palatine jurisdiction, see Baillard Lapsley, The County Palatinate of Durham (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1900). There was little difference in the powers granted the Palatinate in England and America; the problems arose in enforcing them so far away from the support of the royal government.
  8. Edward H. Hilliard, “When Kentucky Had Two Courts of Appeal,” Filson Club Historical Quarterly 34 (1960): 228–36; George Shelley, “The Semicolon Court in Texas,” Southwestern Historical Review 48 (1944–45): 449–68.
  9. Spratling, “Court and Legal Records.” This chapter includes a listing of State Appellate Courts, an explanation of the colonial courts and selected published works of each colony and state.
  10. 1906 Decennial Edition of the American Digest: A Complete Table of American Cases From 1658 to 1906, vols. 21–25. (St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1907).
  11. The Federal Digest series is published by West Publishing, St. Paul, Minnesota.
  12. Revolutionary War Prize Cases, 1776–87 (M213); Appellate Case Files, 1792–1831 (M214); Minutes, 1790–1950 (M215); Dockets, 1797–1950 (M216); Attorney Rolls, 1790–1951 (M217); Index to Appellate Case Files (M408).
  13. See Hubert D. Hoover, “Army Courts-Martial,” in Legal Essays in Honor of O. K. McMurray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1935), 165–86.
  14. See Daniel Walker and C. George Niebank, “The Court of Military Appeals: Its History, Organization and Operation,” Vanderbilt Law Review 6 (1952): 228–40.
  15. John R. Kirkland, “Military Occupation in the South Atlantic States During Reconstruction, 1865–1876” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Carolina, 1967); “The Reconstruction Courts of Texas, 1867–1873,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 62 (1958): 141; James E. Sefton, The U.S. Army and Reconstruction, 1865–1877 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967).

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