Urban Research Using Court Records
Court records are potentially the most valuable yet the most underutilized of urban sources (see Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records, chapter 10, “Published Probate Records,” by Wendy L. Elliott, and chapter 12, “Court and Legal Records,” by Benjamin Barnett Spratling, 3rd). The case volume created by the vast population and the bureaucracy involved may intimidate even an enthusiastic searcher. Court jurisdictions and procedures have puzzled many a researcher, but books on local government can guide you through the maze. For each state, Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources provides maps as well as tables that point to boundary and jurisdictional changes over the years as well as addresses for county courts. Internet search engines are also good places to begin a search for specific court records.
By far the most commonly used court records are the probates because of their helpfulness in identifying heirs. Some counties have master indexes for court proceedings, but, more often than not, you must examine registers by year. When names are distinguished only by case number, a search of the docket books may be in order. The shortcut approach is especially good in cities where old cases are warehoused and must be requested a few at a time. Dockets provide a synopsis of the case, the decedent’s name and date of death, name of the administrator, and names of widowed spouse and heirs. This information enables the searcher to order the correct case from the warehouse or to retrieve it from its court location without going through all the other cases of the same name. Before visiting any court, it is advisable to call in advance to check on research policies and days and hours of operation. This is a good time to ask if indexes and records are immediately accessible or if storage of actual records in an off-site location will make it necessary to make two or more trips to the court.
City courts can also yield information of value. If the city is subject to county jurisdiction, police courts and local justice courts take care of trivial matters that involve limited fines and fees. More important cases go automatically to county and state tribunals. If the city is independent, however, mayors’ courts—hustings (so-called in Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas)—had substantial jurisdiction.
Some city courts issued business licenses for taverns, mercantile establishments, hotels, and other shops and received petitions from local citizens regarding many of the functions that are today handled by commissioners or separate agencies of government, such as road repair, runoff water drainage, watch and ward (police patrol and security of business and personal property), volunteer fire department personnel, and numerous other activities necessary to provide services and protection for city dwellers. Another important function was providing for the poor. Among the references to the poor in city court minutes are notices of removals of people and families who were not residents of the city and who might become public charges on the poor rolls. Minutes record that these people were transported to the city line at public expense.
Records for these courts were often printed annually by public order, and these volumes can be found in local public libraries. For example, the printed minutes and reports of city officials for St. Paul, Minnesota, are in the St. Paul Public Library; a second copy is available at the Minnesota Historical Society. The city minutes for Nashua, New Hampshire, are found only in the Nashua Public Library, where there is a complete run of volumes that continue well into the twentieth century. The Genealogical Society of Utah has microfilmed the city court volumes for Savannah, Georgia, and several other southern cities and towns. The minutes of the Mayor’s Court of New York City are published in the collections of the New York Historical Society. There is a great interest in city court minutes, and many of them are easy to locate.
Somewhat less well known than probate or other local court records are federal court files. The federal courts have traditionally heard cases involving interstate disputes and often served as courts of appeal for litigation that originated at the local level. In addition, the federal courts were usually indexed by plaintiff and/or by defendant, making the search a time-consuming project.
The material in the files varies with the significance of the case and the state that it reached during the trial process. But depositions describing the acquisition and retention of property were not unusual in land disputes, which often appeared as equity suits. These were often accompanied by maps of the place in question or copies of deeds submitted as exhibits. Such cases can produce thousands of pages of testimony and may detail facts about the family and its environment that are not available elsewhere.
Bankruptcy filings included schedules of assets and liabilities, outlining the business and financial dealings of the bankruptcy claimant. Small partnerships and proprietorships, along with personal bankruptcies, comprised the preponderance of cases heard in bankruptcy court. When federal bankruptcy laws were not in effect, “involuntary” bankruptcies were entered as equity proceedings. Loretto Dennis Szucs’s “To Whom I Am Indebted: Bankruptcy Records,” in Ancestry Magazine, explores historical events that caused bankruptcies and provides information on how and where to find such files. Federal criminal prosecutions were a minor portion of the case load until the 1920s, when prohibition violations swelled the numbers. Other types of federal cases of genealogical interest include confiscation cases from the Civil War, when the federal government seized the available property of Confederate sympathizers, and personal injury suits against interstate carriers (usually railroads).
The federal government has touched urban residents in ways other than through its courts. The Internal Revenue Service was less visible before World War I than it is now, but an assortment of IRS assessment lists sheds light on the wealth of many individuals during the Civil War and again after 1913. The Civil War–vintage assessments (arranged by collection district and thereunder alphabetically) have been microfilmed; those for the early twentieth century have not. Original monthly assessment lists survive for San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, and Detroit and are deposited in the federal archives and records centers serving those cities. Taxable income was defined at a level that limited the assessment to the middle and upper classes; nevertheless, thousands of entries appear in the volumes pertaining to urban districts.
A source with particular interest to those whose roots lie in the South comes from the records of the Southern Claims Commission, which was organized to settle with Union sympathizers who had supplied Northern forces without compensation. Case files included depositions, affidavits, reports, and receipts. A geographical index, arranged by state and county, allows the researcher to pinpoint people in a specific territory, while the consolidated index serves as a name entry. See Records of the Commissioners of Claims (Southern Claims Commission), 1871–1880 and Gary B. Mills’s Civil War Claims in the South: An Index to Claimants Before the Southern Claims Commission, 1871–1880, an accompanying consolidated index. These records are not limited to cities, but the major locales of Atlanta and New Orleans are included.
- Loretto Dennis Szucs, "To Whom I Am Indebted: Bankruptcy Records," Ancestry Magazine 12, no. 5 (September-October 1994): 26-27.
- Records of the Commissioners of Claims (Southern Claims Commission), 1871-1880, NARA micropublication M87; Gary B. Mills, Civil War Claims in the South: An Index to Claimants Before the Southern Claims Commission, 1871-1880 (Laguna Hills, Calif.: Aegean Park Press, 1980).