Using Court Records to Piece Together a Story
By Zoë Cheek, History Department, UMass Amherst
Throughout the summer, this project examined many unique sources across the Valley. One avenue that was both fruitful and still in need of further research are the early court records of Massachusetts. Given the parameters of the project, most of the advice in this essay is largely specific to Massachusetts and New England, although some resources are useable for most states in the U.S. This essay is divided into three parts: 1) an overview of the history of Massachusetts courts and where their records are, 2) some suggestions on where and how to look for people of color in these records, and 3) a collection of suggested resources for finding and accessing court records throughout New England.
Part 1: History of Massachusetts Courts and Finding Their Records.
Early court records showcase several aspects of the colonial world of New England. Very early records from the seventeenth century not only deal with crimes (such as a stealing) but also with crimes of a religious nature (such as causing disruptions during sermons). Later records from the eighteenth century also cover debt collection, neighborly disputes, and inquisitions into mysterious deaths in addition to more standard criminal behavior. In the state of Massachusetts, most historic court records are housed by the State Judicial Archives in Boston. These records collect information from every county and span from the 1600s into the 1900s.
When it was first established as a province, Massachusetts had one court, known as the General Court, that was based in Boston. With the establishment of Hampshire County in 1692, (which encompassed all of modern-day Worcester, Franklin, Hampden, and Berkshire counties until the mid-1700s), a three-tiered court system was established with The General Court and the Court of Assizes or Assistances at the top of the system. At the county level there was the Court of Inferior Pleas, Court of Common Pleas, and the Superior Court of the Judicature. The Court of Inferior Pleas dealt with debts and other small claims of a certain amount of money, the Court of Common Pleas dealt with non-capital criminal cases. The Superior Court of the Judicature handled larger cases including death inquisitions, murders, and other forms of severe criminal activity.i Every county in Massachusetts had both these courts and they were held at set locations. In Hampshire County these courts were held alternatively at Northampton and Springfield.ii At the town level there were the magisters or justices of the peace (like John and William Pynchon of Springfield), who handled small local matters.iii Each court tier also has responsibility for legislative and administrative functions of their town or county, including holding probate courts, property management, and road maintenance.iv
The court system changed again in 1780, when many of the administrative and legislative powers of the courts were changed by the new constitution. Statewide courts were established in the 1800s including the Supreme Court of the Judicature and much of the colonial system was dismantled by the end of the century.v
An incredibly useful resource for court record search is FamilySearch.org. This free website has digitized a massive number of early records, including most of the state and county court records housed by the Massachusetts Judicial Archives. All these Massachusetts records, regardless of county, are listed under the “Suffolk County” records and they are arranged by year and court case number. This may seem strange but as court proceedings are a circuit, many cases from across the Commonwealth eventually made their way to the state courts in Boston.vi The court case numbers were assigned in the nineteenth century by the archive and do not directly tie into the court system records but can be useful to find other related records elsewhere. FamilySearch’s interface can be a little difficult to navigate, as the records are digitized from microfilm and do not easily adapt to a searchable format. However, they are indexed by number and the name of individuals involved, which spans several volumes. The archivists at the Judicial Archives are very helpful and can help direct you to the correct location on FamilySearch or within their collections. Their contact information can be found on the state records website, here.
Not all court records are housed in the state archive, nor are they all digitized. Locally, UMass Amherst and some libraries and archives hold their own collections of court records. UMass holds records of the Inferior Court of Hampshire County and some of these are digitized. Records of magisters and other smaller local courts can often be found in local courthouse archives or local archives at libraries or historical societies.vii In other New England states, these records are stored in similar places. Connecticut’s State Library, for instance, has an impressive listing of their early court records online, and those records are sometimes relevant to Massachusetts research, as residents moved up and down the Connecticut Valley.
2) Finding People of Color in the Records
In Massachusetts court records, there are generally two types of court records available. One contains minutes of each session of the court, covering the facts of the case and the verdict. The second consist of dockets, or the materials formally presented before the court. These can contain affidavits, confessions, lists of prisoners in jail, witness statements, and other pieces of evidence. These docket materials help fill out a case and can show why a court reached a certain verdict. There are dockets for criminal and civil proceedings as well.
When specifically seeking out people of color in court records, the index can be a good place to start. Generally, in the state and country records, if the individual in question had a first and last name they will be included in the index, this is also true if the person only had a single first name. For those individuals, they tend to be listed alphabetically by their first name, depending on the index, all single names will either come before the individuals with first and last names or will be mixed in. If you do not have name at all, the indexes not only index names but also terms including “negro” and “slave.” Not every type of index will have these listed, but they are useful guides to check. You may also want to check for other terms such as “servant,” “mulatto,” or if the person you are researching was enslaved, the name of their enslaver. While the some of the records available to researchers have indexes, not all of them do or the indexes only capture a small amount of the available records, and often neglect to capture every person of color in the record.
Often it can be better to use court records after doing as much as research as possible with other sources. Using other resources first, helps to narrow down the names and dates of people you are researching will greatly help you when looking in unindexed court records. In this project, we had the most success using the court records when I had a name or date to go from, but in a few cases when I only had a year range the best option was to go page by page to find what I was looking for. It can be challenging with the digitized records to go page by page, depending on the setup of the website but it can be the best way to uncover hidden stories and voices buried in the records. As evidenced by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina’s book, Mr. and Mrs. Prince, the court records contain incredible stories of people like the Prince’s fighting for their land rights, against debts, and against other forms of injustice.viii The records also capture those who appeared as witnesses and giving testimonies such as Peter Swinck, who appears in the court records of William Pynchon testifying as a witness to a church disturbance.ix These records are vast and can seem daunting but there is a tremendous amount of information waiting to be found with persistence and support.
3) Court Record Resources
For more resources be sure to visit our LibGuide, here.
- National Archives Court Records Guide: https://www.archives.gov/research/court-records
- National Archives Digitization Guide https://www.archives.gov/digitization/digitized-by-partners
- Family Search Catalog Search https://www.familysearch.org/search/catalog
- You will need make an account to log in, once you have you can search their catalog by location to access what records they have
- National Archives Boston: https://www.archives.gov/boston
- State Judicial Archives Collection Guide: https://www.sec.state.ma.us/arc/arcpdf/collection-guides/FA_JU_SJC.pdf
- FamilySearch Suffolk County Records: https://www.familysearch.org/search/catalog/results?count=20&placeId=184348&query=%2Bplace%3A%22United%20States%2C%20Massachusetts%2C%20Suffolk%22&subjectsOpen=451484-50
Other New England States
- Connecticut State Library: https://libguides.ctstatelibrary.org/hg/ctarchives/col
- Maine State Archives https://www.maine.gov/sos/arc/research/genealogy.html
- Maine was a part of Massachusetts until – so court records from before that period can also be found in Massachusetts records.
- New Hampshire Secretary of State Holdings: https://sos.nh.gov/archives-vital-records-records-management/archives/archival-holdings/general-court-records-1680-current/
- Rhode Island Judicial Records Center: https://www.courts.ri.gov/JudicialRecordsCenter/Pages/Research%20in%20The%20Archives.aspx
- Vermont State Archive: https://sos.vermont.gov/vsara/