Many a movie or book could be written about our ancestors, particularly if they left records and in particular court records. Those records were recorded by a clerk and though rarely indexed, they are extremely valuable. In the case of some missing records, you may find mention of an ancestor in the court minutes. The records were kept on a variety of levels, but let's look at the county court minutes.
Normally the county court held sessions quarterly for up to five days near the beginning of that quarterly month. If there were no cases, they did not meet, but that was rather unusual. Somebody was always feuding or getting into trouble. In colonial times the court often went into session at the tavern. Court could be called into session for emergency situations. Keep in mind also that the clerk may have actually recorded the decisions weeks after the actual court met. Some cases were sent to a higher court. This, too, will be recorded in the minutes.
Cases were heard for suits pertaining to assault and battery, fornication, swearing on the sabbath and much more. You may be shocked at what your ancestor did or was accused of doing. Don't assume they led angelic lives. They were no different than we are today. Women, as well, as men, were accused of assault and battery ... not to mention murder.
Some people got into trouble continually and appear more than once on court minutes. I have pages of documents pertaining to male relatives in northwest Missouri around the time of the Civil War who quarterly were in court for gambling. They paid their fine and gambled again!
Women who gave birth to illegitimate children were summoned to court to name the father. In colonial times if the father was not named, she was sentenced to time in goal (jail) to think it over and decide the name of the father. Women who gave birth to mulatto children often received a more stern sentence such as being fined plus whipped. Children could be taken away and placed with another family. Families sometimes refused to take the baseborn child because of embarrassment and thus allowed the court to decide where it should be placed. Orphans old enough could decide guardianship, otherwise the court determined it for them. Apprenticeships were made by the court and are recorded as well in the minutes.
It is not unusual to find details of theft in the court minutes ... anything from livestock to food commodities. People were always keeping track of each other so were mindful if somebody swore on the Sabbath which could be punishable not only in court but within a church. People who were found drunk were reported and scheduled for a court hearing.
In colonial Virginia court fees were paid in commodities, current money of Virginia, or sterling pounds. Tobacco was a favored commodities for payment of fines. In 1729 Bridget Smith of Accomack Co., Virginia was allowed to pay her debt in either tobacco or myrtle wax. The wax was used to make bayberry candles. Perhaps the court needed candles for the court room or goal.
Fornication, adultery or "incontinent living" are not uncommon in court records. People seemed to observe everything done by their neighbors and friends and as gossip prevailed, they are found in court answering to what they had done. Many of these relationships crossed racial lines.
If you can't find tax records, check the court minutes. Many courts recorded the tax list within the minutes. There may be mention that somebody was too old to be taxed or had died. Clues abound in these records. The courts issued licenses for taverns and inns as well as other businesses. They also regulated the price and sale of liquor. The trustees of the courts mandated the building and maintaining of roads.
Court minutes, unless in another location for storage, are usually found within a county courthouse. Many have been microfilmed by the Family History Library (LDS) and can be used through a Family History Center. Check their catalog at FamilySearch International. Genealogists and societies have written books abstracting court minutes, so check the catalog for any of those.
The court was the watch dog of the community. Gain a better understanding of your ancestor, those around him or her, plus the history of his life by checking county court minutes. It's worth your time!
Source Information: Tracing Lines, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.
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