Monday, January 28, 2013

Drama in American Colonial Courts

We have all seen the advice in the how-to-do genealogy books that we not forget court records in our research into our ancestors’ lives.

Court House, Boston, built 1713 (engraving 1751 by Nathaniel Hurd; courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Wikimedia, public domain.

One of the standard works on this subject that I find very clear and informative is Courthouse Research for Family Historians by Christine Rose.

In order to fully appreciate the importance of court records for genealogical research, we need to understand the significance of law and the courts in the daily lives of the colonists in early America. Browsing through the new books at my neighborhood library, I came across The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle by Ava Chamberlain, a scholarly study of how historians have mischaracterized Elizabeth Tuttle, the paternal grandmother of the great Puritan theologian, Jonathan Edwards.
Used by permission of author

 Although Professor Chamberlain wrote this book to uncover the true character of Elizabeth Tuttle, she also gives genealogists a great lesson in how to use court records to study ancestors.

In addition to modeling the use of civil and criminal court records to glean information about people who often didn’t leave other records, Chamberlain also demonstrates another genealogical lesson: “Because Elizabeth Tuttle’s story cannot be told directly, we must adopt an indirect approach.”1 This means using the records of collateral persons and families, the written trail of those people close to Elizabeth whose actions can give us a glimpse into her life.  I love Professor Chamberlain’s turn of phrase to describe how she will tell the story of Elizabeth Tuttle’s divorce by “teasing it out from the historical records.” 2 

Why are court records so important a resource in studying colonial era ancestors?

In seventeenth century colonial America, the courts played a large part in people’s lives, according to Chamberlain:
Most colonists, both male and female, appeared in court at various moments of their lives….

Chamberlain footnoted the above quote which led me to another study of the role of the court in colonial times: Neighbors and Strangers: Law and Community in Early Connecticut  by Bruce H. Mann, Professor of Law at Harvard. Checking notes and bibliographies in the books we consult as genealogists is another very important part of research which can lead to information we might never have discovered otherwise.
Used by permission of author

Mann tells us that the main reason people went to court in colonial times was to settle debts. As we are aware today, when people go to court, they often come away with bad feelings about each other. In colonial times, society was quite different from today; it was much more insular so the disharmony caused by law suits was more of a threat to the community than it is today.

In order to understand the role of the court in the seventeenth century, Mann reminds us that we need to remember an important aspect of colonial society. People lived in very small communities, generally of about 100 families. The insularity that resulted from small groups living together resulted in people interacting with each other in many different ways, having “multilayered relationships”:
Debtors and creditors did not, indeed could not, limit their relations to single transactions. They might also be neighbors, relatives, fellow church members, companions in the local militia company, suppliers of goods and services that each needed, rivals for the affection of the same widow, parents whose children had quarreled or whose livestock had eaten each other’s grain. In short, they were people whose course of dealing with one another stretched across time as well as across several roles.4 

As we can see from the description above of the reasons people took each other to court, we have a strong indication of what types of records we might find in courthouse files. The records reflect people’s daily lives and go way beyond the catalog of “facts” that we read in birth, marriage and death records.

What kinds of court records did Chamberlain come across in her effort to reveal Elizabeth Tuttle’s true story? The most telling records were the divorce petitions, and there were several including appeals, that Richard Edwards, Elizabeth’s husband, brought against her. And much earlier in their marriage, Richard had brought a petition of paternity against his new bride.

We have seen that one function of the court in colonial times was to give people a place to air their differences without threatening communal bonds. The judges and the selectmen were the arbiters. But how did early Americans feel about the law?

Used by permission of author
To find more about the role of laws and courts in early America. I did a google search and found a book by Peter Charles Hoffer  entitled Law and People in ColonialAmerica.

Hoffer discusses how the colonists’ attitude toward the law developed and how they used the courts:

Throughout their colonial and revolutionary experience, Americans developed a passion for law, a legalism that pervaded social, economic, and political relationships. They laid their disputes with one another before the courts of law to an extent exceeding all other peoples. The colonists believed in the possibilities of a lawful world, and their demands for legal redress grew from and sustained this faith.” 5

Hoffer underscores again the function of the court as a means of preserving harmony in the small, isolated, frontier communities where everyone depended on one another:
 Pilgrims going to church, published between 1940-1950, Boughton, George Henry, 1834-1905 , artist, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Law kept families together with ties of property and obligation. People went to court to reintegrate themselves into towns, parishes, and colonial life. Courts were places of signification. They helped people decide what was important to them.” 6 

The quote above explains clearly why genealogists need to look at court records if they want to build a more complete picture of their early American ancestors’ lives.

Although the law and the court featured largely in the lives of the colonists and served as a means of diffusing friction, it cannot be said that all members of colonial society were treated equally in the court system, as Hoffer makes clear:
“…early American law gave some people and some ways of behaving advantages over others. It forbade certain activities, defining the margins of acceptable deviation from normal or customary conduct. It intruded itself into people’s lives, demanding that they honor commitments, pay debts, serve church and county, and accept pain, shame, and punishment for their crimes. Local magnates, sitting as justices of the peace and on vestries or councils of elders, demanded deference and used law to reinforce their demands. The playing field was by no means level.7

Colonial kitchen with woman spinning, an engraving, 1885, A Brief History of the United States by Joel Dorman Steele and Esther Baker Steele, 1885, wikimedia, public domain.
This brings us back to Elizabeth Tuttle and why Chamberlain wrote a book about her life. Women, indentured servants, children, slaves and other marginalized people were often treated harshly under the law; they had no voice and so rarely do we hear or even know their side of any story.

 We are fortunate that through Professor Chamberlain’s research, Elizabeth Tuttle’s good name and reputation have been restored.
With this new knowledge of the colonial courthouse as a kind of theater where our ancestors played out many significant happenings in their lives, I look forward to looking for records left my Allis ancestors who lived in colonial Massachusetts and Connecticut.


1. Ava Chamberlain, The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle (New York and London: New York, University Press, 2012), 2.

2. Ibid., 10.

3. Ibid., 50.

4. Bruce H. Mann, Neighbors and Strangers: Law and Community in Early Connecticut (Chapel Hill, NC, University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 18.

5. Peter Charles Hoffer, Law and People in Colonial America (Baltimore, MD, The John Hopkins University Press, 1998) xii.

6. Ibid., ix.

7. Ibid., ix-x.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Discoveries at the Chicago History Museum Part II

Here I am again in the Chicago History Museum (see my post of  Dec 27, 2012 for Part I.)
After I checked out the Sanborn maps, I took a walk around the Research Center. It is really important to become familiar with the lay of the land, to see what the site you are visiting offers. Although much of the material is kept in closed stacks outside of the main Center room, there are open bookcases along the walls.

As I was looking at some books on a shelf, my eyes were drawn to one title in particular: 

The Slum and the Ghetto: neighborhood deterioration and middle-class reform, Chicago, 1880 – 1930 was written by Thomas Lee Philpott, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas. Just by chance, I had found a reference that would give me new and chilling insight into the NearWest Side where my Irish ancestors lived in the late nineteenth century. I wrote about this area in my post of December 6, 2012 when I showed how Clara Laughlin described that area and time period of Chicago in her novel, Just Folks. Now I would have a view of my ancestors’ neighborhood from a historian’s perspective.
In order to understand how so many people in Chicago and other large American cities were living in crowded, unsanitary, dark substandard housing in the late nineteenth century, known as tenements, (see photo below that shows the wooden tenement buildings built so close together)
The Maxwell Street area in 1906, from the Charles R. Clark Collection, in the folder for "Interpersonal Relations--Manners and Customs--City and town life--Slums--Illinois--Chicago--Near West Side.", used by permission of the Chicago History Museum. 

 we need to look at several factors.  It took a convergence of all of these factors to produce a perfect storm

of squalid living conditions that led to disease and death for a large number of people who lived in the tenements of Chicago.

First, in the latter part of the nineteenth century industrial progress and capacity had grown exponentially and stockyards, meat packing plants and factories of all kinds sprang up in many cities, especially Chicago.1

The Great Union Stock Yards of Chicago, 1870, Photo by Rascher, Charles, Chicago: Published by Walsh & Co., c1878, Wikimedia, public domain due to copyright expiration.

These businesses required thousands of workers to do unskilled labor at very low wages. And where did this labor come from? A great number of Europeans were looking for new opportunities. The photo below shows hundreds of new arrivals from Europe waiting for processing at Ellis Island:

Underwood & Underwood, photographer, c1906. cph 3a23424, [Emigrants in "pens" at Ellis Island, New York, probably on or near Christmas --note the decorations,] Library of Congress.

A second factor in the mix that produced tenement slums in Chicago was that during this time economic and political conditions in Europe were driving many poor and low-skilled people to look to America for a better life. But no one in the municipal government of Chicago was actually planning for this influx. So it was left to market forces, in this case land developers and landlords, (see section: Tenement Inspections as Public Health Practice, paragraph 4) to fill the areas in and around the new industrial areas with as many housing units as they could fit and to build them for the cheapest price. This was the formula that resulted in tenement slums: a need on the part of poor people in Europe to escape their living conditions that left them no hope for economic improvement in their countries of origin and a need on the part of industry in Chicago for huge numbers of workers to do low-skilled work at low wages:

Image of eight girls sitting and facing a narrow table, sewing by hand on material held in their laps, during a sweatshop inspection in Chicago, Illinois. The girls are all looking at the camera, 1093. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.

A third factor in this already bad situation in the Near West Side happened in 1871. It was the Great Chicago Fire  in which “One-third of the city’s 300,000 residents lost their homes.” 2    

Gibson & Co. (Cincinnati, Ohio), c1871, The Great fire at Chicago Oct. 9th 1871. View from the west side,, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Many of these refugees ended up in the tenements, and this added to the already deadly overcrowding.
By the late 1880s, the slum housing of Chicago had become so bad that government officials had to take notice. Social reformers, such as Jane Adams 
Jane Addams, Wikimedia, public domain due to copyright expiration.

who founded Hull House
Hull House Women's Club building on Polk Street, 1905, Wikimedia, public domain due to copyright expiration.

in the Near West Side, began documenting conditions in the tenements while offering language programs, day-care centers, playgrounds, nutritional advice and hope to those who had been relegated to the bottom of the social ladder by low wages in dead-end jobs with no way out.  Philpott describes their plight:
“The great majority of the laborers had no marketable skills. The work they did was hard, stultifyingly dull, and often dangerous. They swept and shoveled streets, dug ditches, sweated over garments, peddled from pushcarts, tended machines. Employment was irregular because of market fluctuations and weather conditions. Laborers went long stretches without work….”3
In 1901,Robert Hunter published a report for the City Homes Association  called Tenement Conditions in Chicago.  Hunter studied blocks around Hull House and documented the overcrowding, lack of sanitation, no access to clean water, absence of light in many of the tenement rooms, among other grievous conditions.  According to his statistical research, Hunter stated that between 35%and 47% of Chicagoans lived in substandard housing.4
As mentioned above, in the late nineteenth century, European immigrants came by the thousands to find jobs in Chicago as well as in other American cities. They found low-paying jobs that only allowed them to afford substandard housing in tenements. The immigrants came from not only one country but from many, and they arrived in stages, as Philpott describes: 
“The area around Hull House was a ‘labyrinth’ of nationalities and creeds. Catholics predominated on three sides of the settlement, and the Jewish ‘ghetto’ was to the south. Protestants were scattered through the district….Most Jews were either Russians or Poles….The Catholics…came from more than a dozen different counties….The most numerous foreigners at the beginning were Irishmen, Bohemians, and Germans. They gradually gave way to Italians, Russians, Poles and Greeks. But at any given time in the 1890s people of twenty-six or more nationalities could be found living within three blocks of Hull House.”5
My own family history bears out what Professor Philpott observed. First my Irish ancestors showed up on the Near West Side around the 1860s. They lived on Halsted at Hastings. Then the Bohemian contingent arrived in the early 1900s and settled on Blue Island Street.
As we saw above, the immigrants lacked money to demand better housing and they lacked any social cohesion because of the maze of different languages and cultures that were found in the tenements. Instead of cooperation, there was competition and the attitude of “We don’t trust or like you because you’re different from us.” In addition, many of the immigrants who had arrived earlier in the century disliked the more recent arrivals, seeing them as interlopers who just added to the poor, overcrowded living conditions. Photo below shows the crowded conditions of a typical market street in Chicago in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century:

 One of the busiest streets in the world--State St., Chicago, Ill. (18 miles long), N. from Madison St. New York : Underwood & Underwood, publishers, c1903. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.
This isolation into small groups worked against community building. And this was another factor that kept the population of the Near West Side powerless. As Philpott writes:
“A community crisscrossed by so many lines of cleavage seemed to lack all coherence. Nothing the settlement workers encountered in the tenement districts distressed them more than the disorganization and disorder they saw all around them. To Jane Adams it looked as if the entire ‘social organism,’ from the family level up, had ‘broken down’ on the Near West Side.” 6
Thus we have seen how the perfect storm of tenement housing developed from six factors:
1.     The explosion of industrial activity in Chicago in the mid-nineteenth century which resulted in the need for large numbers of low-skilled workers to fill the factories and slaughter houses
2.     The influx of poor, low-skilled immigrants from Europe
3.     The lack of a municipal plan to house these new immigrants which left a vacuum: the need for some kind of shelter for the newly arrived workers
4.     The type of shelter devised by businessmen (responding to market forces) who came in and built as many housing units as the land would hold at the cheapest cost
5.     The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 which forced many of the homeless to seek housing in the Near West Side which added to the overcrowding
6.     The powerlessness of the poor of the Near West Side in the face of economic and political forces of the times
It would take until 1901 for the reports of reformers and the overwhelming visual evidence of huge areas of the city mired in slums to open up the eyes of both the public and the politicians of Chicago as documented on the history.comwebsite:
“In 1901 city officials passed the Tenement House Law, which effectively outlawed the construction of new tenements on 25-foot lots and mandated improved sanitary conditions, fire escapes and access to light. Under the new law--which in contrast to past legislation would actually be enforced--pre-existing tenement structures were updated, and more than 200,000 new apartments were built over the next 15 years, supervised by city authorities. By the late 1920s, many tenements in Chicago had been demolished and replaced with large, privately subsidized apartment projects.”7

As I have learned more about the conditions my ancestors endured in the Chicago tenements, I realize once again the debt that I owe these brave people. It was through their sacrifices as they worked to gain a foothold in this country that I have benefited. Thank you to those who came before.

1.      Thomas Lee Philpott, The Slum and the Ghetto: Neighborhood Deterioration and Middle-class Reform, Chicago, 1880-1930, The Urban Life in America Series (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978) p. 7.
2.      Fire of 1871, Encyclopedia, online, downloaded 6 Jan 2013.
3.      Philpott  p. 64.
4.      City Homes Association, Encyclopedia, online, downloaded 6 Jan 2013.
5.      Philpott, p. 67.
6.      Ibid., p. 69.
7.      Tenements,, online <>, downloaded 5 Jan 2013.

Categories: US citizenship