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.

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