New England Research: A Matter of Jurisdiction
(by Linda E. Brinkerhoff, visiting author)
Before you begin searching the records for your New England Ancestors, spend some time learning the jurisdictional breakdown of the state where your ancestors say they originated. Each state is a bit different. We have prepared two research aids that will help you in this study:
1) Chart: New England Genealogy Records [send your name and address for a free copy of this chart]. This chart identifies the jurisdiction for core genealogical records, state by state, and key indexes available for those core records. For additional details, consult Val Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, American Society of Genealogists, 3 editions.
2) Description of court records for Old Hampshire County MA in the western part of the state. Hampshire, created in 1662 from Middlesex County, had two county courthouses because it was so large: Northampton in the north and Springfield in the south. In 1812, Hampden County MA was created from the southern tier of Hampshire County with Springfield as its county seat. Hampshire County in the north retained Northampton as the county seat. It is common in New England to have two courthouses in large counties.
Hampshire County court records hold a hidden booby trap for the unwary searcher. Thanks to Grace Pittman, an experienced New England genealogist, here is her re-do of the Family History Library microfilm numbers for records of the Court of Common Pleas and General Sessions of the Peace, 1715-1798. The “first 24 volumes:”
Volume 1, 1677-1728, #866420, item 1
Volume 2/A, 1728-1735, #886420, item 2
Volume 3/B, 1735-1740; Volume 4/C, 1741-1745, #886421
Volume 5/D, 1746-1757; Volume 6/E, 1758-1762, #886422
Volume 7/F, 1762-1764, #886423, item 4
Volume 8/G, 1764-1766; Volume 9/H, 1766-1770, #886424
Volume 10 1766-1771
Volume 11/I, 1770-1773, #886425, item 2
Volume 12/K, 1773-1780; Volume 13/M, 1771-1781, #886426
Volume 14 May 1781-Jan 1790
Volume 15 1782-1783, #866427, item 2
Volume 16/O, 1783-1784; Volume 17/P, 1784-1785, #886428
Volume 18/Q, Aug 1785-Sep 1788; Volume 19/R, 1790-1799, #886429
Volume 20/A, 1715-1790, Executions and Sessions; Feb 1789-Jan 1790, Common Pleas, #886430, item 1
Volume 21/S, 1791-1794, #886430, item 2
Volume 22/T, 1794-1795; Volume 23/U-V, 1796-1797, #886410
Volume 24/W, 1797-1798, #886411, item 1
Grace based her inventory on the actual titles and title pages of the original court volumes themselves. She gave a copy of this inventory to the Family History Library and the catalogers tried to incorporate the changes into their entry. Since her version differs from the microfilmer’s inventory, the catalog entries are still incorrect. So my advice: use this list to retrieve the microfilms. And watch for the missing items on rolls of film that will include Volume 10 and Volume 14.
These volumes are “completely” indexed, according to the county court officials. The Family History Library also microfilmed the indexes. The index entries will match the actual titles and title pages of the original volumes. The indexes are alphabetical, most of them compiled on cards. Use the FHL Catalog to retrieve the call numbers for these indexes by court and dates of interest. Here are the index titles from the FHLC:
Massachusetts, Hampshire – Court records – Indexes
__Court records index cards, 1677 – ca. 1830 [Hampshire, Massachusetts] / Massachusetts. Inferior Court of Common Pleas (Hampshire County)
__Index to attorneys admitted to the bar, 1743-1925, Hampshire County, 1743-1925 / Massachusetts. Superior Court (Hampshire County)
__Index to common pleas, v. 1-33, May term 1798 – Oct. term 1853 / Massachusetts. Court of Common Pleas (Hampshire County)
__Index to general sessions and common pleas, volumes 1-24, inclusive, 1677 to Jan. 18, 1798 / Massachusetts. Court of Sessions (Hampshire County)
__Index to marriages, 1758-1789, in the Court of Sessions, Hampshire County [Massachusetts] / Massachusetts. Court of Sessions (Hampshire County)
__Index to superior court records, 1853-1986, Hampshire County [Massachusetts] / Massachusetts. Superior Court (Hampshire County)
(© 2002 Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.)
Remember: part of Hampshire County became Hampden County in 1812. When the new county was formed, clerks copied the records that applied to the area encompassed within the new county’s boundaries. (This, too, is a common practice in New England and New York where so many New Englanders settled.) These records have also been filmed:
Court records, 1664-1812, #905340
Court records, 1638-1776, #905342
This is the note in the FHLC: “The Court of General Sessions of the Peace handled mainly criminal cases, however, the records of other courts as well thus some civil cases will also be found as well as financial records.” Until the population warranted a split in the criminal and civil cases, all court actions were included in the same court, as noted in the actual title–Court of Common Pleas and General Session of the Peace–and the same set of records. These records will also include equity cases involving property and its divisions among heirs.
There is a Massachusetts Court Records Index on 44 rolls of microfilm, #543878-922, 543892-4. For a description of this court index (which will include both Hampshire and Hampden court actions), see Utah Genealogical Association Journal, first quarter, 1980: 3.
Consult, also, Arlene Eakle’s “American Court Records,” Chapter 6, The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, Ancestry, 3 editions. The most complete study is in the first edition, 1984. This chapter will tell you how to search the court records, how to interpret them, and how to find ancestors in the evidence. Actual court cases and documents are reproduced.
PS We are getting ready for the 25th Annual Salt Lake Christmas Tour, 6 -12 December 2009 conducted by Leland and Patti Meitzler. What a grand time we have. Some people have been coming for 25 years–including moi. Want to join us this year? You can still sign up:
PPS The Family History Library is quiet and uncrowded and festive with local high schools performing Christmas music in the Library 2 times each day.