Skip to Main Content

New Haven County Court Records: Blog

100 Years of Court Records: A Retrospective

by Sarah Morin on 2022-08-09T08:30:00-04:00 in African Americans, Archives, Civil Rights & Human Rights, Connecticut, Courts: Connecticut Courts, Diseases and History, History, Native Americans, Statistics | 0 Comments

Now that we have finished processing the New Haven County, County Court records from 1700 to 1800, we examine what these cases reveal about eighteenth-century Connecticut and discuss a selection of the most memorable cases we discovered.

Changes from 1700-1800

single page of paper with handwriting

Debt lawsuit from 1711: Barnabas Baldwin vs. Cubitt Freeman

single page of paper with printed text and handwriting

Debt lawsuit from 1797: Prince Umstead vs. Daniel Sackett. Umstead (also spelled Umsted and Olmstead) was a Black Revolutionary War veteran from western Massachusetts. He lived briefly in Milford before returning to Massachusetts sometime before 1810.

As demonstrated in the two photographs above, which depict debt lawsuits from the beginning and the end of the eighteenth century, printed writs for debt cases became more common as the 1700s progressed. A few prolific moneylenders, such as John Hotchkiss of New Haven, even issued their own printed promissory notes.

In terms of the language itself, English syntax became more recognizably modern as the records approached the years of the American Revolution. Though spelling wasn’t yet set in stone by Noah Webster and the Victorians, written English gradually evolved into a more consistent and standardized form of communication. In terms of handwriting, the colonial long S started to disappear toward the end of the century, though it was not wholly absent by 1800.

A major change reflected in the court records was England’s adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752. While this calendar was introduced in October 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII to correct inaccuracies in the calculation of the earth’s rotation around the sun, several Protestant countries insisted on sticking with the Julian calendar, due to their distrust of Catholicism. However, colonial legal documents noted both Gregorian and Julian dates, which is why dates were written, as in the earlier writ of execution pictured above, “March 12th 1710/11.” (In addition to an approximate ten-day disparity, the new year in the Gregorian calendar began January 1, whereas the new year in the Julian calendar began March 25.)

Another major change was the governmental body that prosecuted crimes of “sin” such fornication, illegitimacy, adultery, lascivious carriage, swearing, drunkenness, breaking the peace, and profaning the Sabbath. Before the Revolution, these crimes were prosecuted under “Rex,” a formal Latin title for the King of England, due to Connecticut being answerable to the British Crown at the time. (If the reigning English monarch happened to be a queen, such as Anne who ruled from 1702-1714, the title was Regina.) After America became its own nation, such offenses were prosecuted by the “Governor and Company” or the “State of Connecticut.”

The court cases themselves shed important light on societal and cultural changes during the eighteenth century, demonstrating the shift from a Puritanical to Revolutionary to Industrial mindset. Throughout the 1700s, the most common type of case in the County Court was for debt. Whereas in the early 1700s the second most common type of case was prosecution for fornication, by the late 1700s lawsuits for seisin and possession of property had gained the secondary prominence.

Indeed, not only did fornication cases significantly decrease over the course of the century—particularly as men successfully argued that their alleged fatherhood of illegitimate children could not be definitively proven—paternity cases filed by aggrieved women began to appear in the 1740s. As Cornelia Hughes Dayton observed, “In Connecticut, legal authorities largely gave up on insisting that the county court be the actual site for the censure of fornicators. Prosecutions of newly married couples fell off sharply, and reputed fathers were pursued only at the initiative of unwed mothers and their families” (Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789, p. 159).

Intriguingly, women served as estate executors and even attorneys for their husbands in court during the early 1700s, but this became increasingly rare after the middle of the century. Dayton surmised the change was due to a “growing tendency of men and probate judges to appoint as estate administrators sons, lawyers, or male kin, not wives. Women themselves might often have asked not to serve” (Women Before the Bar, p. 62). This reflected how the image of the “ideal woman” had evolved (or perhaps devolved, depending on one’s perspective) from a competent helpmeet to a “virtuous ornament... [of] gentility and leisured motherhood” (Dayton, Women Before the Bar, p. 65).

On a related note, although the last known witchcraft trial in Connecticut occurred in 1697 and the last known executions for witchcraft took place in 1662-1663, a lawsuit filed in 1742 by Elizabeth Gould of Guilford against a man who slandered her as a witch demonstrates that the transition from belief to non-belief in witchcraft was not instantaneous, and persisted among the common people well into the eighteenth century.

We also see that as subsequent generations of New Haven denizens shifted away from the Puritanical bent of the colony’s original founders, defendants began to win cases due to legal technicalities. For example, when Mordecai Marks of Derby was sued in 1768 because his minor son Nehemiah committed fornication in violation of his apprenticeship, he successfully argued that he was not financially liable for damages because he had not been bound “Jointly & Severally” with his son in this contract. The Court likely would have deemed this defense insufficient in the seventeenth or even early eighteenth century, given that men were deemed legally answerable for the women, minors, servants, and enslaved under their purview. As Judge Jon C. Blue wrote in his analysis of selected cases from the New Haven Colony:

“The court’s task was to question the defendant and confront him with the evidence against him until a confession was forthcoming. This judicial practice had both practical and ideological roots... The colony was governed by biblical law. The judges, who consulted with the local clergy, were not wholly secular magistrates. Their task was to execute the law of God, and part of that task was to punish the wicked. Modern notions of judicial neutrality and the presumption of innocence would have been as alien to them as their judicial attitude is to us.” (The Case of the Piglet’s Paternity: Trials from the New Haven Colony, 1639-1663, p. 20)

There were also other indications in the court records that New Haven increasingly embraced prosperity over Puritanism. Lisa Lew, a library aide assisting with the processing of these court records, perceptively noted that there was a marked increase in inventory lists of goods and objects during the latter part of the 1700s. Indeed, there was such a plethora of these accounts that the lists themselves began to be laid out in a standard order, from most to least valuable items, particularly when it came to types of fabric. This undoubtedly reflects New Haven’s increasingly lucrative trade with countries like China.

Similarly, the rise of middle names may have been yet another indication of this realignment of values. In the early 1700s, such appellations were virtually unheard of, but by 1800 they had become fairly common in the court records. This was quite possibly due to parents wishing to emulate the wealthy and/or enable their children to enter a higher social class, as multiple names were historically bestowed only upon the elites.

Reflections on a Century of Cases

an aisle of shelving units filled with docket/record books and archival boxes, movable stairs mid-aisle

Four shelves of processed court records—with many more to go!

In the first post, we wrote that the purpose of this blog was to chronicle the interesting, amusing, tragic, and sometimes infuriating cases we come across in the process of preserving these court records. After processing 100 years of records, here are a selection of cases that we feel fit these criteria.

Most interesting (and sometimes amusing) cases:

Most tragic and/or infuriating cases (it was difficult to separate the two):

  • A boy named Harry, a boy named Dick, a boy named Fortune, a girl named Hanah, a boy named Ishmael, and a man named Prince found themselves at the center of cases between enslavers disputing over whether they were “well and sound.”
  • As mentioned above, widow Elizabeth Gould was slandered as a witch. While she was fortunately not in danger of execution, her complaint was deemed “insufficient” by the Court, and she died merely three years after the trial.
  • Mary Tuttle, Silence Tuttle, and Lydia Clinton were attacked on separate occasions by a man deemed “under discomposure of mind,” and the Court was unable to curb his violence.
  • Young Mary Hoadly was slandered as a whore by her relatives the Barker family, which dashed her hopes for marriage (indeed, she died in her twenty-sixth year).
  • Sim, an enslaved African-descended woman, was forced by the selectmen of Wallingford into service at a house where people were quarantined with smallpox, and she subsequently died of the disease.
  • Divorce for cruelty alone not being an option, Elizabeth Andross petitioned the court for her husband to stop abusing her.
  • Violence against animals—there was an animal cruelty law in early New Haven as demonstrated in a lawsuit from 1727, but this statute inexplicably disappeared from the records of Connecticut’s laws by the end of the eighteenth century.

Here are cases that we wish we had more information about:

  • Was Nelle freed upon reaching the age of majority, or was she enslaved for life?
  • Where did Devenshare Nero, who was fought over by two enslavers in multiple protracted court cases, end up?
  • Did Cubitt Freeman continue to successfully elude his debts?
  • Why did Annah Wooster fail to appear in court after suing for breach of promise when her betrothed married someone else?

And to end on a high note, here are cases with the most satisfying resolutions:

  • Mehittabel Whitehead made a bold, eloquent, and successful written rebuttal to the slander charge against her.
  • Phillis of New Haven recovered full damages against the man who unlawfully imprisoned her and wrongfully deprived her of liberty. Her case also happened to be the first we discovered in the New Haven County Court records involving an African-descended plaintiff.

A Final Postscript

paper file wrapper, pile of papers held down by “SEA” paperweight, court record book lying on table

A few remnants left over from processing the 1700s, to be filed.

In addition to being an interesting form of time travel, processing court records is like panning for gold: a meticulous tedium of wading through the most common types of cases, punctuated by the exciting rush of discovery. We look forward to what treasures there are to uncover in the County Court records of the 1800s—as well as in the Superior Court!

In the meantime, we encourage you to check out the cases we post on Instagram. August will feature a (possible) printed copy of a Papal Bull used as scrap, as well as a wartime wager involving “his Excellency General Washington” and a “good well made Beaver Hatt.”

As noted in a previous post, the records for these cases, as well as several of the cases previously profiled in this blog, are currently in the process of being digitized. They will eventually be available for public viewing at the Connecticut Digital Archive (CTDA).

The Connecticut State Library would like to thank the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) for their generous support of this project.

logo of eagle with text National Archives National Historical Publications ampersand Records Commission

 Add a Comment



Enter your e-mail address to receive notifications of new posts by e-mail.


  Follow Us

  Return to Blog
This post is closed for further discussion.

Connecticut State Library | 231 Capitol Avenue, Hartford, CT 06106 | 860-757-6500 * Toll-free 866-886-4478
Disclaimers & Permissions | Privacy Policy | State of Connecticut Home Page

The State of Connecticut is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer and strongly encourages the applications of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities.