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New Haven County Court Records: Blog

Journey to the Past: Uncovering New Haven

by Sarah Morin on 2021-03-31T16:08:00-04:00 in African Americans, Archives, Civil Rights & Human Rights, Connecticut, Courts: Connecticut Courts, Diseases and History, History, Native Americans, Women's History | 0 Comments

Looking at court records from previous eras is an interesting form of time travel. Judicial proceedings of the past reflect the laws, ethics, morals, and customs of the societies that created these records. This makes them an invaluable resource for historians, researchers, authors, and others seeking knowledge of who we are and where we came from.

As such, we are delighted to announce that after centuries of obscurity, the Connecticut State Library will now be able to improve public access to the New Haven County Court records from 1666 to 1855. The National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) has awarded a grant for us to complete this essential project, Uncovering Hidden Resources in New Haven Court Records.

three piles of bound and folded court records; one closed document box

New Haven County Court records in their original, less than ideal state.

Why this project is important

This project builds on a previous two-year NHPRC grant-funded pilot project that focused on processing records of the Litchfield County and New London County courts. Seven finding aids were completed for these materials, including the following aspects of the collections:

Litchfield County Court minorities collection

New London County Court African Americans and people of color collection

New London County Court Native Americans collection

Now, it’s New Haven County’s turn.

People from every level of New Haven society interacted with the court system, from members of prominent founding families to enslaved individuals. For those on the lowest rungs of the social hierarchy, a court case may be the only record of their existence. These court papers can therefore provide a key resource for genealogists and historians having difficulty in finding information about those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Researchers studying the African American and Indigenous communities in Connecticut will also find items of interest. Based upon the rate of cases found in New London County during a prior grant, it is anticipated that we will discover 1,500-2,000 lawsuits in the records of New Haven County that document the lives of African American and Indigenous peoples.

Sadly, these records are in poor condition. It was a common practice to fold documents into approximately 6x2.75-inch rectangles, tie them in bundles, and store them in metal drawers the same width and height of the bundles. Later they were transferred to storage boxes, where they were often stuffed in tightly. They have remained in this abysmal state for nearly three hundred years. It is imperative to preserve these records in order to prevent the loss of these priceless historical treasures.

three open metal file drawers containing bound and folded records

Former storage site of the New Haven County Court records.

What we will be doing

First, we will unfold the court records, flatten them, and place them into acid-free folders and boxes.

Next, we will identify and digitize records on selected subjects related to legal history, family history and genealogy, local history, and the history of Connecticut. In particular, we will identify and digitize records relating to African American and Indigenous history, as well as create a specialized finding aid and a database for cases involving these two groups. We will also consider digitizing selected cases pertaining to women, indigent individuals, and other regional and national research interests.

As we process these records, the Connecticut State Library will partner with scholars, researchers, teachers, and community members to form an Advisory Committee. The committee has two main goals: to develop selection criteria for additional cases to be digitized, and to cultivate strategies for including court records in the educational curriculum at the middle school, high school, and college levels. This group will also be instrumental in the creation of guidelines for how we describe members of groups and the cases themselves, given that these records contain archaic and often offensive terminology.

open document box containing processed files; open folder containing flattened records

New Haven County Court records preserved properly for future generations.

Coming soon...

The purpose of this blog is to chronicle the interesting, amusing, tragic, and sometimes infuriating cases we come across in the process of preserving these court records. New Haven County was a different world, philosophically and spiritually, particularly in the early 1700s. While they were now firmly part of the Connecticut colony, witch hunts had ended, persecution of the Quakers had diminished, and wars with the Indigenous peoples of the region had been settled in favor of the English, the Puritan ethos still held sway and the concept of an independent American nation was still yet to be realized. So in addition to the usual civil and criminal issues of debt, theft, assault, slander, and property disputes, the New Haven County Court records also contain cases for matters that are no longer prosecuted in the modern era, such as fornication, lascivious carriage, profanation of the Sabbath, and even just profane speech.

In tandem with this blog, we have developed a subject guide to provide more information about the era in which these records were created. This guide includes information about slavery and servitude in Connecticut, African American and Indigenous history, colonial culture, pre-American monetary and calendar systems, and other subjects as relevant to the collection.

In keeping with our goal to discover and make visible the marginalized groups who interacted with the New Haven County court system, the next upcoming posts will be about the first records we discovered of cases involving African American and Indigenous people, and the historical context in which they were created.

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

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