Library DrawingThe CONNector

JULY 2002Volume 4 Number 3

Clipart of scales.NHPRC Funds Early Court Records Preservation

Debra Pond, Project Archivist

Jack Botsford ordered a "jackit and briches" from Aaron Gregory in October 1783. Although the pants needed mending the next month, Botsford was pleased enough with Gregory's work to order a "loos Coatt" to add to his wardrobe.

Botsford and Gregory surely could not have imagined that over 200 years later archivists would be reading the details of their transactions. But, thanks to two lawsuits Gregory filed against him in the County Court of Litchfield County, we know that Botsford was a literate free black living in New Milford. He was married, and had a taste for store-made clothing and brandy.

We have learned Botsford's story thanks to a $68,000 grant to CSL from the National Historical Records and Publications Commission (NHPRC). In May 2001 NHPRC, the grant-giving arm of the National Archives, funded a demonstration project to preserve and make accessible early records from the county and superior courts of New London and Litchfield counties. Recently NHPRC gave CSL a vote of confidence by awarding an additional $75,000, extending the project to the end of 2003.

An important element of the Court Records project will be the creation of searchable computer databases of all records dealing with African Americans and Native Americans. In addition, these fragile and irreplaceable documents will be photocopies, and the copies will be available for use by researchers. The originals will be withdrawn from use to ensure that they will be available far into the future, as is the practice with other important parts of the archives' collection.

Early court records are a valuable source of information about the lives of women, children, minorities, and the poor, who are otherwise under-documented. Although unable to vote or hold public office, they could sue and be sued, give testimony or deposition, or file petitions seeking to have grievances redressed. In court dockets, researchers can find important details of child labor and indenture; the costs and customs of childbirth; and how law and medicine were practiced. Court records also provide evidence of the personalities and contemporary reputations of "founders" such as Oliver Wolcott, Ethan Allen and Robert Livingston.

So why have court records remained unused? While there are books that record basic information about cases arranged by court session, there are no subject indexes. And these sometimes crumbling documents are currently folded into narrow rectangles, wrapped in bundles, and tied with pink string. This packaging can result in additional damage each time the dockets are used.

At the end of the project, all the records will be unfolded and carefully arranged in buffered, acid-neutral files. Professional conservators will mend badly damaged items. Finding aids describing the collection will assist researchers in navigating the sometimes frustrating maze of the early Connecticut court system and its surviving records.

Early court records can provide scholars with evidence crucial to expanding our understanding of the development of American society in the early National years. And, equally important, they may hold the key to African-American and Native-American family histories. By its support, NHPRC has recognized the merit of their preservation so that future generations may continue to learn from stories like that of Jack Botsford.

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