Courts played a major role in colonial life. Many colonies didn’t have a separation of church and state at the time. So, courts tried cases involving many issues that simply aren’t found in today’s legal system. Some of those issues included:
- Proper Sabbath Observance
- Church Attendance
Therefore, the court records from colonial times can not only be quite interesting, but they can also yield a lot of information about who our ancestors were as people and how they lived.
Originally in the American colonies there were colonial governors, who were put into power by the king. There were only a couple of courts and their function was more to assist and advise the governors. The judges of the time had very little power and that power was subject to the whims of the governor.
As the population grew in the colonies, town and county courts were eventually created. This was similar to the court structure in England at the time. Local justices were given the power to resolve small criminal matters and civil issues. At the time, some cases could be appealed to the governor, or even to the courts of England, but that only occurred in rare instances.
As the colonies continued to grow, there were more disputes. Therefore, more courts had to be established. Then, as commerce increased, cases began to be divided into jurisdictions according to type and location. Higher courts of appeal were also established.
There are many different archives of colonial court records these days, including the Pennsylvania Archives. The archived collections are generally referred to as documentary collections. They contain not just court records of the time, but also other sources of information from the time. There are also some published county court records from colonial times.
Colonial county court records are excellent for genealogical research. They give information on a much larger group of people than later court records cover. Although there are church records and vital records in existence in most cases, that isn’t always true. When those are missing, a court record may be the only way to find information about a certain ancestor. You see, the ages of the individuals involved are often listed in the court’s records, which can allow genealogical researches to determine when an ancestor was actually born.