from Genealogy Gems: News from the Fort Wayne Library
No. 75, May 31, 2010
by Steven W. Myers
Copyright © 2010 by Allen County Public Library. Used by permission.
Genealogists, who may have come to the field with a popular view of the late twentieth century as the birthplace of most modern social ills, will be disabused of that notion by a simple stroll through colonial court records. Adultery, arson, beating, bestiality, counterfeiting, defamation, devil worship, divorce, executions, forgery, fornication, incest, murder, piracy, prison breaks, profanity, rape, riot, robbery, treason, vandalism, and witchcraft are all represented in surviving records of the 17th and 18th century courts. In short, people have been people for a very long time.
The recent publication of the “Colony of Connecticut, Minutes of the Court of Assistants, 1669-1711,” (974.6 UL44c) transcribed and indexed by Helen Schatvet Ullmann, CG, FASG, makes one group of these early court records easily accessible. The detailed index includes names, places and many subjects save “common ones such as debt, land titles, or disputes over boundaries, hay, and timber.” Name entries indicate when a person’s estate is being referenced or if someone appears as a juror. Inclusive headings for Indian, Negro, Animals, Occupations and Weapons provide references for those individuals and subjects.
The Court of Assistants heard appeals from lower courts and had jurisdiction over divorce and murder. In 1673, the court convicted Daniel Bly of “notorious prophane cursing” and “scandalously defaming Mr. Handford & violently assaulting one of his Majesties officers.” Fined, but unable to pay, Bly was sentenced to servitude in the Barbadoes and to “be whipt once a week” if he returned. In 1706, the court dealt with a case concerning the charge that “Joseph Mallerie of the towne of Newhaven In the Countie of Newhaven Labourer…did willfully wickedly and Violently Assault Sarah the wife of Thomas Beech…with felonious Intent to Committ a Rape…” The religious sensibilities of the time are in evidence with the accused often described as “not having the fear of God” and acting “through the instigation of the Devill.” In one case, the minutes cite “their wickedness to the Great dishonor of the name of God and provocation of his Just wrath by such a crying sin…”
Similar early court records of ancestral disputes and criminal mischief would be worth investigation for anyone with colonial forebears. Relationships, occupations and other details unavailable in other records are the potential reward. Of course, many of these colonial court records have never been published or microfilmed, let alone digitized, so visits to state archives and a familiarity with the handwriting and flexible spelling of the day may be necessary.
Note: This electronic newsletter is published by the Allen County Public Library's Genealogy Center. We welcome the wide distribution of this newsletter and encourage readers to forward it to their friends and societies.
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Steve Myers & Curt Witcher, co-editors