Law Causes – Beyond Chancery Suits

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Court records are some of the most revealing records in terms of our ancestors’ actions and the community environment in which they lived. It is important to understand that there are several types of court records and that it may be necessary to examine all of them. Further, it is important to know that the names of specific courts differ among states and time periods and that records may not be extant for all time periods.

Regardless of the locality, but depending on the time period and type of court, you will be able to locate the following types of records:

  • the actual workings of the court itself (dockets, minutes, orders, etc.);
  • land transactions (deeds, grants, mortgages, surveys, plats, etc.);
  • probates (wills, estates, administrations, executors, inventories, sales, etc.);
  • vital records (births, marriages, deaths);
  • taxation (payment lists, delinquency lists, etc.);
  • “law causes” (trials, suits, criminal and civil actions, judgments, etc.) and chancery cases (divorces, land divisions, etc.)

It is this last category, law causes and chancery cases, that often contains the most interesting information. Chancery cases are those in which the “equity” or fairness of a suit is decided; law causes are those governed by a clear determination of right or wrong as defined by the law. The term “law causes” (or “common law causes”) is what is used in my local courthouse (Nelson County, Virginia) to refer to all court cases other than chancery. Your courthouse may use a different term.

Many genealogists, as they gain research experience, come to understand the wonderful information that can be contained in chancery cases and I have written previously about this type of research in an article entitled, “What are Chancery Records and Why Should I Use Them?” I believe, however, that many researchers do not examine law causes. I recently spent an enjoyable few hours in the Nelson County Courthouse browsing these records in order to better understand the information that might be found in them.

I quickly learned that browsing is easier than searching for a specific case. While I was able to find indexing for the court orders (beginning in 1808) pertaining to law causes, sometimes in an individual volume, sometimes in a specific index volume for a span of years, the indices appeared to be organized by lawsuit, specifically by the name of the plaintiff. At least during this research trip, I was unable to locate indexing by the name of the defendant in a case. This indexing, however, was to the order books which contain, mostly, notations concerning the conduct of a case by its attorney, his appearances in court, continuances of the case, etc. However, browsing at random through an order book, I found a notice dated 1 May 1867, indicating that Zackariah G. Woods, who had been indicted of murder, was “again set to the bar in custody of the Jailor of this court” and that the jury (listed by name), selected the previous day, had been sworn in. After having heard part of the evidence, the jury “by the consent of the prisoner” was “committed to the custody of the Sheriff” to be held together “without communication with any other person” until the following day’s court session. Another interesting entry listed indictments brought by a grand jury and included charges against:

  • Robert Bowling “…for entering in the night time, a corn house, not adjoining a dwelling house, with interest to commit larceny therein…”
  • Benjamin A. Harris and Elvira Wright “…for lewdly and lasciviously associating and cohabiting together not being married to each other…” (There must have been quite a lot of lewd and lascivious behavior going on as there were five other instances of couples indicted for the same actions!)

After reviewing several order books, I then examined documents from actual cases; the files available in the record room began in 1867. Despite their storage in metal file drawers, the record jackets, tied by long-faded “red tape,” were dusty and grimy. Inside the jackets, however, the documents and slips of paper looked as if they had not been unfolded since their original placement in the file.

I examined, first, cases dated 1867 to 1869. Some of the files were administrative in nature, but still provided information on specific individuals. For example, the Sheriff of Nelson County had submitted a bill for mileage to and from Amherst County for witnesses in the case of John Scott and Thomas Taylor, both accused and convicted of horse stealing. His charge for the forty-mile journey was $4.00. He also charged eighty cents for serving subpoenas against George Quarrels, Henry Quarrels, Jacob Parrish (noted as “colored”), and Linsey Coleman Jr. An 1869 bill, submitted by James N. Wills, Surveyor of the road “leading from the Redhill to Seays Mill,” covered a two-year time period for such items as superintending the men opening a new road “from Loving’s Gap to Walton’s Cove” and for his six days of work in putting “my own road in order.” A June 1870 report to the Judge of the Circuit Court provided a detailed description of the jail: “The jail building is 48 feet by 24 feet…clean, contains two secure cells on the first floor and two rooms above, that were formerly debtors rooms, which are now considered insecure and out of repair – from one of these rooms a Prisoner made his escape within the last six months…”

One of my favorite finds, however, was the case of Martin vs. Smith in July 1869 – the charge – trespass. According to the plaintive, Jerry W. Martin, the defendant, C. T. Smith, “with force rams did break and enter the close [an enclosed portion of land] of the said Plaintiff…in a forcible manner take and hold possession of the close…and by trampling upon consumed and spoiled the grass of the said Plaintiff of great value, to wit, of the value of $500.00 there then growing and being, and with cattle, to wit, horses mares and etc. did eat up and depasture the grass…and also then did take and carry away two bay colts and other property and stock belonging to the Plaintiff.” The case continued with Smith, the defendant, claiming that while the two bay colts did indeed belong to the plaintiff, he had “casually lost the said bay colts out of his possession” and that he had “come to the possession [of them] by finding.” Martin, the plaintiff, then stated that Smith “well knew” who owned the horses, but that he sought to deceive and defraud Martin “fraudulently, craftily and subtly” and that though Martin had requested their return, Smith had refused to do so. The horses were valued at $300.00.

A large percentage of the cases during the 1870s had to do with unpaid debts, perhaps an indication of the economic conditions in the south following the Civil War, particularly in a rural county such as Nelson. In 1870, Isaac Hite, of Nelson County, declared bankruptcy. His bankruptcy case is extensive, but interesting. Even if Isaac Hite were not your ancestor, reading his case file provides a detailed view of his life and of the county at the time. A list of “Creditors whose Claims are Unsecured” includes the creditor’s names, residences and occupations, the amount owed, when and where contracted, and the nature of the debt. Debts were owed for as much as $4000 (to a lawyer in Winchester, Virginia) as well as smaller amounts for accounts with such companies as the A. Campbell Co. in Lynchburg; Hargrove & McMahone in Arrington Depot and the Richmond Whig, a Richmond newspaper, and the Lynchburg Republican, for printing;  and a variety of bonds for horses, loans, cash, etc. One debt was to a Winchester, Virginia, merchant with whom Hite had an account for buggy repairs. In the description of at least one account, contracted with Joseph Ligon of Massies Mill in Nelson County after 1 April 1865, the description says “tobacco Confederate money.” A detailed list of Hite’s personal property included such items as a looking glass, a pair of stockings, ten lamps, five black hats, two dozen tea spoons, a razor, scissors and needles, a pair of large boots, nine pitchers, dishes, bowls, smoking tobacco, one box mustard, horse collars, buckets, baskets, chewing tobacco, three white wash brushes, one gun, one pistol, a saddle, garden seeds, and the “customary wearing apparel of a plain man.” When read in its entirety, this suit provides both a snapshot of Isaac Hite’s life and information about companies and individuals in the Nelson County community and in those of central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley during this time period.

These court records yield stories to the careful reader. I believe that discovering these stories and using them to illustrate an individual’s life, or to understand the environment within which he lived, represents the best part of genealogical research. The records are not always easy to find, but once located, the results are significant.

Look beyond wills and deeds, and even beyond chancery suits. Investigate all of the court records to embellish the account of your ancestor and to understand the community within which he or she lived. And – be sure to have some waterless hand cleaner on hand!

For further information about courthouse research:

Elizabeth Petty Bentley, County Courthouse Book, 3rd ed. (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009).

Val D. Greenwood, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 3rd ed. (Genealogical Publishing Co., 2005)

Christine Rose, Courthouse Research for Family Historians: Your Guide to Genealogical Treasures (CR Publications, 2004).

Christine Rose, Courthouse Indexes Illustrated (CR Publications, 2006).

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