Just How Civil Were Your Immigrants: Court, Land, and Other Civil Records
Genealogy 105: Pre-1820 Immigration, Lesson 4
There were three major influences at work in the lives of our Colonial ancestors:
In each community (village, town, county, etc.), the residents established a system of recording transactions and of governing themselves. The records generated by the various levels of government are called civil records and include such things as court and land records.
Perhaps the most overlooked records in genealogy are the court and other civil records left behind by our ancestors. This is equally true of the Colonial Era, yet they are often some of the few records available for the earliest years in North America. Every Colonial researcher, regardless of whether they are pursuing an immigrant or not, should make better use of these sources. However, they are especially useful for immigrants, for they help document the first few years of their existence in their new country.
Throughout the Colonial Era, a sizable percentage of the adults in the British Colonies were immigrants. In fact, during the first half of the seventeenth Century (1607 to about 1650), virtually all the adults in the colonies were immigrants. Therefore, any record that documents these persons documents an immigrant.
Of course, not all records which mention immigrants identify the persons as immigrants, and only rarely do they actually mention the name of the immigrant's foreign home. However, as we have seen throughout these lessons, any information about an immigrant is an important piece of the puzzle that will help identify the ancestral home.
Not all the persons mentioned in these records were immigrants. Since civil records may include any persons who lived in a community, the later the records were made in the Colonial Era, the higher percentage of non-immigrants will appear in the records. This simply reflects the fact that, after a 100 years or more, most of the population was not immigrants, but rather the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of earlier immigrants.
Civil Affairs and Records in Colonial Life
Outside of the family, life in Colonial American revolved around the church and the community. At some times, and in some places, the church was the community. However, even early in North America, local government became secular, with its own officers, duties, responsibilities, and records (although it may have supported one specific denomination). Most families participated, to some degree, in certain civil aspects of the community. Young men served in the militia. Older men:
- Bought and sold land
- Paid taxes
- Served on juries
- Were called as witnesses in court actions
- Took their neighbors to court
- Were taken to court by their neighbors.
All of these events, and many others, were recorded by the civil authorities. At first the colony was the community. As each colony grew in population, it established counties, with local officers and judges. Immigrant ancestors were as likely as any other resident to appear in these records.
One of the fortunate aspects of researching this admittedly difficult era is that many of these civil records are in print. This makes searching easier, and should alert diligent researchers to the value of these records. Conscientious researchers should also pursue unpublished, unindexed, often even unmicrofilmed, colonial and town civil records. Learn as much as possible about the cases being researched. Then contact the state archives or other repositories to learn if there are other early papers preserved from that court. Never assume that because some records have been microfilmed, or printed in a book, that all applicable records are available in the same format.
Of course, not all court actions are of equal value in tracking immigrant origins. While any record will prove the residence and adulthood of an immigrant, some records are typically more likely than others to provide immigration information.
The following are types of court actions:
- Lists of jurors
- Lists of taxables
- Lists of residents
- Criminal court proceedings
- Civil actions between two individuals, such as slander, property rights, etc.
Records which provide some biographical information are the best sources for immigration information. Hence lists of jurors, taxables, residents, etc. are of lesser interest for this purpose.
Situations where the immigrant is the subject of the court action are more valuable, such as admittance to freeman status (see below), which was granted by courts before towns began granting this privilege. Status as the plaintiff or defendant in a civil court case may provide excellent background information, including reference to when he arrived in the colony. Civil cases were very common in Colonial courts, as neighbors and others would turn to the local court to adjudicate differences between persons.
As a defendant in a criminal case, there may also be tidbits of biographical information about an immigrant. Also, don't be too shocked to find an ancestor on the wrong side of the law in these times. His "offense" may well have been minor (misconduct, property destruction) or a violation of strict moral codes (improper Sabbath observance); such are common in court minutes.
Never consider your immigrant ancestor to have been of too little importance to end up in court. The population was small in most places and the court was the only place to resolve problems. Over time, if an adult male remained in the same locality, the chances are very great that he would be mentioned in one or more court cases eventually.
It was not uncommon for ages of individuals to be included as part of the colonial court record proceeding. In many cases this is the only record in existence where an estimated birth year can be deduced. The following, from Ruth and Sam Sparcio's, Virginia County Court Records- Order Book Abstracts of Lancaster County, Virginia, 1666-1669, (Mc Lean, Va.: The Ancient Press, 1993), illustrates the value of such records, especially for immigration research:
THOMAS CAPRELL. Servt. to Mr. R A TRAVERS, coming into this Countrey without Indenture & appeareing at this Cort., is adjudged thirteene yeres of age & is ordered to serve eleaven yeres from his arrival.
As a witness to any action contested in court, your ancestor may have filed a deposition (or statement of facts relative to the case) with important biographical information. Where they survive, these may be the most important documents in terms of determining origins of colonial immigrants. Depositions often provide some background about the deponent, including their age and at least the country of origin. They should also specify their relationship to the plaintiff or defendant (or both). It is not uncommon in the earliest years for these depositions to mention when a person arrived in the colonies, or that he "knew the defendant when they lived in London."
In this example, this deposition is also mentioning information about the defendant. Hence, don't just look for depositions or statements by your ancestor. Also watch for situations where an ancestor is a party to the legal action.
Depositions are seldom indexed, unless the court records have been printed with an every-name index. Indeed, many depositions no longer exist. It is frustrating to find brief minutes from a court case which mention that your ancestor deposed certain facts, but does not include that statement. However, do not stop when encountering such problems.
Indentures, a contract to serve someone in exchange for payments made on one's behalf, are very often excellent sources of immigration information. Many colonial indentures were made between new immigrants and the person who paid for their passage. Potential immigrants would bargain with the ship's master or captain to provide them passage in exchange for selling them into a fixed term of servitude in the new world.
Records of such a sale, usually called an indenture, often give the age of the immigrant, but seldom the town of origin. Of course the date of such an indenture is a close approximation of the immigrant's arrival date. Sometimes these immigrants are called "redemptioners" since they redeemed the cost of their passage after arrival in America.
One example of a published collection of such sources is Record of Indentures of Individuals Bound Out as Apprentices, Servants, Etc. and of German and Other Redemptioners in the Office of the Mayor of the City of Philadelphia, October 3, 1771 to October 5, 1773 (Pennsylvania-German Society Proceedings and Addresses, vol. 16 (1905), Lancaster, Pa.: 1907, reprint. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1973). Notice that this source includes non-Germans, an important group often overlooked when dealing with Colonial Pennsylvania immigration.
For more information about this kind of immigration, and the records it created, see Frank R. Diffenderffer, The German Immigration Into Pennsylvania Through the Port of Philadelphia from 1700 to 1775, and the Redemptioners. (1900, Reprint. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1988). This text is mostly background history, only five pages have lists of immigrants.
The heart of Colonial society was the local town and it is at that level, especially in New England and many New York towns, that you will find a wide variety of records naming your ancestors. Towns had regular meetings, often just once a year, where various inhabitants (often freemen) were elected to a number of different positions. Many of the same local (town or county) government services are used today (such as road repair, property registration, etc.), were accomplished by local townsmen, often in lieu of taxes. Over the course of several years, most adult males who remained in one town had the opportunity to serve in some capacity. Hence, town records will usually name most men, over time. Often town records will include a record of births, marriages, and deaths occurring in that town, as well.
While town records seldom mention a resident's overseas origin, or even the fact that he was an immigrant, just finding his name among the records will provide additional research information, including his residence and status. There is a long list of potential town officers. Each of those officers, along with the variety of records created by towns is well-explained in Ann Smith Lainhart's Digging for Genealogical Treasure in New England Town Records (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1996). While society and culture were different in the other colonies, the concept of local residents participating in local affairs still held true.
Of the various town records, those of most importance to immigrant origins researchers are the lists of freemen accepted by each town. Freemen were inhabitants of towns who were qualified to vote and participate fully in town affairs. This included the use of a town's common areas, such as fishing ponds, and distribution of new lands acquired or subdivided by the town.
The requirements varied over time, and from place to place but generally required a man to:
- Be of legal age (usually 21)
- Own land
- Often, be a member of the established church
- Be a resident
Of course, not all freemen were immigrants. However, in the early years of the colonies, and in the earliest towns settled, the first few lists of freemen are heavily populated with immigrants. In most cases, these lists do not identify which freemen were actually immigrants, but on occasion they may mention a man or two "recently arrived from England." Even where a rare list makes this notation, do not presume that others on that list were not immigrants. Often the immigrant lived in the colony for many years before being granted freeman status.
Then, if a town of origin is not given, or even any allusion to immigrant status, what good are freemen lists?
- Finding an ancestor on such lists does locate where he was living at a certain point in time.
- They testify that an ancestor was an adult and accepted member of his community. This should then encourage you to search other records, such as church, land, or court records which might give more information.
- If the list dates from a period of major immigration to that locality (such as the "Great Migration" period in New England) and from a recently settled town (whose history indicates settlement by immigrants), then it most likely suggests he was an immigrant, yielding a rough date of immigration (usually within three years of the list).
- The list names others in the town who were neighbors, friends, and relatives of the ancestor. They may have immigrated together, or at least from the same locale. Thus, the other freemen may be clues to an ancestor's origin.
Land Grants and Transfers
Land records are generally not a preferred source for learning the origins of immigrants. They are invaluable in other aspects of genealogical research, but seldom mention an immigrant's home. They also seldom identify that a person was indeed an immigrant, nor do they usually provide an age. They are generally best at establishing residency, and relationships. However, in the colonial time period, land records can sometimes be used to establish immigration.
One of the major factors influencing immigrants to come to America was the availability of land. Many came for the land and therefore became the first settlers in many areas. Most lists of early settlers seem to be based on land grants of one kind or another. In some southern states these settler lists come from headrights, which is documentation of having transported a certain number persons to settle on, and improve, various tracts of land.
Land records are the basis for Gust Skordas' The Early Settlers of Maryland: An Index to the Names of Immigrants Compiled from Records of Land Patents, 1633-1680, in the Hall of Records, Annapolis, Maryland (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1968, repr 1986). This alphabetical index of more than 25,000 settlers identifies virtually all of the immigrants who remained in Maryland (as opposed to those who landed there and then moved on to other colonies). The list provides the immigrant's full name, approximate date of immigration, their residence, the basis for the claim for land, and a reference to the source of the information. This series has been continued by Peter Coldham in his five volume series, Settlers of Maryland, covering the years from 1679 through 1783 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1996). Coldham used the same Land Office books at the Maryland Hall of Records as did Skordas to identify about 24,000 more settlers to the Revolutionary time period. Each entry provides the name of the settler, county, name of tract granted or purchased, number of acres, date, and a reference to the original source.
Colonial immigration to Virginia is of great interest to the millions of descendants of the early settlers, but can really only be documented in the early land records. As George Greer indicated:
"The records of the Land Office in Richmond remain the only source from which these names [of immigrants] can now be obtained. As the records stand, it is simply impossible, without the most extensive and expensive research, to obtain names of persons who came to Virginia, unless they themselves were patentees of land; and the great majority of immigrants to the colony do not appear as patentees."
However, Greer recognized, as have many others, that the names of thousands of immigrants lay buried in those patents because of the system of headrights. In order to qualify for their own land, the patentees would list the persons they had transported to the colony. Greer was the first to extract the names of immigrants from those lists and issued them as Early Virginia Immigrants, 1623-1666 (Reprint 1912. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1982). This list of some 25,000 immigrants does not serve as an index to the patents, nor even a good locator of where the immigrant settled. The list does contain the name of the immigrant, year of the land patent, name of the patentee or person who transported the immigrant, and the county where the patent was located.
Using civil, court, town, and land records for colonial immigrants is not easy. Many have been lost or destroyed. Many others are only found in repositories many hundreds (or thousands) of miles from where we live. Most are poorly, if at all, indexed. Their content varies considerably, and they often don't explicitly identify the immigrant. However, hidden beneath the dusty, crumbling leaves of old volumes you may find a diamond. Even if you don't find the actual name of an immigrant's home, you will likely learn other important facts, including his approximate date of arrival, names of fellow travelers, and additional family members. All of this is significant information you will eventually use to properly find and identify him in the records of his ancestral home.
- Choose a Colonial ancestor you want to know more about.
- Identify a county or town in which that ancestor lived.
- Using the Family History Library Catalog, determine what civil government records exist for the county or town identified in question 2.
- Consider which of these sources may help you identify your Colonial ancestor more fully.
About Genealogy Research Associates
Karen Clifford is the Founder and President of Genealogy Research Associates. She is an Accredited Genealogist, an instructor in an Associates Degree program in Library Science-Genealogy and Computers at Hartnell College (Salinas, California) and Monterey Peninsula College (Monterey, California). She has authored several family histories and textbooks including Genealogy & Computers for the Complete Beginner; Genealogy & Computers for the Determined Researcher; Genealogy & Computers for the Advanced Researcher, and Becoming an Accredited Genealogist.
Karen currently serves as Vice-president of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) and Vice-president of the Utah Genealogical Association (UGA). She is a member of the California State Genealogy Alliance, the Association of Professional Genealogists, the National Genealogical Society, and the New England Historic Genealogical Society. In 1998 and 1999, Karen served as Director of UGA's Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy.
She has received several awards for her volunteer work in the genealogy community including the FGS Award of Merit and the FGS Outstanding Delegate Award.