Catherine Desmarais, Certified Genealogist

Stone House Historical Research

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Early Rutland Court Records Coming to Vermont State Archives!

Posted: February 8th, 2014

Breaking news! (Remember, you heard it here first, gang.)

Some very early Vermont court records previously inaccessible to researchers are coming to the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration (VSARA) in Middlesex. These records have been in storage in Rutland, and cover the time period from the establishment of Vermont’s court system in 1778 through 1945.

The condition of these records varies from quite good to poor. Scott Reilly, VSARA Archivist, told me, “Generally, the docket books and records books are in very good condition.  The case files are a different story.  The case files from 1778 to c. 1830 were organized at one point, so have been foldered according to court, court term, and type of record.  The records from between c. 1830 and c. 1890 however were found in wooden cabinets and tri-fold drawers with little rhyme or reason.  Many of the records were believed to have been thrown in the cabinets when the courthouse burned in 1869.  Many are sooty, but the paper itself is in decent condition.” Fortunately, Reilly says that the records seem to be complete, with no noticeable gaps in continuity.

Just think about that second-to-last sentence for a moment. Some of these documents haven’t been touched since 1869! Makes you want to just go untie them, doesn’t it?

The scope of the collection is unclear at this point, but in addition to the earliest records of the Rutland County Courts, there are records prior to 1781 when the area was part of Bennington County, and perhaps records from other counties as well. The earliest records begin with the Bennington County Supreme Court in December 1778.[1] The Supreme Court (called the Superior Court until 1782) traveled to the shire town of each county during its early days.[2] The location of some of these earliest Supreme Court records is not known, as I discovered when I attempted to locate records pertaining to a client’s ancestor recently. “It’s possible that the early Vermont Supreme Court records my have been compiled in Rutland, but this hasn’t been confirmed,” Reilly said.[3] Always an optimist, I’m interpreting that to mean there is still hope.

Three types of courts operated at the county level in Vermont through late last century. County courts had general jurisdiction including, after 1825, criminal cases and, after the 1870s, divorce cases. The supreme court operated at the county level until 1906, and proceeded over criminal, divorce, and appeals cases. Chancery courts heard cases requiring a decision based on fairness, rather than written law, which were decided by a judge.[4]

In addition to the Rutland County court records, the Vermont State Archives have also accessioned the records through 1945 from the Rutland Probate District, which covered the Eastern part of Rutland County. The Archives formerly obtained the records of the Fair Haven Probate District, covering the western part of Rutland County. Probate courts do not always follow county boundaries. In the southern part of the state there are, or were, six counties with two probate districts each. In addition to the Fair Haven district, the Rutland probate records join the records extending to 1945 at the State Archives from the Windsor, Westminster, and Marlboro probate districts.[5] The Archives also houses microfilmed records from the remaining probate districts through 1850, and indexes to probate records into the 20th century.[6]

The Vermont State Archives Court Records Project began with a 2011 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. To date, 446 cubic feet of records from Caledonia, Lamoille, and Orleans County Courts, covering 1794-1945, have been fully processed and made accessible to researchers. The original grant was extended to encompass records from Franklin County Courts as well. Those are expected to be fully processed this summer, before the grant ends in September. Historic court records from Windsor and Windham Counties have been minimally processed and are open to researchers. The timeline for full processing of these court documents has not yet been set.[7]

What secrets about your ancestors might appear in these newly available court records?

 

Sources

[1] Scott Reilly, Archivist, Vermont State Archives and Records Administration, telephone interview with email follow-up, 3 February 2014.

[2] State of Vermont Judiciary, “The Vermont Supreme Court: A Brief History” VermontJudiciary.org (https://www.vermontjudiciary.org/MasterDocument/Supreme%20Court%20History.pdf : accessed 8 February 2014).

[3] Scott Reilly interview, 3 February 2014.

[4] Jim Condos, Secretary of State, “Vermont State Archives Opens Court Records for Research,” Vermont: The Official State Website (http://vermont.gov/portal/government/article.php?news=3765 : accessed 8 February 2014).

[5] Scott Reilly interview, 3 February 2014.

[6] Vermont Office of the Secretary of State, Vermont State Archives and Records Administration, “Genealogy Resources at the Vermont State Archives” (http://vermont-archives.org/research/genealogy/ : accessed 8 February 2014).

[7] Scott Reilly interview, 3 February 2014.

Photos courtesy of Scott Reilly, Vermont State Archives and Records Administration.

 

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8 Comments to “Early Rutland Court Records Coming to Vermont State Archives!”

  1. Vicki Wright says:

    Thanks so much for this wonderful news. I can’t wait to visit Vermont and access these great records!

  2. Gary Shattuck says:

    Cathi,
    This is indeed wonderful news! These are particularly interesting, and vitally important, records pertaining to Vermont’s early history because they include the time period BEFORE it became the 14th state in 1791. Vermont was in a disorganized, frequently violent condition during its early years and it is crucially important to have access to these records to put them into a proper perspective and to gain a better understanding of what life was like at the time. Together with the many other records that VSARA has been accumulating over recent years from other courts (many of which still bear the soot and dirt from two centuries of sitting in lonely, unexamined isolation) constitute some of the most important information that a researcher can, and should, access, to further flesh out Vermont’s early history. I have found them to be extraordinarily valuable to my own research and writing and I unequivocally recommend them to anyone so inclined.
    Congratulations to VSARA, and to Cathi, for making this information available to the public.

  3. Court records are such an important part of our research — it’s just terrific that these are going to be available. And wow… some of these have never even been looked at in 150 years!

  4. This is fantastic news as my 4G grandfathers Ezra Mead and Samuel Thrall were in that area early. If I end up going to NERGC 2015 maybe I can wangle a day or two at VSARA . . .

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