New London County, County Court files
Scope and Content
Researchers need to be aware in studying these records that the spelling of surnames often varies. It could be Ames or Eames, Hide or Hyde, Lathrop or Lothrop, Maynor, Maynard, Minerd, or Mynard, Right or Wright, or Waterhouse, Waterus, or Watrous, to cite just a few examples.
The first file document dates from 1691, but Files only begin to be frequent enough to adequately supplement and expand on the information found in the Trials volumes in the first decade of the eighteenth century. As a general rule, Files contain much more information about cases than can be found in bound volumes of Trials, but it is necessary for researchers to consult both sources in order to obtain complete overviews of cases.
Many subjects are addressed in the records of the New London County Court. The overwhelming majority of cases for much of the history of the court, around 85-90%, consist of suits for debt - debt by bond, debt by book, and debt by note. For a more detailed scope and content note see New London County Court Files.
Language of Materials
The records are in English.
Restrictions on Access
Many of the papers found in Files for the New London County Court are fragile and they must be handled with great care. Photocopies have been inserted in place of originals for materials on African Americans, Native Americans, and for other items considered to be particularly valuable.
See the Rules and Procedures for Researchers Using Archival Records and Secured Collections policy.
Restrictions on Use
See the Reproduction and Publications of State Library Collections policy.
The first Connecticut judicial proceedings probably took place on April 26, 1636, at "A Corte holden in Newtown" [Hartford] under the commission granted to eight leaders of the infant colony by the General Court of Massachusetts.
In 1638, the General Court established the Particular Court (often called the "Quarter Court" because it was required to meet every three months). While the General Court, later called the General Assembly, controlled the administration of justice, the Particular Court was the colony's principal judicial body until King Charles II granted Connecticut its Charter in 1662. Under the new Charter, the Particular Court was abolished and two new levels of courts established: the Court of Assistants in 1665 and county courts in 1666. Separate probate courts were established in 1698.1
County courts, often called courts of common pleas, existed from 1666 until 1855, when the General Assembly, controlled by Know Nothings, streamlined the State's "bloated judiciary system" which represented the largest public expense by eliminating the county courts and dividing its jurisdiction between the superior court and local town courts.2 This new two-tiered court system proved to be impractical and new courts of common pleas for each county were established as early as 1870.
County courts considered appeals of from local justice courts and had original jurisdiction to try all civil and criminal cases except those concerning "life, limb, banishment, adultery, or divorce." In the colonial era, all suits for debt for sums greater than forty shillings were heard by the county court, a sum increased to $35 by the early nineteenth century and $50 by mid-century. The county courts served as the "workhorses of the Connecticut judicial system" and usually met three times per year.3
The New London County Court was organized in 1666, but the first files do not appear until 1691. Prior to the existence of files, information on court actions can only be tracked through bound volumes of Trials.4 Files become comprehensive in the first decade of the eighteenth century, but are not extant for the period between February 1775 and June 1781 due to the fact that they were destroyed in a British raid on New London and Groton under the leadership of Benedict Arnold on September 6, 1781.
New London County did not have a single shire town and sessions of the court alternated between New London and Norwich. County boundaries changed over time, but for most of the colonial period the court had jurisdiction over the towns of Groton, Killingworth, Lyme, New London, Norwich, Preston, Saybrook, and Stonington.5 After the Revolution, Killingworth and Saybrook became parts of newly formed Middlesex County and Colchester moved from Hartford to New London County. In addition, Montville was hived off from New London in 1786 and Waterford from New London in 1801, and Bozrah, Franklin, and Lisbon formed from Norwich in 1786. Other new towns formed in the nineteenth century were North Stonington (1807), Griswold (1815), Salem (1819), Ledyard (1836), and East Lyme (1839). Lebanon moved from Windham to New London County in 1823.
Court personnel consisted of the chief judge and four justices of the peace et quorum appointed annual by the General Assembly at its May session, the county clerk and county treasurer chosen by the court, jurors from the several towns in the county, plus the sheriff, deputy sheriffs, and the jailors for the New London and Norwich jails.
- 1 The Superior Court established in 1711 replaced the Court of Assistants.
- 2 Mark Voss-Hubbard, Beyond Party: Cultures of Antipartisanship in Northern Politics before the Civil War (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 150.
- 3 Dwight Loomis and J. Gilbert Calhoun, The Judicial and Civil History of Connecticut (Boston: The Boston History Company, 1895), 128-36, 155-56; Bruce H. Mann, Neighbors and Strangers: Law and Community in Early Connecticut (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 7-8. The phrase "workhorses of the Connecticut judicial system" comes from Mann, Neighbors and Strangers, page 8. The General Assembly served as the Supreme Court until replaced by the Supreme Court of Errors in the 1780s.
- 4 Bound volumes of Trials do not exist for the periods between 1704 and 1710 and 1769 through June 1781.
- 5 Canterbury, Killingly, Lebanon, Plainfield, and Voluntown were included within the bounds of New London County until the establishment of Windham County in 1726.
217.25 cubic feet
Files hold the most detailed information available on a particular case. Files usually contain a summons or writ, a document that contains a variety of other useful information, and often one or more additional documents, such as a debt by note, debt by bond, a list of book debts, depositions and/or testimony of witnesses, pleadings by lawyers, power of attorney, an accounting of court costs, and occasionally summonses for witnesses and a copy of the jury verdict.
The county court usually met three times per year, in February, June, and November and the records for each session are arranged in numerical order beginning in 1716.152 Files are arranged generally in numerical and alphabetical order by surname of plaintiff beginning in February 1739. The records for the June and November sessions followed a standard pattern. Continuances and reviews were the first cases heard and decided and are generally in the worst physical condition. Reviews represent cases that had been decided at one court, but the losing party asked for a review of the verdict at a subsequent court. Continued cases are those in which no decision has been rendered at one court session and action is deferred to a later one. New cases follow and comprise the bulk of the cases decided in each session, while cases prosecuted by the King's or State's Attorney are found at the end of records for the session or at the appropriate alphabetical location. Until June 1744, non-adjudicated cases were interfiled with cases for which decisions were made. Beginning at that term of the county court, however, no docket cases come last and are filed in alphabetical order. The pattern for February sessions is slightly different. Adjourned cases are heard first, followed by numerical cases, and beginning in June 1744 followed by no docket cases. A court session may, therefore, have three or four alphabetical arrangements of documents, for reviews, continuances, new cases, and no docket cases.
The arrangement changed in 1769 with the disappearance of record books for Trials. Files are then arranged in a single alphabetical sequence, mixing continuances, new cases, and non-adjudicated cases. In November 1781, however, with the appearance of Vol. 26 of Trials, the pre-1769 numerical pattern re-emerges. No Docket cases cease with the June 18ll court, except for the December 1816 and November 1822 sessions. For the period between June 1817 and June 1835, all cases are filed in alphabetical order, but the ordering reverts to numbers in December 1835 with the beginning of separate Docket volumes.
November 1781, however, with the appearance of Vol. 26 of Trials, the pre-1769 numerical pattern re-emerges. No Docket cases cease with the June 18ll court, except for the December 1816 and November 1822 sessions. For the period between June 1817 and June 1835, all cases are filed in alphabetical order, but the ordering reverts to numbers in December 1835 with the beginning of separate Docket volumes.
- 152For several years after the American Revolution and into the 19th century, the pattern was not always consistent, as the February court session sometimes convened in March and the November session in December.
The county clerks were responsible for gathering, organizing, and preserving the records for the New London County Court. They were transferred to the Connecticut State Library in 1921.
Using Court Records
Court records present difficulties for researchers. Physical condition represents the first and greatest challenge. Prior to this processing project, Files for New London County were folded several times to fit into a standard size with second and third documents for the same case wrapped inside the first document. In addition, many were torn or in poor physical condition. Although these difficulties have been overcome, intellectual access still presents a challenge.
Researchers must examine papers in several different locations in order to gather all materials on a given person or subject. First, Dockets need to be examined. They may be found either bound with volumes of Trials, separate boxes of manuscript dockets, or in five volumes of Dockets covering the period between 1835 and 1855. Dockets generally include the names of the plaintiff and defendant, information on the disposition of the case (withdrawn, continued, execution granted, etc.), and information (usually a docket number) on where to find more detailed data. Often surnames of the lawyer or lawyers are also included. Second comes Trials, located in bound volumes. They usually contain a short paragraph that summarizes the nature and disposition of each case.153 Third, Files hold the most detailed information available on a particular case. Files usually contain a summons or writ, a document that contains a variety of other useful information, and often one or more additional documents, such as a debt by note, debt by bond, a list of book debts, depositions and/or testimony of witnesses, pleadings by lawyers, power of attorney, an accounting of court costs, and occasionally summonses for witnesses and a copy of the jury verdict. The overwhelming majority of cases consist of one or two documents. A fourth places in which researchers may need to look under some circumstances is Papers by Subject. Consisting of materials removed from Files after the records were transferred to the State Library in 1921, three series in particular may have to be examined for further information; Costs, Executions, and Summons for Evidence. If the losing party in a case did not accept the verdict of the county court, then it was appealed to the Superior Court and same three sources examined to follow the case to its conclusion.154
Separate docket volumes first appear in New London County in December 1835. Prior to that time, one has to search through the volumes of Trials to the docket section found immediately before the records for each court session.155 Unfortunately, the existence of a docket for a case does not necessarily mean that trial or file information is available. If a case was withdrawn or the plaintiff failed to appear, then usually nothing exists in Trials, although documentation is generally found in Files. To make matters more complicated, beginning with the court session for June 1744, no docket cases are found in a separate A-Z alphabetical listing following the numerical run of decided cases. Often these no docket cases are listed somewhere in the docket section of Trials, but not necessarily at the court session that these materials appear. For example, a case that is ultimately withdrawn may be listed in the docket pages of Trials for one session of the court and the papers themselves found in the records of a later session.
Sometimes the disposition of a case is found in Trials and nothing appears in Files. On rare occasions, the only source for information on a case is found in Dockets. Researchers, therefore, must examine all three sources but, if research gold is to be discovered, it will generally be found in Files. A great deal of valuable information can be found in no docket or non-adjudicated cases. For example, Thomas Wait of Lyme sued Nathaniel Beckwith for £23 for failure to deliver ten ewes, ten lambs, and twenty pounds of wool to the plaintiff by June 1, 1741. Titus Hurlbut of New London sought damages in February 1742 from William Lamson for not framing the plaintiff's house as per contract.156
Although Trials and Files contain the most useful information on lawsuits, certain series of Papers by Subject provide valuable supplementary documentation. Costs, Executions, and Summons for Evidence are the ones that relate most directly to Trials, although other series contain valuable data. See the finding aid to Papers by Subject for detailed information. Costs give detail on the specifics of the expenses incurred in cases, while Executions provide information on the collection of debts and Summons for Evidence provides the names of people called to testify in contested court cases.
- 153The volumes for Files, in addition to containing docket information, also often include lists of cases continued and adjourned, plus accounts of court expenses, names of court officers, and licenses for tanners and tavernkeepers.
- 154Papers by Subject consist of materials on a variety of other subjects, like Admissions to the Bar, Conservators and Guardians, Costs, Executions, Indians, and Travel. They are identified by cross-reference slips of paper usually found at the beginning of Files for each court session. The x-ref card gives the name or subject of the case, the subject to which it has been transferred, the original docket number of the case, and a new file number in pencil for the case.
- 155Five boxes of manuscript Dockets exist for the years 1730-1835. Since the same information is included in the volumes of Trials before each session of the court, it is not recommended that researches spend time consulting this source.
- 156Thomas Wait v. Nathaniel Beckwith, NLCC Files, Nov. 1741, Box 70, folder 5, no. 570; Titus Hurlbut v. William Lamson, Ibid, Feb. 1742, Box 70, folder 21, no. 230.
- Civil court records Subject Source: Art & Architecture Thesaurus
- Connecticut -- History -- Sources Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Connecticut. County Court (New London County) -- History Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Connecticut. Judicial Dept. -- History Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- County courts -- Connecticut -- New London County -- History Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
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- RG 003, New London County, County Court Files
- Inventory of Records
- Finding aid prepared by Bruce P. Stark.
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Part of the Connecticut State Library Repository