Bar News - September 20, 2013
Unwrapping the Past: Judge Page Archives Project Catalogs 1700s Court Records
By: John Ransmeier
The State Archives in Concord houses papers of many kinds that provide a documentary record of activities in New Hampshire reaching far into the past. The archived papers include, among other things, court records generated by the provincial courts during the colonial period, as well as records generated in the ensuing years as our courts evolved under the auspices of New Hampshire’s county governments.
ABOVE: State Archivist Brian Burford holds packet of 200-year-old court records that volunteers are meticulously unraveling and indexing.
|BELOW: Project volunteers (left to right) Diane Fiske, Lillian Wise, Ira Diamond, and Susan Bryant-Kimball catalog and index centuries-old court records. Not shown are Barry Dame and Lois Burford.
|BELOW: Closeup of a document in a debt-collection case, of which there were many in post-Revolutionary War era New Hampshire.
Many of the court papers held in the State Archives deal with mundane matters, without apparent present-day relevance. Nonetheless, these routine court papers shed light on the social and historical context in which the litigated disputes occurred, as well as the development of our courts and legal processes. Some of the old, archived court materials are, however, of remarkable current interest.
An example of such a treasure is the fascinating court record of an early New Hampshire case involving habeas corpus that came to the attention of professor Eric Freedman of Hofstra Law School, which provides insight into the historic use and operation of the habeas corpus writ. The case, which was the subject of a 2009 presentation by professor Freedman at the archives, is of obvious contemporary interest as we grapple with the rights our law affords prisoners incarcerated by our government at Guantanamo and elsewhere.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court Society, in collaboration with the State Archives, has been working on a project, named in honor of Judge Elwin L. Page, who in his retirement years, after having served on the superior and supreme courts. Through this project, a comprehensive catalogue and index of New Hampshire Provincial Court records, dating from 1640 to 1771, has been developed. Judge Page’s index, maintained on 3” by 5” cards in a card catalogue at the archives, affords scholars and genealogists access to more than 30,000 files of Provincial period court cases.
After completing the index, Judge Page authored a book, Judicial Beginnings in New Hampshire 1640 – 1700, which deals with the history of the Provincial Courts during that time. Judge Page’s legacy to us as an irrepressibly curious historian and ambitious author, and the eclectic sweep of his interests and writings, are described in an article, “Concord Judge Was a History Buff and a Relentless Collector,” by attorney Megan Devorsey, published in the New Hampshire Bar Journal article (Summer 2011 ed.).
Inspired by Judge Page’s example, volunteers with the Elwin L. Page Archives Project have been arranging and cataloging some 290 boxes of court records from Strafford County that are now held at the State Archives. Students from Southern New Hampshire University in 2009-10 developed a written protocol for the work, providing consistent processing standards for the project, including recording the date, the parties, and whether the document is, for example, a writ, an attachment, or deposition.
A team of six volunteers is currently at work, and about 30 volunteers have been involved over the past three years. The volunteers typically spend half a day a week, carefully unwrapping the heavy paper-wrapped packets in which the old court papers are now contained, reading the documents, categorizing them, repackaging them in acid-free file folders, and then recording the index information in a digital database.
With the work done to date on the Strafford County papers, State Archivist Brian Burford estimates that perhaps 2 percent of all of the old county court records held in the Archives have now been processed. Similar documents from nearly all of the other counties (except Coos, where a courthouse fire destroyed nearly all 18th Century documents) await indexing, too. The Project can always use additional help. Volunteers interested in assisting would be welcomed.
For information, contact John Ransmeier at (603)228-0477 or Archivist Brian Burford at (603)271-2236 or firstname.lastname@example.org.