Court Records have been a favorite source of mine for many years. Several of my earliest lectures focused on using this source, and recently I created a Beginner’s Guide to Court Records to introduce new researchers to their use.
Many of the richest records that mention our ancestors are found in the records of the lowest state court, sometimes called the county court.
Other courts had jurisdiction over civil and criminal cases. These cases could be appealed, just like today, all the way to the state’s Supreme Court.
And these cases can also provide juicy—I meant to say valuable (smile)– information on our families. Let me share one case from a collateral ancestor, and the riches I found.
Dave Crowder, Complainant vs Lucy Hayse, et al
I ordered this record from the Tennessee State Library and Archives, and it contained 230 (thankfully typed) pages.
The case began in 1920 and spanned almost 10 years. Its pages tell the story of a well-to-do farmer, a broken friendship, competing narratives, and ugly gossip.
It began with the estate of Ned Hayes in Hardin County, Tennessee. A pillar of the Hookers Bend community, he and wife Lucy Lee had eleven known children. Ned owned hundreds of acres of land at his death and was considered very prosperous.
Ned left a will, and named long-time family friend, neighbor and educator David Crowder as executor. This is the only picture of Crowder that survives:
Many of the other prominent men in the community served as sureties on the $12,000 bond Crowder was required to post, assuring the court he would faithfully execute his duties.
Ned Hayes’ will bequeathed everything to his wife during her lifetime. After her death, the land & other property was to be distributed to their children. As was common, some of his land was mortgaged, and three of his sons held loans from their father and owed the estate over $1000. Many others owned the estate money.
The first hint of trouble was when a tract of land that was bequeathed to a son (after his mother’s death) was sold by Ned before he died. That and other irregularities meant the court needed to decide a course of action, which they did in their October 1920 Decree Construing the Will. It essentially laid out how David Crowder should proceed.
Among other things, this decree asserted that $3100 was in Crowder’s hands, the result of calculating all the notes that were due the Hayes estate, minus its debts.
That money was to be paid to the court, so the widow Lucy could receive the interest on the money annually. She had already inherited all the land, the home, and all the household and farming property.
By March 1923, almost three years later, things weren’t going well.
Lucy & her children brought suit in Chancery Court that the estate had not been settled and that the $3100 had never been paid to the court.
Lucy & her children said that Crowder never made any effort to do so. In fact, they said Crowder spent the money for his own debts. Oh boy.
Crowder responded that he had not made settlement because he had been unable to collect the debts due the estate. A substantial number of people who owed the estate money, including Ned’s own sons, where unable to pay.
David also denied ever using the money for his own debts. As you can imagine, it only get uglier from here.
Lucy & her children continued to press in court for the $3100. Crowder’s responses were ever more angry, and in several instances, he simply did not appear in court at all to answer the charges. He was held in contempt and in 1926, David eventually agreed to a payment plan.
He did not abide by that payment plan, and he was thrown in jail.
The court demanded payment of $2050, the remainder of that $3100.
By 1928, Lucy was dead and so was son Harvey. The remaining heirs were still desperately trying to get Crowder to pay what they thought he had, and resorted to essentially character assassination:
By then, they even tried unsuccessfully to recover the money from the sureties on the bond.
Crowder appealed the contempt charge while in jail and eventually, his case was reversed at the Tennessee Court of Appeals. He was released from jail.
But the Hayes heirs pressed on, appealing that decision all the way to the Supreme Court. The Justices agreed with the Appeals Court that Crowder’s contempt charge was void.
Crowder only owed the money if he had been able to settle the estate, which he had never been able to do.
The records showed that Crowder never had in his hands $3100, nor did he have the remaining $2050, thus he could never comply with the order of the Court. They believed the receipts and records he produced.
By 1930, David Crowder appeared in the census with his family, freed from jail. I always say a lot can happen between ten census years, and we have to search other sources to fill in those years.
David Crowder went on to become founder and principal of the first black high school in Decatur County, which eventually was named for him. He died in 1944.
The most obvious value is that the court record frequently named Ned’s heirs. This included identifying the husbands of married daughters.
It also revealed where the children (and later grandchildren) were living, as several relocated out of the state. Many of the Hayes had been “lost” before I found this case:
But the case file also revealed other information important for understanding this community in this historical time frame, such as:
**The connection of men in the community to one other, for the purposes of wealth building and meeting legal obligations.
**How bringing in a crop every year involved loans that almost every farmer obtained. More prosperous farmers like Ned were giving loans & serving as security for others.
**How quickly after the deaths of Ned and Lucy, who were considered prosperous, the children were unable to maintain that economic status, as their need for the money continued for almost 10 years.
**How racist stereotypes weaved itself into the records. Crowder’s own lawyers wrote:
“It may be remarked here, that not only is appellant a negro, but he is without wealthy friends or relatives. A characteristic of his race.”
How to Find These Records
State Supreme Court records should be at the State Archives. The Tennessee State Archives has a wonderfully simple way to search and order these cases:
The Alabama State Archives has started a digitization project of some of these records:
Washington and Lee Library has PDF files to over 9,000 case records for Virginia:
Ask an archivist how to access these records for your research state.
All federal and state Supreme Court cases are also published in volumes called Case Reporters. They can be found at state law libraries and in the legal databases by companies like LexisNexis and Westlaw found in some larger research libraries.
Or, you can be freely search these records in the brand new Caselaw Access Project. Yey! Judy Russell at The Legal Genealogist did a nice post on this resource. This site actually includes state level court records as well, and I am just beginning to comb through the site myself.
Well first of all, I don’t think I’ll ever want to be named executor of anyone’s estate. Or be a surety (basically, a co-signer).
Though the Court vindicated him in the end, I can only imagine the anguish this experience caused everyone involved, but especially Crowder.
I can’t make out how much of the Hayes’ complaints about Crowder were accurate, or whether or not he spent their money. Who knows.
But this document helped me unravel and connect three generations of Ned’s family, and learn a little bit more about the dynamics of the community.
Take a look and see what you might find in state Supreme Court (and appeals level) cases for your families. Or, if you’ve already found interesting cases, tell me about it in the comments.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.