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For witnesses and jurors, a clue

Every document — every single document — in every single court file in every single repository — might tell a story.

Which is why The Legal Genealogist so often recommends getting court records, and milking them for everything they’re worth.

Case in point: the witness chits you will find in civil and criminal court files.

Here’s one example:

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A man named R.J. Allen was a witness for the State of North Carolina in a case against Isaac Hawkins and others in the Spring term of the Superior Court in Buncombe County in 1867.1

Now the first thing we should all pay attention to was that R.J. Allen saw something involving Isaac Hawkins and others sometime before the spring of 1867. They had to have been in the same place at the same time when something happened that landed them all in court.

In other words, he was automatically in the Isaac Hawkins “FAN club”: friends, associates, neighbors. And we can expand that when we’re talking about witnesses: even enemies of the person we’re researching can lead us to critical clues.

So we would look for all the times and places when R.J. Allen and the Hawkins clan may have been together.

But we get another clue here. You see it, right?

It’s the fact that R.J. Allen was paid a mileage fee for attending: 34 miles at three cents a mile, or $1.02 in mileage, plus a 10-cent ferry ride.

So what does that tell us?

It tells us that R.J. Allen likely lived somewhere within this red circle:

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That’s a 17-mile radius around the city of Asheville, county seat of Buncombe County, North Carolina.2

You see, in most states — and North Carolina was one — a witness like Allen would have been entitled to a fee for attending court. Jurors were usually also entitled to fees for attendance and for mileage. In this case, we can see that Allen was paid $1.50 a day, and he was entitled to mileage at three cents a mile. We don’t have to go looking for the statute that sets the rates, but if the rates weren’t there, we could have gone to the laws of the time and place to find out what they were.

He charged the State for his fees, so we know he testified for the prosecution and not the defense in this case, and his total mileage was 34 miles. That’s 17 miles each way.

Yes, it’s possible that it was 17 miles each day, but it’s not likely. A horse walks at an average speed of four miles an hour and trots at an average speed of 8-12 miles an hour,3 and there aren’t too many people in 1867 who could have spent four or five hours round trip each day for two days — more when you add in the ferry ride. So it’s much more likely that this was one trip in of 17 miles, and one trip out of 17 miles.

And the red circle shows what’s 17 miles away from the courthouse in Asheville.

It was produced using the Tools: Circle feature of Google Earth Pro — a free mapping program you can download, and yes, I did use a photo processing program to make the line a little easier to see here. And while it doesn’t tell us where along that circle we’re going to find R.J. Allen, it’ll help narrow down his location when we add it to the census and tax records and other documents we’d gather up.

Because every document — every single document — in every single court file in every single repository — might give us the clue we need to tell the story we want to tell.


SOURCES

  1. Buncombe County, North Carolina, Superior Court, Slave records 1861-1868, (broken series); digital images, “North Carolina, County Records, 1833-1970: Buncombe,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 17 Nov 2016).
  2. About BC: A Brief History,” Buncombe County North Carolina (https://www.buncombecounty.org/ : accessed 17 Nov 2016).
  3. Horse: Equus ferus caballus,” Speed of Animals (http://www.speedofanimals.com/ : accessed 17 Nov 2016).
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