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Records of a J.P.

Reader Patrick Jones is a fourth great grandson of Manuel Lamon, a War of 1812 veteran, and came across a reference to his ancestor in a biography of one of Lamon’s sons:

Elbert S. Lamon was brought up to the life of a farmer by his father, Manuel Lamon, … He is a native of the ‘Hoosier State,’ born in Harrison County, June 10, 1831, whither his parents moved from their native State of Tennessee in 1829, … Here the father was engaged in farming until his death, which occurred about 1868, … Mr. Lamon was a man well known and highly esteemed for his many worthy qualities, and was for twelve consecutive years magistrate in his district.1

That got Patrick to wondering: “what types of functions would a county magistrate have performed around the 1850s so that I might look for other documents that provide further insight into his life?”

Great question, and exactly the right question to get started on the search for records of this magisterial ancestor.

First things first: what’s a magistrate?

By definition, a magistrate is a “public officer belonging to the civil organization of the state, and invested with powers and functions which may be either judicial, legislative, or executive.”2

But, Black’s Law Dictionary continues, “the term is commonly used in a narrower sense, designating, … in America, one of the class of inferior judicial officers, such as justices of the peace and police justices.”3

So is that the way the term was used in Indiana at the middle of the 19th century when Lamon was a magistrate? Absolutely. In 1845, an Indiana lawyer wrote a treatise on justices of the peace there, and from the preface through to the end of the volume, the author — George Van Santvoord — treated the terms as utterly interchangeable. His preface began:

The following Treatise is intended as a practice guide for Justices of the Peace, in the discharge of the responsible, and often perplexing duties which pertain to their office.

No book of this nature has, hitherto, been furnished for the use of the Magistrates of Indiana…4

Though Van Santvoord clearly regarded the terms as one and the same, he tended to use the term “magistrate” when the justice was “acting as a judicial magistrate in the trial of causes.”5

The first justices of the peace in what later became Indiana served as inferior judicial officers in the Northwest Territory, which established justice of the peace courts in 1788.6 The territorial jurisdiction of the justices of the peace was expanded to the county in 1795, and expanded to include criminal matters in 1798.7

By the time Indiana sought statehood, the justice of the peace courts were county-wide and handled minor civil and criminal matters.8 And in Indiana’s first constitution, the justices were given constitutional status. Article V, § 12 of the Indiana Constitution of 1816 provided that:

A competent number of Justices of the peace shall be elected by the qualified electors in each Township, in the several Counties, and shall continue in office five years, if they shall so long behave well, whose powers, and duties shall, from time to time, be regulated and defined by law.9

That didn’t change much in the Constitution of 1851:

A competent number of justices of the peace shall be elected, by the voters in each township in the several counties. They shall continue in office four years, and their powers and duties shall be prescribed by law.10

And in fact the justice of the peace continued as a constitutional position until the judicial article was revised in 1970. Finally the justice of the peace courts were abolished in 1975.11

So what sorts of things would a justice like Manuel Lamon have done in the 1850s? Well, looking just at the constitutional language, the first thing Lamon would have had to do is get elected. So election records — nominating petitions, election results, newspaper articles about elections — would be the first place to look.

He’d have been required to take an oath of office, which should have been filed shortly after he took office. And he’d also have had to post an official bond “for the faithful discharge of his duties.” And an official commission may have issued. 12 Any or all of these may be available in the office of the clerk of the Circuit Court for Harrison County.

As a judge, Lamon would have had authority to sit on civil cases where the maximum damages to be awarded were less than $100 (contract cases) or $50 (tort cases).13 So you want to head to the court records and look for cases that Lamon presided over. There may be court minute books, docket books, records of the cases being appealed to a higher court, orders issued and more.

And he’d have had criminal authority to try petty criminal offenses, and to hear complaints, issue warrants, and commit, or bind over, offenders for trial.14 There again, you’re looking for court records — the minutes and dockets and orders.

Justices of the peace were allowed to solemnize marriages under Indiana law.15 You’d definitely want to check the marriage records and licenses in Harrison County to see if Lamon did.

And as a justice of the peace, Manuel Lamon might well have witnessed statements, like one from Catherine Acre, widow of Philip Acre, applying for bounty land based on the Revolutionary War service of her late husband, that led to the document shown above — the county clerk’s attestation of Lamon’s signature and official role as justice of the peace.16

How ’bout that, Patrick? Manuel’s signature — and the clerk’s agreement that it was genuine — good enough to start with?

And just think how much more there may be…

Good luck, and let us know what you find!!


  1. Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Adams, Clay, Hall and Hamilton Counties, Nebraska (Chicago : Goodspeed Pub., 1890), 650, entry for Elbert S. Lamon ; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 6 Feb 2013).
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 739, “magistrate.”
  3. Ibid. See also John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union, rev. 6th ed. (1856); HTML reprint, The Constitution Society ( : accessed 6 Feb 2013), “magistrate.”
  4. George Van Santvoord, The Indiana Justice: A Treatise on the Jurisdiction, Authority, and Duty of Justices of the Peace, in the State of Indiana (Lafayette, In. : Corydon Donnavan, Printer, 1845), iii; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 6 Feb 2013).
  5. Ibid. at 1.
  6. John G. Baker, “The History of the Indiana Trial Court System and Attempts at Renovation,” 30 Indiana Law Review 233, 239 (1997).
  7. Ibid., 240.
  8. Ibid., 242.
  9. Indiana Constitution of 1816, Article V, § 12, html version; Indiana Commission on Public Records ( : accessed 6 Feb 2013).
  10. Indiana Constitution of 1851, Article VII, § 14, html version; Indiana Historical Bureau ( : accessed 6 Feb 2013).
  11. Indiana Act of May 5, 1975, No. 305, §54.
  12. Van Santvoord, The Indiana Justice…, 12.
  13. Ibid., 11, 17.
  14. Ibid.
  15. See e.g. Chapter LXIII, § 2, Revised Laws of Indiana (Indianapolis : Douglass & Maguire Printers, 1831), 370; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 6 Feb 2013).
  16. Affidavit of claimant, 16 April 1855; Catherine Acre, widow’s pension application no. W.9690, for service of Philip Acre (Pvt., Capt. Perry’s Co. (5th Va. Reg.); Revolutionary War Pensions and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, microfilm publication M804, 2670 rolls (Washington, D.C. : National Archives and Records Service, 1974); digital images, Fold3 ( : accessed 6 Feb 2013), Philip Acre file, p. 14.
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