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The Show Me State shows off court records

The officially unofficial nickname for Missouri is the Show Me State.

It’s not really any kind of official alternative name for the state, but the slogan does appear on Missouri license plates.

Mo.CtEven though nobody is quite sure just where the slogan comes from.1

But no matter… because when it comes to showing us, at least showing us the kind of records that will float The Legal Genealogist‘s boat, Missouri definitely qualifies as the Show Me State.

Missouri has a fabulous collection of digitized court records… and we can peruse them at 3 a.m. in our jammies and our bunny slippers.

So in case you hadn’t figured it out, The Legal Genealogist is in Missouri today. A one-day in-and-out trip to teach in the Midwestern African American Genealogy Institute in St. Louis, where my friend and colleage Shelley Murphy is training her students to always, always, always look at genealogical information and ask: “So what?”

So what if it says this and not that?

So what if it was prepared this way instead of that?

So what if it is, or it isn’t, different from other records of the same time and place?

So what?

And when we’re trying to figure out so what about legal records, one place we always have to look is to the court records of the time and place — not always an easy task since so very many of the earliest and most important court records haven’t been digitized and aren’t readily available online.

But in Missouri…

Oh, the Show Me State is showing us all how it can be done.

As the Missouri State Archives explains:

Historic court records offer tremendous insight into the daily lives of Missourians throughout society.

Family historians have long recognized the value of probate files for tracing ancestry, but probate files also offer insight into lives, family relationships and local society through wills, inventories, settlements, and even debts and credits. Guardianships reveal details about a minor’s education, what they wore and ate and even apprenticeship information.

Researchers often overlook the immense value of circuit court files. These files often offer a clear snapshot of daily life in a time period. In an era when reputation was the basis for social standing, the only legal recourse was litigation. The opportunities for research into social history, commerce, freedom, race, gender, architecture and other topics are tremendous. Missouri’s circuit courts heard cases dealing with everything from fur trade to the Civil War, steamboats to railroads and agriculture to urbanization.2

To ensure that the records aren’t overlooked any more, the Missouri State Archives is digitizing thousands of circuit and Supreme Court cases, many of which can be accessed through the Missouri Digital Heritage website.

The circuit court records cover 29 of Missouri’s 114 counties, mostly from the 19th century. A search for records where one party’s name was Johnson turns up more than 1,500 entries in the index, including 29 divorce cases, three burglary cases and 561 cases described as involving debt.

There are also records digitized as part of the St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project, which features digitized collections of court files relating to Lewis & Clark, Native Americans, the fur trade, and slave freedom suits. Cases from territorial days to 1875 are being included and ultimately some four million pages are to be preserved.3

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the collection of Missouri Supreme Court cases: “The Supreme Court of Missouri Historical Database provides an index and abstract of the criminal and civil court cases that were appealed to the territorial Superior Court and state Supreme Court of Missouri up to 1868, and a partial listing of cases to 1889.”4

These include — just as a sampling — seven arson cases, four condemnations, 88 cases involving allegations of defamation, 38 divorces, 139 murder cases, 11 cases involving riots, 132 cases where taxes were at issue, and 357 cases involving slaves.

Best of all: “Digital images are available for some case files dating from 1821 through 1865.”5

The wealth of genealogical detail to be found in records of court cases of all kinds is beyond dispute. Getting to the records is often the issue.

Not in Missouri.

The Show Me State.

Which is in the process of showing us just what court records access can be.


  1. Why Is Missouri Called the ‘Show-Me’ State?”, Missouri History, Missouri Secretary of State Records and Archives ( : accessed 7 July 2015).
  2. Missouri’s Judicial Records,” Missouri Digital Heritage, Missouri State Archives ( 2015).
  3. St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project”, Programs & Projects, Missouri Secretary of State Records and Archives ( : accessed 7 July 2015).
  4. Supreme Court of Missouri Historical Records”, Missouri Digital Heritage, Missouri State Archives ( 2015).
  5. Ibid.
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