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The details in those records

So yesterday The Legal Genealogist took a quick look at what the Show Me State of Missouri is doing to try to make access easier to its historical court records:

• There are digitized circuit court records, covering 29 of Missouri’s 114 counties, mostly from the 19th century, ranging from divorce cases to cases described as involving debt.

• And there are also the 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.

• And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the collection of Missouri Supreme Court cases, 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 — some as late as 1889.”1

And you know what happened, right?

GardnerI mean, we all could have predicted it.

Somebody immediately said: “Show me! Just what kinds of genealogical information can be in those old musty court records anyway?”


A better question would be, just what kinds of genealogical information won’t be in those old musty court records anyway?

Because the possibilities are endless.

Take just this one-page court file as as an example:

In the Circuit Court of St. Charles County, an indenture was filed on the 26th of July 1816, between Andrew Wilson, guardian of a boy named Doctor Cummins Gardner, and John Frazier of the Town and County of St. Charles. It was an apprenticeship agreement, under which Frazier was to teach Gardner the art and mystery of tanning and currying.2

The apprenticeship was to last until the boy was 21 years old, and throughout that term was to be given “plenty of good wholesome food & raiment.” And he was to be taught “reading, writing and common arithmetic including the rule of three.”3

When Gardner turned 21, he was to be free of his obligation to work for Frazier, and given 10 dollars and a decent new suit of clothes as his freedom dues.

And what genealogically valuable information do we learn from this?

• We learn that Frazier was a tanner and currier — since he could hardly have taught Gardner that trade if he wasn’t.

• We learn that Gardner was an orphan, a term that — remember — meant specifically a fatherless child at the time, not necessarily a child without any living parents.4

• We learn that there was a court order appointing Wilson as Gardner’s guardian — an event that points us to at least the possibility that other records exist about this boy.

• And we get the full name and the exact birthdate of the boy Doctor Cummins Gardner: “an orphan boy of the age of fifteen years the eighteenth day of August last” — 18 August 1815.

Now I don’t know about you — but I’d kill for an exact birthdate of any of my ancestors born around 1815!

And this is just one page of one court file… one of thousands Missouri has digitized.

The details in these files will show anybody just what we can find in court records — not just in Missouri, but anywhere the records may be found.


  1. Judy G. Russell, “Missouri shows us,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 8 July 2015 ( : accessed 9 July 2015).
  2. St. Charles County, Mo., Indenture, Andrew Wilson as guardian to Cummins, filed 26 July 1816; digital images, “Missouri Judicial Records Historical Database,” Missouri Digital Heritage, Missouri State Archives ( : accessed 8 July 2015).
  3. The rule of three, remember, was basic algebra. See Judy G. Russell, “Easy as one, two, three,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Mar 2013 ( : accessed 9 July 2015).
  4. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 857, “orphan.”
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