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Supreme Court cases!

Ancestors from Tennessee, anyone?

If so, oh boy, is there a neat new resource you have got to check out.

TNSCtIt’s an online index and ordering system for Tennessee Supreme Court case files.

And while we can’t sit there in our bunny slippers at 3 a.m. and read the case files online, we can sit there and read about the cases and decide whether we want to order them — and even find out how much a particular case file will cost.

And considering that these records were sitting in an attic covered in coal dust and utterly unusable just a few years ago, the fact that we have even this much access is nothing short of miraculous.

The files themselves are described by the Tennessee State Library and Archives this way:

The files located in the Tennessee Supreme Court Cases represent an especially valuable resource for historical and genealogical research at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. The volume of cases is extraordinary, with well over 10,000 boxes of material in storage. Chronologically, the cases encompass the period from about 1809 to approximately 1950. The scope of subjects discussed in the cases is equally impressive, comprising the full range of criminal cases as well as land issues, debt, slavery and estate disputes, among many others. The content of the case files range from very brief records to a complete summary of all the proceedings, sometimes involving hundreds of pages. Transcriptions of trial testimony from the lower courts, when they exist, usually appear in cases beginning in the late nineteenth century. Within the cases, one can discover details that throw light on personal data, community life and family relationships, making the Supreme Court cases an inestimable tool for genealogists.1

And how they got to be prepared and indexed? That’s described this way:

Once stored in the attic of the Tennessee State Capitol building, the Supreme Court records came to the Library & Archives in dire need of restoration. Curled and brittle, covered in coal dust from the furnace pipes that fed into the Capitol’s storage space, the records were all but unusable. Our archival technical staff has worked tirelessly toward the preservation of these records for more than a decade. Staff members have meticulously cleaned off the dust and grime, carefully flattened and recorded the contents for more than 50,000 cases.

The archivists will continue this project indefinitely, as there are well over 10,000 boxes of material in storage. However, what has already been done constitutes an extraordinary achievement. The result of the archivists’ work is an impressive, usable state record collection and a searchable online database for researchers.2

So… what kinds of goodies can you find in these records? The Legal Genealogist ran some family surnames known to have been in Tennessee at one point or another through the database and came up with these gems:

• In 1916, the case of Joseph M. Davenport, Guardian of Thomas J. Davenport, non compos mentis v. Jennie M. Davenport et als., reached the court out of Shelby County: “Defendants are relatives of the complainant and his ward. Thomas J. Davenport conveyed property to his brother Julius and his wife Jennie. The balance for the conveyance was to be paid in promissory notes of $41.80 each. In November, 1914 Thomas Davenport was seriously injured in a car crash. In 1916 Thomas gave to his dying brother Julius about $2000.00 of the promissory notes, not having the mental faculty to realize he was giving away his own income. Complainant seeks to put lien on property.”

• In 1868, the case of Letrice M. Coover v. D. E. Davenport out of Marion County: “Coover sued Davenport for breach of marriage contract. Suing for damages in the sum of $50,000. They had begun courting in 1864, but he failed to tell her he already had a wife. Suit originally brought in Franklin County.”

• In 1831, the case of Isham Beasley v. John E. Baker out of Wilson County, over ownership of slaves: “The slaves in question were a twenty-eight-year old woman named Mary and her child Louisa.”

• In 1847, in Washington County, the case of Walter Waterford, by next friend v. John Baker & Adam Waterford: “Walter Waterford, a described man of color, complains by Lewis Garner. W. Waterford belonged as a slave and was sold to A. Waterford (dec.), brother of W. Waterford. An agreement was made that once W. Waterford paid back the cost of the sale, he would be emancipated. A. Waterford benefited from his labor for years and W. Waterford believes he made back the sum required for his freedom years before. A. Waterford’s son, David, now holds administration on the deed; seeking injunction until funds determined”.

• In 1845, the case of Zechariah Campbell, Sr. v. Zechariah Campbell, Jr., out of Campbell County: “Def. filed 6 writs of error on appeal to Supreme Court, over 6 judgments entered against him for $12.50 each, all related to Def’s alleged killing of a hog in the woods, on 6 separate occasions in Jan & Feb of 1844 & 1845, without complying with statute, which required him, within 2 days of said killing, to show the hog’s head & ears to a magistrate or 2 substantial freeholders. Penalty for violating statute: $12.50. All 6 are default judgments & Def. says entered before time had expired for him to answer.”

• in 1868, in State v. Campbell Duggan out of Sevier County: “Plaintiff is accused of disrupting a Methodist congregation by laughing, cursing, walking and other disruptive behaviors. On the same day, Samuel McCroskey was arrested for disrupting a Baptist Congregation.”

Clicking on the Order a Copy button next to any file will tell you exactly how much it will cost to get a paper file sent by mail or PDF images sent by email. In the State v. Campbell Duggan case, for example, there are 11 pages and the cost to have it sent to me in New Jersey was $10. In the Coover v. Davenport case, there are 113 pages and the cost was $56.50.

Seems a bit high until you consider the cost of a single trip to Tennessee… Puts the cost into perspective when you think of it that way.

Not to mention when you think of the goodies… lots and lots of goodies… in these records.

Good job, Tennessee!


Image: Tennessee Supreme Court, Nashville; Thomas R. Machnitzki, via Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-3.0.

  1. Tennessee Supreme Court Cases,” Tennessee State Library and Archives ( : accessed 14 Apr 2016).
  2. Search and order Tennessee Supreme Court Cases now online,” Tennessee State Library and Archives Blog, posted 13 Apr 2016 ( : accessed 14 Apr 2016).
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