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Research those federal court cases

The Legal Genealogist is in high cotton right now with the announcement by the Law Library of Congress of its new Federal Courts Web Archive.

Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m a law geek.

What can I say?

The announcement by In Custodia Legis, the blog of the Law Library of Congress, explains that:

The Federal Courts Web Archive, recently launched by the Library of Congress Web Archiving Team and the Law Library of Congress, provides retrospective archival coverage of the websites of the federal judiciary. The websites in this archive include those of the Supreme Court of the United States, as well as federal appellate courts, trial courts, and other tribunals. These sites contain a wide variety of resources prepared by federal courts, such as: slip opinions, transcripts, dockets, court rules, calendars, announcements, judicial biographies, statistics, educational resources, and reference materials. The materials available on the federal court websites were created to support a diverse array of users and needs, including attorneys and their clients, pro se litigants seeking to represent themselves, jurors, visitors to the court, and community outreach programs.1

Now I admit that this archive is fairly limited right now. It’s mostly a collection of archived websites of federal courts around the country, and time-limited to mostly the 21st century — a statement that feels distinctly odd to those of us who think that just yesterday it was still the 20th century and we just blinked…

But I expect it’ll get better, and as it gets bigger and more comprehensive, particularly with historical content, it’s going to be better and better as not only a legal resource but a genealogical resource.

Because — no surprise here — our folks tend to get themselves into federal court records.

And we haven’t done reasonably exhaustive research into our families until we’ve examined that possibility as well as all the other records we look at, like land and tax and probate and vital records.

At every level of federal court, the records — the court documents and the published opinions — can give us a view of the affected families we couldn’t get any other way.

One of my favorite examples of this is a U.S. Supreme Court case decided in 1820. Now most people might not think of U.S. Supreme Court cases as having all that much genealogical information, since these are cases involving the highest level legal issues in the nation.

But the case of Stevenson’s Heirs v. Sullivant is chock full of genealogical details.2

Hugh Stevenson had served in the Revolutionary War as an officer from Virginia. Before he served, he had had a … um … how to put this exactly … uh … a relationship with one Ann Whaley, who had born him a whole bunch of children out of wedlock.

Hugh finally married Ann in July of 1776, but died in August of 1776 when Ann was pregnant with their last child, Richard, born after Hugh’s death. Hugh’s will recognized all of his children and Ann as their mother.

Because Hugh had been a colonel of the Virginia line, his bounty land amounted to nearly 6,667 acres of land, and the bounty land was granted to that one after-born child, Richard. Ann died before Richard, but Richard only lived to age 20, and died unmarried with no children.

Here’s the issue: could Richard’s older brothers and sisters claim that bounty land?

The answer the Supreme Court came to was no, because — as illegitimate children of their parents — Richard’s brothers and sisters were not his legal heirs. Under Virginia law at the time of their parents’ marriage, the marriage alone didn’t make them legitimate. The land ended up going to a claimant who had bought the rights to Hugh’s brother’s property…

There’s simply an amazing amount of genealogical data in so many cases like Stevenson’s Heirs v. Sullivant, and — eventually, as more and more historical materials are added — Federal Courts Web Archive should take us to many of these resources.

In the meantime, there are ways to find a lot of information about federal court cases.

• Check out the published opinions of federal trial and appeals courts on places like Google Books, Internet Archive and HathiTrust Digital Library.

• Check out legal research sites such as Court, are widely available online through a number of free services including:, Google Scholar, Justia, and one of my personal favorites, the
Legal Information Institute from Cornell Law School.

• Remember the digitization project for caselaw of all finds, federal and state, going on at Ravel Law in conjunction with Harvard Law School’s Library. The search system there is free and cases you locate in the search there can be read for free.3

• Make sure to check out all of the resources of the National Archives, where federal court archival records are held, starting with the overview of “Judicial Records” on the Archives’ website.

• And don’t forget to check the newspapers of the time and p;lace for clues that your folks may have been involved in a federal court case, even as jurors or witnesses.

Indulge that inner law geek… and find out what your folks were up to in federal court.


  1. Robert Brammer, “Federal Courts Web Archive Launched,” In Custodia Legis, posted 28 Sep 2017 ( : accessed 1 Oct 2017).
  2. Stevenson’s Heirs v. Sullivant, 18 U.S. 207 (1820).
  3. See Judy G. Russell, “Harvard’s digitization project,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 2 Nov 2015 ( : accessed 1 Oct 2017).
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