… not always so easy

The Legal Genealogist was taking a look last night at the federal court records of Illinois in anticipation of this weekend’s 2018 Family History Conference of the Genealogical Society of Southern Illinois at the John A. Logan College in Carterville.

But, seriously, how hard can it be to find out where these records are? All of these records are by definition federal records, so all of them should be in the National Archives, right?

And we know that the records of the federal district court and the former circuit courts — the trial court records — are in a regional repository of the National Archives, along with the records of the current Circuit Courts of Appeals,1 right?

And it makes sense that all federal court records from Illinois would be in the National Archives in Chicago, right?

NARA Chicago

I mean, sure, it’s true that one type of federal trial court record has been consolidated from everywhere at the regional repository of the National Archives in Kansas City. Those are the bankruptcy case files, and they were moved to Kansas City in a multi-year consolidation that was completed in 2016.2

But we’d certainly expect that everything else from the District Courts in Illinois — the District of Illinois, 1819-1855; Northern District of Illinois, 1855-present; Southern District of Illinois, 1855-present; Eastern District of Illinois, 1905-1979; and Central District of Illinois, 1979-present — and the trial court records from the former Circuit Courts will be in Chicago, along with the records of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, right?

Um… wrong.

It’s never quite that easy.

Here’s the problem:

Although the National Archives and Records Administration is the official custodian of the “permanently valuable records” of the United States government, some federal records are held outside of the National Archives system. Prior to the establishment of the National Archives in 1934, the federal government had no uniform system for the maintenance and preservation of official government records. Federal records were often stored in courthouses, post offices, customhouses, federal office buildings, and other locations throughout the United States. (In a few instances, federal courts still have their historic court records.) Between 1789 and the mid-twentieth century, many historic federal records were also transferred to nonfederal libraries and archival institutions.

 

Most of the historic records that had been accessioned by repositories outside of the federal government have since been transferred to the National Archives. However, a few collections of federal court records still exist outside of the NARA system.3

And so it happens that some historical federal court records aren’t at the National Archives at all — and that includes a small batch from Illinois.

Now don’t get upset. They’re held nicely and neatly in another type of federal public facility. (Thanks to Chad Milliner for the correction.) It turns out that the Clerk of court’s account book for 1860–1861 for the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Southern Illinois is held at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois, an Illinois state facility.4

So… how do you find out if something for a time period you’re interested in might not be where you expect it to be, and is actually held outside of the National Archives? One place to look is the Guide to Research in Federal Judicial History, a free downloadable PDF publication of the Federal Judicial Center. In Appendix F, “Court Records Held Outside of the National Archives,” it catalogs known collections of historic court records that are held by others than the National Archives. For example:

• Correspondence files from 1872-1903 from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, now held by the University of Oklahoma at Norman.5

• A variety of records from the former Circuit Courts in California — minutes, judgment record books, a rule book and more — and trial court records as well held by the University of California at Berkeley.6

• Very early records of the U.S. District Court for the District of Kentucky, now held by the Filson Historical Society, Louisville.7

• Minutes and correspondence from the U.S. Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Texas, held by Texas Tech University in Lubbock.8

So… sigh… finding federal court records may not be as easy as just heading off to the National Archives. But at least there’s help in finding what else might be out there.


SOURCES

  1. The exception being the federal trial and appellate courts of the District of Columbia, which are held at Archives I, the main facility of the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
  2. See Judy G. Russell, “Chasing those bankruptcy files,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 25 Aug 2017 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 6 Aug 2018).
  3. “Appendix F: Court Records Held Outside of the National Archives,” Guide to Research in Federal Judicial History, PDF, Federal Judicial Center (https://www.fjc.gov/ : accessed 6 Aug 2018).
  4. Ibid., Appendix F at 207.
  5. Ibid., Appendix F at 205-206.
  6. Ibid., Appendix F at 207.
  7. Ibid., Appendix F at 207.
  8. Ibid., Appendix F at 208.
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