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The names in the petitions

There are very few record sets The Legal Genealogist loves more than legislative petitions.

The right to petition for redress of grievances has been part of Anglo-American history since the Magna Carta in 1215.1 A resolution of the House of Commons in 1669 declared that “it is an inherent right of every commoner in England to prepare and present Petitions to the House of Commons in case of grievances…”2 and the English Bill of Rights in 1689 declared that “it is the right of the subjects to petition the King.”3

Early American charters and original State constitutions confirmed the right of Americans to petition their legislatures, and the First Amendment to the United State Constitution, adopted in 1791, guaranteed “the right of the people … to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”4

And the people have petitioned. By the hundreds and the thousands, from colonial times to today, Americans have petitioned their state and federal legislatures on issues ranging from slavery to immigration to veterans benefits, to ask for special treatment and relief from taxes, debts, the effects of specific laws and more. And in terms of both family and historical detail, these records are treasure troves for genealogists.

So… how do you find these?

If you’re in Tennessee, you can just look at the index.

TSLA index



From the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA).

At least for the period from 1799-1850.

The index is online under the title “Tennessee Legislative Petitions 1799 – 1850”, and the collection guide explains:

Legislative petitions are original documents that were submitted to the Tennessee General Assembly, requesting that legislative action be taken on matters of concerns to individuals, municipal governments or county governments. If the law was passed, the text of the law was published in the series Acts of Tennessee.


While many petitions were submitted, not all resulted in a legislative act. Legislative acts were also passed without there being a petition submitted. The majority of the original petitions were returned to the petitioner, although the Tennessee General Assembly did retain many of the documents.


The petitions listed in this index can help give a location for an individual on a given date. Generally, the petitions do not give personal information about the person named; however, there are exceptions, such as petitions requesting a divorce or petitions requesting the legalization of illegitimate children. Estate settlements may also help to identify heirs and approximate death dates of those without wills.


This index has been created from the names and subjects that appear in the petition text itself. No attempt has been made to list the hundreds of names that signed the petitions.5

So even though it’s not an every-name index — those who signed the petitions aren’t listed — it’s still an amazing resource for Tennesseans from A to Z:

• Martin Adams of Davidson County, who petitioned the legislature in 1812 for a divorce from his wife, Martha.

• Thomas Blackney of Montgomery County, who petitioned in 1813 for the freedom of Harriet, a Negro woman in his possession, and asking that her sons, Frederick, John and Tobias be given his name of Blackney, and their freedom once they reached the age of manhood.

• William P. Crawford of Maury County, who petitioned in 1822 for a reward for apprehending a criminal, Charles Lewallen.

• William Dooley of McMinn County who filed in 1825 asking for a divorce from his wife, Mourning Dooley.

• Ahaz Ellis, deputy sheriff of Sevier County, who petitioned in 1843 for compensation for keeping a prisoner charged with murder and infanticide.

And so on all the way up to the statement of Daniel Zimbold supporting the petition of Susan Whitehead Doolin of Franklin County who wanted a divorce from her husband Thomas in 1833.

Now the original documents aren’t available online. There’s a charge of $10 to order a copy if you’re out of state and $5 if you’re a Tennessee resident with a current Tennessee address. Directions on how to order a copy are on the TSLA website.

But even having the index is a great step forward in finding those Tennessee ancestors from A to Z…


  1. ¶ 61, “English translation of Magna Carta,” The British Library ( : accessed 15 Oct 2018).
  2. See C. Grant Robertson, ed., Select Statutes, Cases, and Documents to Illustrate English Constitutional History (New York : Putnam & Sons, 1904), 6.
  3. An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown,” The Avalon Project, Yale Law School ( : accessed 15 Oct 2018).
  4. First Amendment , U.S. Constitution, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School ( : accessed 15 Oct 2018).
  5. Legislative Petitions,” Tennessee State Library and Archives ( : accessed 15 Oct 2018).
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