Not just the story of Aaron Burr

The Grand Jury in and for the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Kentucky, Frankfort Term, was convinced.

The man had committed treason against the United States of America.

“He did willfully and unlawfully, and from evil premeditation … prepare for a military expedition against the dominions of the King of Spain, who is an European prince at peace with the said United States,” the indictment read.1

The man: “a certain Aaron Burr, late of the City of New York and vice president of the said United States.”2

That indictment, in the case of United States v. Burr, was returned on this day, 25 November, in the year 1806. It’s highlighted today in one of The Legal Genealogist‘s favorite resources: Today’s Document from the National Archives, and you can read the indictment online.

Burr indictment

And though this law geek would totally geek out just because it’s one of the coolest legal-history documents around — setting the stage for the first real test of the treason clause of the United States Constitution3 — it’s also a great example of a legal case with genealogical value for a lot of families.

Think for a minute about all the people who were involved in one way or another in the Burr case.

Yeah, you have the key players on the national scene: it was Thomas Jefferson as President who wanted Burr prosecuted for treason. Chief Justice John Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court who’d preside at the trial. Constitutional Convention delegates Edmund Randolph and Luther Martin who defended Burr, along with John Wickham. Future Attorney General William Wirt and George Hay leading the prosecution.4

But now think about everybody else involved.

There were those who were, in one way or another, involved with Burr in whatever he was up to that got him into trouble. (The facts, even today, aren’t entirely clear as to whether Burr was thinking about trying to take over land from what was then Spanish territory or whether he was actually trying to set up his own country with English support, taking western states out of the union.5) Among them, General James Wilkinson and an Irish immigrant named Harman Blennerhassett.

There were the members of the Grand Jury who returned that first indictment 213 years ago today.

Those involved in the raid on Burr’s and Blennerhassett’s outpost in December 1806.

Those involved in Burr’s apprehension and arrest in Alabama in 1807 and in bringing him to Virginia for trial.

Those who were there in March 1807 when Burr was brought before Marshall for a hearing at a special session of the U.S. Circuit Court at the Eagle Tavern in Richmond.6

The members of the second grand jury convened in Virginia in 1807 that returned a second indictment against Burr in June.7

Those who worked at the Virginia penitentiary at which Burr was held until his trial.8

The members of the trial jury seated in August 1807.9

The 140 witnesses proposed to be called in Burr’s case, and the dozen witnesses who actually testified before a major argument over whether evidence should be excluded went in Burr’s favor.10

The Burr story isn’t one just for the Burr family.

It’s a story to be documented for the families of all of those who were there.

In every single court case, there are so many players beyond the named parties: judges, jurors, court attendants, witnesses, lawyers, court and news reporters and even spectators.

It’s our job as genealogists to tell all of their stories.


Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Beyond the named parties,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 25 Nov 2019).

SOURCES

  1. Indictment of Aaron Burr for Treason, 1806; Judgments and Decrees, 1800 – 1860; U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Kentucky, Frankfort Term; Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685 – 1991; Record Group 21; National Archives.
  2. Ibid.
  3. See Scott Bomboy, “Aaron Burr’s trial and the Constitution’s treason clause,” Constitution Daily, posted 1 Sep 2019 (https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/ : accessed 25 Nov 2019).
  4. Ibid.
  5. See Ibid. See also Evan Andrews, “Aaron Burr’s Notorious Treason Case,” History.com, updated 22 Aug 2018 (https://www.history.com/ : accessed 25 Nov 2019).
  6. See Charles F. Hobson, The Aaron Burr Treason Trial, Federal Judicial Center, 2006; PDF online, Federal Judicial Center (https://www.fjc.gov/ : accessed 25 Nov 2019).
  7. Ibid., “The Judicial Process: A Chronology,” p. 10-11.
  8. Ibid., p. 11.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
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