New York City’s Marine Court
Reader Nancy Spencer had a question that sent The Legal Genealogist scrambling for the law books.
“My g-g grandfather was a policeman at the Marine court at Castle Garden,” she wrote. “Where would the record for his position be held?”
Marine Court? Um…
That’s a new one for me.
Remember that I have 100% German ancestry on one side, and 100% U.S. southern ancestry on the other, so I don’t research much in the northern states.
Not to mention the fact that the New York court system of “multilevel, special-purpose, and locally and regionally organized courts” easily qualifies as “the most complex of any state.”1
So… a bit of complex history for one of those “special-purpose, … locally … organized courts,” and one whose name suggests the rich and deep history of New York City as one of the major ports of colonial and early America.
Except that the Marine Court really didn’t have all that much to do with maritime issues. In fact, when the court was created, it wasn’t even called the Marine Court. It had its origins in an act of 1797 under which justices of the peace were created for the City and County of New York with authority to hear minor criminal cases and civil case where the amount in controversy was less than 10 pounds.2 That statute didn’t say a word about marine-related cases.
The name was officially changed to the Justices’ Court by an act in 1807 when the jurisdiction and structure of the court was changed. At that point, the justices had authority to sit in cases of debt, detinue, trespass on the case, and trespass, where the amount in controversy was more than $25 but less than $50.3
The nature of this court’s authority in marine matters was pretty limited: actual maritime matters — “those pertaining to the sea or ocean or the navigation thereof; or to commerce conducted by navigation of the sea or (in America) of the great lakes and rivers”4 — had been transferred from colonial and state courts to the federal government under the Constitution.5 But local courts could — and this one did — handle certain disputes between sailors and vessel owners. And because of that power, in 1819, the New York legislature said: “that the justices court in the city of New-York, having marine jurisdiction, shall be known by the name of the Marine court of the city of New-York.”6
Over the years, the powers and jurisdiction of the court changed. In 1813, the justices terms were changed to three years and the court allowed to hear cases up to a value of $50. That rose to $100 in 1817, to $250 in 1852, to $500 in 1853, and to $1000 in 1870. In 1849, the judges began to be elected. By 1872, the court’s jurisdiction extended to all cases where the recovery would not be more than $1000 involving contract, account, injury to person or property, actions on surety bonds, actions for damages for fraud in property sales, torts like libel, slander, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, criminal conversation, seduction, and assault and battery. Mechanics liens and public recovery of penalties were also included in the courts powers. Its marine jurisdiction was limited to actions between a person in the merchant service and the owner, master or commander of a vessel for services or damages onboard during the voyage and actions by or against any person in the merchant service for assault and battery or false imprisonment onboard on the high seas.7
In 1883, the court underwent its final name change: “The Marine Court of the City of New York shall on and after the first day of July, 1883, be designated as the City Court of New York.”8 Well, final except that the City Court merged with the Municipal Court, effective 1 September 1962, and, today, it’s called the Civil Court of the City of New York.9
Whew. A lot of history for one relatively low-level limited jurisdiction court. But history needed to answer the question: where are we going to find the records of the court and the people who served it?
Two different questions, in fact, since we’d need to examine both the records of the Marine Court and the surviving accessible records of the New York Police Department to be sure to find whatever there is to find about someone who was described as a policeman at the Marine Court.
Fortunately, both have the same answer: both the records of the Marine Court and the New York Police Department can be found at the New York City Municipal Archives.
That’s the good news.
The not-so-good news, of course, is that the records aren’t digitized and aren’t available online. The only online records for the Marine Court are naturalization records at FamilySearch, and you have to be onsite at a Family History Center to view those.
So… step 1 here is to head to the website of the New York City Municipal Archives and take a look at the Collection Guides. A search there for “Marine Court” produces 93 results, while a search for “police” will start with 3,145 results we’ll need to narrow down by time frame and type of record.
And once we’ve identified the kinds of records we need, it’s boots on the ground at the Municipal Archives to get what records we can.
And, with luck, those together will tell Nancy more about her great-great grandfather and his work at the Marine Court.
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Not just for mariners!,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 20 Dec 2021).
- James Folts, “Courts, State”, essay in The Encyclopedia of New York State (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 416. Folts, by the way, is an archivist and head of Researcher Services at the New York State Archives. ↩
- “An Act concerning the recovery of debts…,” 16 Feb 1797, Chapter 20 in Laws of the State of New York… 1797-1800, republished (Albany: Weed, Parsons & Co., 1887), IV: 18; digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com/ : accessed 20 Dec 2021). ↩
- “An Act for establish Courts of Justices of the Peace and Assistant Justices, in and for the City and County of New-York,” 6 Apr 1807, chapter 139 in Laws of the State of New-York … 1807-1809 (Albany: Webster & Skinner, 1809), 154 et seq.; digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com/ : accessed 20 Dec 2021). ↩
- Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 754, “maritime.” ↩
- See U.S. Constitution, Article III, Section 2, Clause 1 (“The judicial Power shall extend to … all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction”). ↩
- “An Act to amend an act … so far as relates to the Justices Court…,” 26 Mar 1819, chapter 71 in Laws of the State of New-York … 1819 (Albany: Printer to the State, 1819), 74; digital images, HathiTrust Digital Library (https://www.hathitrust.org/ : accessed 20 Dec 2021). ↩
- See generally David McAdam, The Marine Court of the City of New-York, 2d ed. (New York: Diossy & Co., 1872), 1-47; digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com/ : accessed 20 Dec 2021). ↩
- “An Act to change the name of the marine court…,” chapter 26 in Laws of the State of New-York … 1883 (Albany: Weed, Parsons & Co., 1883), 20; digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com/ : accessed 20 Dec 2021). ↩
- “Civil Court History,” New York City Civil Court, NYCourts.gov (https://nycourts.gov/ : accessed 20 Dec 2021). ↩