Early court records

You can use vital records to find your ancestors, but it is in the court records that the past comes alive. That is where you find out who menaced their neighbors with a gun at midnight, who repeated slanderous gossip, who misbehaved sexually, who shot their neighbor’s pig and hid the bacon in the out house. 1 You hear the voices of the people speaking in their own words, calling the jury sworn rogues or telling exactly what Nicholas Randall did to the wife of his master John Swift. 2 You follow the coroner and his men as they track the footprints of a distinctive boot to the swamp where they found 14 stolen deer skins hidden in a hollow tree. When they measured the shoe-print and compared it to John Martin’s shoe, it was found to be the same. John Martin was startled when they took off his shoe to measure it, but could not deny his guilt. 3

The most famous case in early Pennsylvania was not tried in a court, but in the Council, acting as a court on 12th mo 1683. Before William Penn, the Council, and a grand jury, Margaret Mattson, a Swede and the wife of Neels Mattson, was accused of being a witch. Henry Drystreet testified that he had been told she was a witch and could bewitch cows. Charles Ashcom testified that Mattson’s daughter saw a vision or dream of an old woman and a great light. Annakey Coolin and her husband boiled the heart of a calf that they thought to have died of witchcraft; Margaret saw them and said “unseemly expressions”. None of this convinced the jury, who ruled that she was not guilty of being a witch, only of “having the common fame” of one. 4

The record of the courts of Chester County and Bucks County have been preserved. The records of Philadelphia County court are unfortunately lost, except for a few early cases. We also have the record of the Upland Court, the precursor to Chester County court, from 1676 to 1681, and of Burlington Court, across the river in West Jersey. These hundreds of pages tell many stories.

Where to find the early court records

CourtOn Ancestry?Other sources:
Bucks County 1684-1700"Record of the courts of Quarter Sessions and Common Pleas of Bucks County 1684-1700"A published version by Heritage Books in 2013
Burlington County 1680-1709"The Burlington Court Book: a record of Quaker jurisprudence in West New Jersey 1680-1709Snippet view only on Google Books
Chester County 1681-1699"Record of the courts of Chester County, volume 1"Available on Internet Archive, full view including pdf download
New CastleNot availableAvailable on Internet Archive as "Record of the court of New Castle on Delaware"; volume 1 is 1676-1681; volume 2 is 1681-1699
Upland"The Record of the court at Upland, in Pennsylvania : 1676 to 1681."Publications of the HSP, volume 4, 1860, full view on Google Books
The Provincial CouncilNot availableMinutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania, volume 1, full view on Google Books
  1.  Owen Magdaniel and two cronies fired a pistol late at night at John Calvert’s window “to his and his wifes great afrightment”. Chester County Court 7th month 1692. Find the case of the stolen pig in Chester County Court on March 1682. Presumably when Anderson hid the stolen bacon in an out house, the reference was to an out-building, not necessarily what we would call an outhouse.
  2. Nicholas Randall laid with his head on Frances Swift’s lap, then took her into the barn at midnight, where “his mustard pot would work”. He called John Swift a cuckoldy rogue. Bucks County Court record, 4th month 1688.
  3. Chester County Court record, 4th month 1690. On the same day the court heard the case of Susannah Willard, convicted of fornication and bastardy with her step-father Ralph Dracott. Coincidentally Susannah’s sister Elizabeth later married Nicholas Randall.
  4. Minutes of the Provincial Council, volume 1, pages 95-96. About this time Neels Mattson sold his farm and moved to Gloucester County, West Jersey, according to Peter S. Craig, The 1693 Census of the Swedes on the Delaware, pages 69-70.

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