Court histories may shed light on ancestry

Today we think we live in a litigious society where lawsuits are filed seemingly every minute of the workday.  This is nothing new. Genealogists may not realize just how litigious our ancestors were.

In Colonial times juries heard a wide variety of cases from untended animals destroying a neighbor’s crops to accusations of witchcraft.  All were crimes and juries and judges had to decide punishments and fines for each one. The collections of these trials make for interesting reading and shine a light on the religious, cultural, economic, and general belief systems of our ancestors.

My seventh great-grandfather, William Vinson of Gloucester, Massachusetts, was always in court as a plaintiff.  He was a rigid Puritan and kept an eagle eye on his neighbors’ moral conduct and truly must have been one of the most hated men in the town.  He was also one of the wealthiest, to add insult to injury, owning land, a gristmill, inn, and a pottery.

William served as a local justice. He gleefully reported on fishermen who took their boats to sea on Sundays, or people who missed church, couples whose first child came too early, adulterers, and people who spoke badly about the local minister.  No one was seemingly safe from him. He did get in trouble when he accused a young girl of immoral conduct and was taken to court by her fiancé and proven wrong. It doesn’t seem to have slowed him down in his pursuit of his neighbors’ faults, and woe betide a man who owed him money and was late with a payment.  I don’t think I would have liked this great-grandfather much.

My fourth great-grandfather, Nathaniel Bragg of what is now China, Maine, and his sons were sued in Superior Court for not delivering a load of logs on time.  The records don’t indicate if there was illness, the winter was particularly harsh, or the ice in the lake didn’t go out early enough to float the logs to their purchaser. They did deliver the logs in question and weren’t badly penalized.

These kinds of suits can tell us a great deal good and bad about our ancestors.  Most of us in Maine with English ancestry have our roots in Massachusetts, which is fortunate since Massachusetts towns kept very good records and their town and county court records have been published in book form and some can be found on sites such as FamilySearch.org.  You may find a relative or direct ancestor named in a court case either as defendant or plaintiff. You may find your ancestor served on a jury at one time or another. Sometimes you will find contested wills or cases where a child is accused of abusing an elderly parent.

Whatever you find, it will add to your knowledge of your ancestors.

The Maine State Archives has a great collection of Massachusetts records to pursue.  Many of Maine’s earlier court records can be found at the State Archives. Happy hunting and don’t be surprised at what you may find.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com. Her semimonthly column is sponsored by the Aroostook County Genealogical Society which meets the fourth Monday of the month except in July and December at the Caribou Library at 6:30 p.m. Guests are always welcome. FMI contact Edwin “J” Bullard at 492-5501.

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