If you have an ancestor in colonial New England, you may discover that ancestor served on a jury. Serving on juries was considered the duty of all free men in a town. Women didn’t vote or serve in public offices at that time.
The names of jurors are recorded in town and court records. Then, as now, juries had different purposes and names. Let’s take a look at the three juries you’re likely to encounter in your research.
Grand jury is a name most of us know today. The grand jury in colonial New England was a jury of inquiry summoned by a sheriff to hear complaints and accusations in criminal cases. The jurors would ponder the evidence presented, and when they felt a trial was needed, they would return a bill of indictment.
The number of jurors varied, but the groups were larger than today. Jurors were chosen by the towns in a county, and they were then sent to the grand jury at County Court. Unlike today, a member of the grand jury might himself bring a case and present evidence. The entire grand jury, however, had to vote, so it was unlikely the jury would side with one of their own.
The second form of jury is a petit (small) jury, which is what we are most familiar with today. It was a jury of 12 men. The petit jury concerned itself with what we’d call civil suits, and criminal matters referred by the grand jury. They heard evidence on a case and rendered a judgment.
Cases brought before these juries ranged from boundary disputes, fornication of an unmarried couple, an unmarried woman giving birth to a child, theft, damage to someone’s property by someone else or bodily assault, to name a few examples. Some sad cases involved parental abuse by children, often brought by authorities in a town.
Then there was the third type, the coroner’s jury. Members of a coroner’s jury investigated suspicious deaths, either accidental or homicides. The jurors were drawn from members of the town or city where the death occurred, and after close examination submitted their findings to the local constable or sheriff.
While today we might raise an eyebrow at asking local people who might be prejudiced against someone to render a fair verdict, at that time it was not only considered fair but absolutely necessary. In an age before rapid transportation, it made sense. There were no CSI units, DNA or refrigeration. Weather and time were factors as well. It was therefore critical that a jury be formed as quickly as possible while any physical evidence survived, and the body of the victim hadn’t deteriorated beyond a state where clues disappeared. Therefore, juries were formed immediately while rendering a verdict was possible.
The colonial system of justice was based on England’s, dating from early medieval times. If your ancestor was a free man in a New England town don’t be surprised to find he served on any or all of these juries, and likely multiple times.
Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft. Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.