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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in November 2013. It is an excerpt from their course US Court Records by C. Ann Staley, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
U.S. Court of Claims (RG 123)
Although the U.S. Court of Claims was not established until an act of 24 February, 1855 (10 Stat. 612), U.S. Citizens and Indians, frequently sought restitution for alleged wrongs long before that time. Prior to 1855, claims for redress of grievances were submitted to the U.S. Treasury. If a claim was rejected by the Treasury department the claimant’s only recourse was to appeal directly to the United States Congress for redress. By the middle of the nineteenth century, petitions to Congress for relief had become so numerous that Congress found it impossible to make the proper investigations which were a necessity to assist in determining the action to be taken on the claim. An act of Congress was approved on 24 February 1855 (10 Stat. 612), which established the Court of Claims.
Before the creation of the U.S. Court of Claims in 1855, common grievances relating to the federal government were often taken directly to the United States Congress (equivalent records will be found in the state court files and among the records of the counties, municipalities, and towns). Responsible for the allocation of federal funds, the United States Congress received thousands of claims for money, land, or aid in the first seventy-five years of the nation. The Congress was petitioned to redress damage to private individuals (private claims), claims relating to military service, military supplies, and military transportation (men and supplies).
The pre-1855 claims against the federal government are addressed in, and researchers should consult, the American State Papers, U.S. Serial Set, and Territorial Records to help fill in the gaps. All three of these sets of records contain valuable insight into claims of individuals, or groups, and are an excellent source of genealogical information. We must be cautious! Even though we generally want to find our ancestors in the best light, the thought of obtaining a monetary award sometimes caused our ancestors to prevaricate. When examining documents, it is essential that we, as researchers, report what we find while being cautious not to read too much between the lines.
With every passing day, more and more records are available online for the use of the general public—some databases are provided with free access and others charge a fee.
The function of the U.S. Court of Claims was to hear claims against the United States brought directly by claimants.
The Court of Claims has retained indexes, dockets, journals, a register of attorneys, notice books, correspondence of the Chief Clerk, and other records relating to the Court. The decisions of the Court of Claims were reported in various congressional documents including Cases Decided in the Court of Claims of the United States... (Government Printing Office, 1867-1982).
The Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1982 (96 Stat. 25), April 2, 1982, abolished the United States Courts of Claims and established the United States Claims Court (trial jurisdiction) and the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (appellate jurisdiction).
Researchers will find the table of “Claims Made Against the U.S. Government” in The Source a valuable resource.
Claims relating to the Indian-depredation are in Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The court also had temporary jurisdiction in District of Columbia cases, French spoliation cases, and Indian depredation cases.
American State Papers
Earlier records can be found in the American State Papers. The thirty-eight set of physical volumes contain the legislative and executive documents of Congress for the time period 1789 to 1838. They are considered a part of the U.S. Serial Set which officially began in 1817. The American State Papers, also available on microfilm, are arranged in ten categories (classes).
- Foreign Relations
- Naval Affairs
- Indian Affairs
- Post Office Department
- Public Lands
- Commerce and Navigation
- Military Affairs
Here , we are particularly interested in the eight volumes in the “Public Lands” Class and the two volumes in the “Claims” Class. The American State Papers are not a complete record of activities because the 1814 fire destroyed many records and clerks were not always diligent record keepers. Each of the thirty-eight volumes are individually indexed, but researchers need to consider using Phillip W. McMullin’s Grassroots of America: A Computerized Index to the American State Papers: Land Grants and Claims (1789-1837).
The American Memory project on the Library of Congress website provides a link to the American State Papers, with images and searchable test.
U.S. Serial Set
The United States Congressional Serial Set, commonly referred to as the Serial Set, began publication with the 15th Congress, 1st Session (1817).
The Serial Set includes congressional publications and is compiled and printed by direction of Congress. The publications can include:
- committee reports on public and private legislation
- House and Senate journals
- House and Senate numbered reports and documents
- congressionally commissioned or conducted investigations
- directories and manuals
- executive branch publications
- other House or Senate ordered printed papers or documents
- various non-governmental publications
- and reports and journals from many other sources
These documents can run the gamut in the variety of topics that are covered, such as:
- 23rd Congress, 1833-1835, No. 252, Senate Document No. 505: Statistical view of population of U.S., 1790-1830
- 27th Congress, 1841-1843, No. 406, House Document No. 212 includes:
- -American citizens, captured by Mexicans at Santa Fe
- -Bankrupt law, Rhode Island, resolutions to suspend
- -Bounty land, Virginia, resolutions relating to
- -Iowa, resolutions of, as to expenses of convention to form a State Constitution
- 41st Congress, 1869-1871, No. 1397 and 1398, Senate Executive Document No. 11: Claims Against Great Britain
- 61st Congress, 1909-1911, No. 5592, House Report No. 983: Withdrawals of Public Lands in Certain Cases. House Report No. 983.
- 90th Congress, 1967, No. 12751-2, Senate Report: Reports on private bills
In its printed format there are over 14,000 volumes, but there are also microfiche versions available. The Law Librarians’ Society of Washington, D.C. website has an article “An Overview of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set” by Richard J. McKinney which provides information on the content, arrangement, numbering schemes and indexing of the Serial Set. It also provides information on locating libraries that have access to the Serial Set, other sources and Serial Set projects.
The options to finding indexes and digital images are opening up as technology advances. Just a few examples are:
Access to the U. S. Serial Set was difficult, at best, until the CIS U.S. Serial Set Index (1789-1969) was published by the Congressional Information Service (CIS), now part of LexisNexis Academic and Library Solutions. (This index also covers the American State Papers, starting in 1789). The LexisNexis website provides information on their index and a web link to a free whitepaper by Andrea Sevetson entitled “An Insider’s View of the U.S. Serial Set”.
The Washington University Libraries website provides additional information for resources on the Web. They also have an abbreviated index available. The index is mainly for providing what access is available in the St. Louis Metro Area; however, the index itself is useful to anyone. It covers the 15th Congress (1817-1819) through the 110th Congress (2007-2008).
The Library of Congress, American Memory Project website, provides information on the U.S. Serial Set and digitized images of selected documents and reports from some of the congresses .
The U.S. Government Printing Office website has an article “U.S. Congressional Serial Set: What It Is and Its History”. The article also provides information on how what is being printed has changed over the years.
The U.S. Government Printing Office’s Federal Digital System (FDSYS) provides “Numerical Lists of Documents and Reports” from the 85th Congress (1957-1958) through the 111th Congress (2009-2010) and the “Schedule of Serial Set Volumes” from the 100th Congress (1987-1988) through the 111th Congress (2009-2010).
- ↑ Arlene H. Eakle, "Research in Court Records," The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, revised edition (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, Inc. 1997), 175.
- ↑ American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, 1789-1837, 38 volumes (Washington, DC:Gales and Seaton, 1832-1861)
- ↑ Phillip W. McMullin, Grassroots of America: A Computerized Index to the American State Papers: Land Grants and Claims (1789-1837) (1972, reprint; Greeneville, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1994).
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US Court Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.
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