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The development of the Pennsylvania system of courts was complicated. A comprehensive history is Frank M. Eastman, Courts and Lawyers of Pennsylvania: A History 1623-1923. 3 vols. (New York: The American Historical Society 1922; FHL book 974.8 P2eand FHL fiche 6089143-45. See also Howard M. Jenkins, ed., Pennsylvania Colonial and Federal: A History 1608-1903, "The Judicial System" 3:98-118 (Philadelphia, PA, Pennsylvania Historical Publishing Association, 1903. FHL book 974.8 H2j and FHL film 824350
For more information about county court procedures and records, see County Government and Archives in Pennsylvania (described in the "Archives and Libraries" article on this site).
There were apparently no court records kept by the Swedish settlers in Pennsylvania. After the Dutch gained control of the area, minutes were kept of court actions. Minutes from 1655-1657 are found in vol. 12 beginning on page 133 of John Romeyn Brodhead and E. B. O'Callaghan, Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York: Procured in Holland, England, and France, 15 vols.; volume 12, Documents Relating to the History of the Dutch and Swedish Settlements on the Delaware River FHL book 974.7 H2d and FHL film 824389 item 2
In 1673, the Dutch organized three judicial districts, two in what is now Delaware and one in Upland, now Chester County, Pennsylvania. For the records of this court see Edward Armstrong, ed., Record of Upland Court from the 14th of November, 1676, [to] the 14th of June, 1681 FHL film 571147 item 1. The English retained these districts for a period of time after they gained permanent control of New Netherlands. Appeal from these courts was made to the Court of Assizes in New York.
Major Pennsylvania courts that kept records of genealogical value were established as follows:
1682 - 1722 County courts
Under William Penn, county courts were established in each of the three counties formed in 1682. Appeal from those courts was before the governor and provincial council, later called the provincial court. The county courts dealt with equity and estate issues including civil and criminal matters but no capital crimes. They also performed many executive duties, such as laying out roads, registering marks and brands, levying taxes, and supervising indentured servants, etc. The justices of this court also met as an "orphans" court regarding orphan matters.
1682 - pres. Justice of the peace
Courts Justice of the prespeace courts for each township were established from the time of William Penn. These courts have become less influential and no longer exist in some localities. The library has a few records from these courts, such as Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, Justice of the Peace, Court Dockets, 1811-1905 FHL films 1032470-71. This source includes some marriage records. Other records of this type may also contain marriage records. These courts are now known as magisterial district courts.
1682 - 1968 Orphans' courts
Orphans' courts dealt with orphan, guardianship, and estate issues. In the larger cities, the orphans' courts became totally separate from other courts. The orphans' court also appears to have been the main equity court for much of the colonial period. The library has some orphans' court records such as Pennsylvania, Orphan's Court (York County), Orphan's Court Dockets, 1749-1881;General Index to Dockets, 1749-1887 FHL film 22150 (first of 24 films). These courts were abolished by constitutional amendment in 1968, and became a part of the courts of common pleas; however, in most counties, the filing clerk remained the Clerk of the Orphans' Court after the formal abolishment.
1684 - 1722 Provincial court
The first provincial court was created in 1684. Its responsibility was to try appeal cases from inferior courts and cases involving criminal and civil issues.
1697 - 1789 Admiralty court
In 1697 the governor of Maryland was authorized to organize an admiralty court in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Jersey. This court dealt with issues of navigation and trade. In 1789 these responsibilities were placed under federal jurisdiction.
1700 - 1780 Court for trial of Negroes
This court was established in each county with the responsibility for trying Negroes who were accused of committing crimes. This court was abolished in 1780. The library has none of these records, but it does have Pennsylvania, Court of Quarter Sessions (Bedford County), Slave records, 1780-1834 FHL film 1465907. These records contain lists of slaves belonging to various owners. Sometimes the age, birthdate, and parents are given. It also includes petitions to keep services of a slave past age 28, claims on runaway slaves, bills of sale, and apprentice indentures.
1720 - 1735 Court of chancery/equity
In 1720 a court of chancery/equity was organized but was discontinued in 1735. Some records of this court are found in Pennsylvania, Chancery Court, The Registrar's Book of Governor Keith's Court of Chancery of the Province of Pennsylvania, 1720-1735/Reprint, With Comments Prepared by Committee on Legal Biography and History of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, (Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Bar Association, 1941. FHL book 974.8 P2p
1722 - 1968 Court of quarter sessions of the peace
In 1722 the civil and criminal responsibilities of the county court were divided and the court of common pleas and court of general quarter sessions of the peace were established. Prior to 1895 appeals from these courts were to the state supreme court (established in 1722), but after that time appeals were made to the superior court. The library has some court of quarter sessions (so called because they met quarterly) records such as Pennsylvania, Court of Quarter Sessions (Philadelphia County), Court Docket, 1753-1879 FHL film 965370 (first of 65 films). Besides criminal case entries listing all parties involved and all jury members, there are also some records of roads, appointments of civil officials, and tavern and peddler's licenses issued. These courts were abolished by constitutional amendment in 1968, and became a part of the courts of common pleas. The filing clerk for this court was the clerk of quarter sessions, now known as the clerk of courts in most counties.
1722 - pres. Court of common pleas
The court of common pleas and the orphans' court were closely allied and had the same judges, but they were distinct in practice. These courts had countywide jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases including real estate, bankruptcy, tax collection, naturalization, and divorce. As an example of these records, the library has Pennsylvania, Court of Common Pleas (Cumberland County), Appearance Dockets, 1769-1905; Adsecturm Index, 1750-1894 FHL film 1010167 (first of 40 films; and Pennsylvania, Court of Common Pleas (Cumberland County), Divorce Decrees, 1810-1905 FHL films 1011472-84. The filing clerk for civil actions historically associated with this court is known as the Prothonotary in most counties. In 1968, the court of common pleas greatly expanded its jurisdiction by emcompassing the courts of oyer and terminer and general jail delivery, the court of quarter sessions of the peace, and the orphans' court, becoming the primary county-level court in Pennsylvania.
1722 - pres. Supreme court
In 1722 the provincial court was replaced by the state supreme court. The state was ultimately divided into the eastern, middle, northern, and western districts for the supreme court jurisdiction. In 1776 the supreme court and the courts of common pleas were specifically given the right to officiate in equity proceedings.
1811 - 1873 District courts
Some district courts were established as early as 1811, but they were all abolished in 1873. They appear to have been essentially a court of common pleas.
1895 - pres. Superior court
In 1895 the superior court was established as an intermediate appellate court, and the right to appeal to the supreme court became more restrictive.
1903 - present Juvenile courts
In 1903, a juvenile court was established to administer offenses committed by children who were under age 16 or dependent upon the courts for support.
Courts of Oyer and Terminer were established apparently by 1790 to handle felonies, which were previously handled by other courts.
Beginning in 1791 the state was divided into five judicial districts. Additional districts were designated through the years, and in 1969 there were 59. Frank M. Eastman, Courts and Lawyers of Pennsylvania, 2:546- 49, cited above, lists the districts and time periods for each county.
Some of the larger cities had mayor's courts. The library has Philadelphia (Pennsylvania), Mayor's Court, Court Docket, 1789-1837 FHL film 972957 (first of 7 films). In addition to entries for criminal cases, these records include recommendations for public house licenses, appointments of overseers of poor, apprentice cases, and confirmations of constables.
See Frank M. Eastman, Courts and Lawyers of Pennsylvania, Virginia Courts Held Within the Present Territory of Pennsylvania 2:367-76, cited above, for an excellent discussion of court proceedings in the disputed Southwestern area of the state.
For more information on federal court records, see the United States Research Outline (30972). The library has few of these, but does have United States, Circuit court (Pennsylvania; Eastern District), Naturalization Petitions and Records, 1795-1911 FHL film 1749854 (first of 53 films).
The two sources below give an excellent description of available court records for the county. They provide important historical background and explain how to use the records and what they contain. They may indicate the extent of records available in many counties in the United States.
Catanese, Lynn Ann. Guide to Records of the Court of Quarter Sessions, Chester County, Pennsylvania, 1681-1969: Records of the Clerk of Courts, Records of the Court of Oyer and Terminer and General Jail Delivery, Criminal Records of the Sheriff. (West Chester, PA: Chester County Historical Society, 1988. FHL book 974.813 P23c.
Catanese, Lynn Ann. Guide to Records of the Court of Common Pleas, Chester County, Pennsylvania, 1681-1900: Records of the Prothonotary, Civil Records of the Sheriff, Select Civil Records of the Circuit Court of Chester County and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. (West Chester, PA: Chester County Historical Society, 1987. FHL book 974.813 P2g.
Compared to the court records that appear to exist, the library has relatively few court records.
- Lewis, Lawrence. "The Courts of Pennsylvania in the Seventeenth Century," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 5 (1881):141-190. Digital version at Internet Archive - free.
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