Friday, August 20, 2010

Coles County Illinois Court Cases on line

Thanks to the Legal History Blog, I just heard of an online index or database to 19th-century circuit court cases in Coles County, Illinois -- an "ongoing project" whose web site describes as "current" the team from 2002-2003! (The internet has a history -- who knew?)

The index is or was the product of "an on-going investigation by student researchers and history professors at Eastern Illinois University and elsewhere." They're identifying and abstracting (as genealogists would call it) and indexing criminal and civil cases from Coles County from 1830 to 1899. These files are conveniently held by the Illinois Regional Archives Depository at Eastern Illinois University's library. According to the IRAD inventory, its holdings include circuit court case files 1832-1890, chancery files 1835-1900 (seemingly overlapping with the previous), and the chancery record 1849-1915 (these would be the court's bound record books).

The web site also includes several other valuable resources for researchers: maps and history of Coles County (which included current Douglas and Cumberland counties at various times prior to 1859), a list of the five "top" county cases 1830-1900, and samples of court documents (selected from later years when preprinted forms were in use).

The index itself currently includes cases as early as 1831 (which are cited to IRAD files, so sue me) and as late as 1906. Within those years the coverage is quite uneven, ranging from no cases at all for the years of 1879, 1880, and 1890, to over 100 cases for each of 1857, 1858, 1859, and 1865. CCLHP's "results" page essays a few generalizations from it, but genealogists and social historians might want to exercise caution in doing so, since the database is clearly not comprehensive, and there's no way to tell whether it's representative of all the cases in that 70-year period.

For each indexed case you can find the date of the underlying incident; the date the case was filed; the case type; the names, sexes, and literacy statuses of the plaintiffs and defendants; and a one-sentence description of the issues involved.

EIU's IRAD already has a separate and somewhat more terse index of cases heard in Mattoon's short-lived Court of Common Pleas from 1869 to 1873; its records were merged in with the circuit court after that time. But at this point IRAD has no reference pointer to the CCLHP index. You just have to know.

The CCLHP database is intended for "high school students, undergraduates, graduates, genealogists, and professional historians," but while extremely valuable it is not ideal for genealogists, in that (like the Mattoon index) it only indexes plaintiffs and defendants.

In my own work -- outside of probates or partition suits -- when seeking to identify a difficult person I would most want to know who stood up in court to guarantee his bail or payment of a fine, or who he stood up for. It's appropriate that a work of historical indexing should observe the standards of that discipline, but an every-name index is still the genealogical standard.

1 comment:

Aspiring freelance writer said...

I wish more states had this resource like Illionois does- especially Arkansas and Louisiana!!