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Bristol County, Massachusetts, Court Records

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Introduction to the Bristol County, Massachusetts, Court Records

The Bristol County Court Records are an accumulation of single-sheet file documents issued by (or directed to) the judiciary of Bristol County in southeastern Massachusetts, mostly during the colonial period. Bristol County was established in 1685, and was incorporated into Massachusetts Bay with the dissolution of the Plymouth colony in 1691. During the colonial period, its notable towns included Attleborough, Berkeley, Dartmouth, Dighton, Easton, Freetown, Norton, Raynham, Rehoboth, Swansea, and Taunton. Barrington, Bristol, Little Compton, Tiverton, and Warren lay within Bristol County until 1746, when the colonial boundary was redrawn and the towns were consigned to Rhode Island. The county seats were Bristol and, after 1746, Taunton. Seventy-eight of the 96 records date from the Second Charter period in Massachusetts legal history (1692-1760); 56 predate 1730; five date from the seventeenth century. The earliest document is a 1696/7 writ of attachment issued by Bristol County justice John Saffin; the latest is an 1816 recognizance issued by Zebedee Macomber.

The Bristol County collection includes documents deriving from every tier of the county court system. At the base of this hierarchy were the one-man courts of the county's justices of the peace. These courts had jurisdiction over minor civil suits (in which the amount at issue was less than 40 shillings, and title to land was not in question) as well as over cases involving petty criminal offenses, like profanity, defamation, or minor trespass. Cases heard by individual justices could be appealed to the county's two trial courts, the Inferior Court of Common Pleas and the Court of General Sessions of the Peace. Common Pleas, composed of four justices meeting quarterly at Bristol (or Taunton), possessed original jurisdiction over all civil suits in which damages sought exceeded 40 shillings, except for those involving the crown as plaintiff. General Sessions was also a quarterly court, composed of Bristol County's justices sitting collectively. In its adjudicatory capacity it heard all but the most serious of criminal cases. It also had extensive county administrative functions; it oversaw road and bridge construction, issued licenses (including licenses to sell alcohol and to operate boarding houses, several examples of which are included in the collection), and approved town by-laws. This judicial structure changed relatively little over the course of the eighteenth century. More than 60 per cent of the documents in the collection relate to cases referred to or heard by the Court of General Sessions, including most of the items predating 1725. Around 25 per cent relate to cases before Common Pleas; most of the remainder document cases heard by individual county justices.

The collection includes examples of at least 15 specific document types, representing various stages of judicial procedure. Among those more frequently encountered are: complaints and petitions directed by plaintiffs (and others) to the several courts; summonses, writs of attachment, and arrest warrants (instruments used by the courts to initiate legal proceedings, served by a sheriff or constable); bonds of recognizance (whereby the courts sought compliance by threatening the forfeiture of pledged monies); writs relating to jury duty; jury presentments; and memoranda of judgment and writs of execution. Most of the Court of Common Pleas documents pertain to actions between private individuals for the collection of debts. The General Sessions documents typically indicate either minor criminal offenses against order (sabbath violations, vagrancy, drunkenness, and so on) or sexual misconduct (especially fornication and bastardy). Also represented are cases against public officials, usually selectmen (failure to hire a minister or elect a constable; over- or under-taxation). Only occasionally do two or more documents within the collection pertain to the same specific case. Many of the documents—especially warrants—bear endorsements.

Provenance note: The collection of Bristol County court records was assembled by the University Libraries over the years 2000 to 2005. Most of the individual items were purchased via ebay, from Lonn B. Leach of Davie, Florida.

Bibliographic note: An excellent introduction to the legal history of seventeenth and eighteenth century Massachusetts is the collection of essays published as Law in Colonial Massachusetts 1630-1800, Boston, 1984 (vol. 62 of the Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts). Much of Part II of this work deals with the records themselves.

Index of Documents

MSN/COL 2717-1Writ of attachment against Edward Hammon and Esther AndrewsJanuary 4, 1696/7
MSN/COL 2717-2Ephraim Burt testimony memorandum December 9, 1697
MSN/COL 2717-3Ephraim Burt and Samuel Waldron bill of costsJanuary 11, 1697/8
MSN/COL 2717-4Writ of execution against John GravesOctober 12, 1698
MSN/COL 2717-5John Read, et al., recognizanceApril 3, 1699
MSN/COL 2717-6Writ of attachment against Sarah WhiteDecember 13, 1700
MSN/COL 2717-7Little Compton jury summons and summons to the town selectmenJune 14, 1703
MSN/COL 2717-8Thomas Hathaway, et al. summonsOctober 30, 1704
MSN/COL 2717-10Writ of execution against Nathaniel SmithNovember 20, 1705
MSN/COL 2717-11Freetown selectmen summonsDecember 13, 1705
MSN/COL 2717-12Freetown selectmen court orderJanuary 13, 1707/8
MSN/COL 2717-13Tax assessors of Bristol summonsJanuary 8, 1705/6
MSN/COL 2717-14Dartmouth court orderApril 11, 1707
MSN/COL 2717-15George Berstow recognizanceJuly 8, 1707
MSN/COL 2717-16George Berstow recognizanceJuly 8, 1707
MSN/COL 2717-17Seth Pope recognizanceJuly 8, 1707
MSN/COL 2717-18David Freeman recognizanceJuly 13, 1708
MSN/COL 2717-19Samuel Humphrey recognizanceJuly 13, 1708
MSN/COL 2717-20Selectmen of Bristol summonsSeptember 22, 1708
MSN/COL 2717-21Presentment against Philip TaborOctober 12, 1708
MSN/COL 2717-22Presentment against William WoodJuly 12, 1709
MSN/COL 2717-23Ebenezer and Mary Bishop petitionApril 8, 1712
MSN/COL 2717-24Elizabeth Smith summonsJune 10, 1712
MSN/COL 2717-25Frank Towning recognizanceJanuary 19, 1712/13
MSN/COL 2717-26William Almy petitionApril 8, 1718
MSN/COL 2717-27Mary Adams SummonsMay 13, 1718
MSN/COL 2717-28William Throope complaintApril 14, 1719
MSN/COL 2717-29Lemuel Pope petitionApril 14, 1719
MSN/COL 2717-30Warrant of contempt against John RosherApril 22, 1719
MSN/COL 2717-31Judgement against Thomas BrownellFebruary 9, 1719/20
MSN/COL 2717-32Thomas Brownell recognizanceFebruary 9, 1719/20
MSN/COL 2717-33George Brownell recognizanceFebruary 16, 1719/20
MSN/COL 2717-34Selectmen of Norton summonsApril 13, 1720
MSN/COL 2717-35Complaint of Martha PriceMay 24-25, 1720
MSN/COL 2717-36Warrant for the arrest of Benjamin Corry (Cory), et al.June 25, 1720
MSN/COL 2717-37Mary Roshar recognizanceJune 22, 1722
MSN/COL 2717-38John Perren petitionJuly 10, 1722
MSN/COL 2717-39Timothy Holoway summonsDecember 3, 1722
MSN/COL 2717-40Mary Hix recognizanceJanuary 1, 1722/3
MSN/COL 2717-41William Leonard summonsApril 18 1723
MSN/COL 2717-42Cristifer Thrasher recognizanceMay 6, 1723
MSN/COL 2717-43Writ of attachment against Constant ChurchJune 17, 1724
MSN/COL 2717-44Benanuel Bowers summonsJune 22, 1724
MSN/COL 2717-45Writ of attachment against Squier Allen and Joseph AllenJune 17, 1725
MSN/COL 2717-46Writ of attachment against Thomas HomanSeptember 25, 1725
MSN/COL 2717-47Anna Cobb recognizanceMay 18, 1726
MSN/COL 2717-48Writ of attachment against Samuel ClarkMay 24, 1726
MSN/COL 2717-49Jonathan Linkon, et al recognizanceMarch 23, 1727/8
MSN/COL 2717-50Elizebeth Easton complaintSeptember 17, 1728
MSN/COL 2717-51Elizebeth Easton recognizanceNovember 8, 1729
MSN/COL 2717-52Tallman v. Joslyn bill of costsSeptember 22, 1728
MSN/COL 2717-53Charles Joslin writ of attachmentJune 20, 1732
MSN/COL 2717-54Jeremiah Witherel summonsJanuary 11, 1728/9
MSN/COL 2717-55Writ of attachment against William CreeseMarch 4, 1728/9
MSN/COL 2717-56Writ of attachment against Joseph JenkinsMarch 4, 1728/9
MSN/COL 2717-57Writ of attachment against Thomas TurnerApril 13, 1730
MSN/COL 2717-58Writ of execution against John ClapJanuary 11, 1733/4
MSN/COL 2717-59Easton jury summonsJune 10, 1734
MSN/COL 2717-60Tiverton jury summonsJune 10, 1734
MSN/COL 2717-61Warrant for the arrest of William AkensJuly 16, 1734
MSN/COL 2717-62Joseph Tisdale summonsAugust 24, 1741
MSN/COL 2717-63Writ of execution against David SeaberryJune 15, 1743
MSN/COL 2717-64Writ of execution against Samuel Thrasher and Bezaliel ThrasherJune 17, 1743
MSN/COL 2717-65Writ of attachment against John MarshallAugust 10, 1743
MSN/COL 2717-66Israel Peck summonsJune 25, 1744
MSN/COL 2717-67Marey Whelch recognizanceAugust 6, 1744
MSN/COL 2717-68John Throop, Jr. and Sarah Child jury presentmentJune 1744
MSN/COL 2717-69John Throop, Jr. and Sarah Child warrantAugust 8, 1744
MSN/COL 2717-70Warrant for the arrest of Joseph Raynolds, Jr.August 17, 1744
MSN/COL 2717-71Writ of attachment against Nathaniel Bosworth and Thomas LawtonAugust 25, 1744
MSN/COL 2717-72Presentment against Ebenezer HodgesMarch 1746/7
MSN/COL 2717-73Judgement against Stephen BakerMarch 12, 1747/8
MSN/COL 2717-74Swansea selectmen summonsApril 8, 1748
MSN/COL 2717-75Berkeley jury summonsMay 12, 1748
MSN/COL 2717-76Rehoboth jury summonsAugust 30, 1748
MSN/COL 2717-77Swansea jury summonsAugust 30, 1748
MSN/COL 2717-78Swansea petitionSeptember 11, 1748
MSN/COL 2717-79Judgement against Daniel Allen, Jr.June 11, 1763
MSN/COL 2717-80Stephen Wilbore recognizanceAugust 9, 1773
MSN/COL 2717-81Joannah Read recognizanceJanuary 12, 1774
MSN/COL 2717-82Sarah Brown recognizanceDecember 6, 1774
MSN/COL 2717-83Samuel Pratt recognizanceDecember 20, 1774
MSN/COL 2717-84Betty Chase examinationNovember 7, 1775
MSN/COL 2717-85Complaint of Lydia BriggsFebruary 28, 1776
MSN/COL 2717-86Presentment against Job SmithMarch 11, 1777
MSN/COL 2717-87Berkley committee petitionApril 18, 1777
MSN/COL 2717-88Joshua Hathaway depositionMay 2, 1777
MSN/COL 2717-89Mansfield selectmen reportJune 30, 1777
MSN/COL 2717-90Presentment against Ebenezer PeirceJune 1777
MSN/COL 2717-91Complaint of Silence BurrDecember 26, 1777
MSN/COL 2717-92Judgment against William WitherellJanuary 19, 1784
MSN/COL 2717-93Judgment against Japheth BicknalAugust 6, 1785
MSN/COL 2717-94Judgment against George BrockAugust 24, 1787
MSN/COL 2717-95Presentment against Asher EllisApril 1797
MSN/COL 2717-96Bradford Howland recognizanceOctober 11, 1816

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