Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Asotin County Frontier Justice Records Now Online

The Washington State Archives, Digital Archives has placed a fascinating set of records online, with more to come. The records are the Frontier Justice records for Asotin County. The Frontier Justice Collection consists of the court records of the Washington Territory, from 1853 to 1889. These court records from the tumultuous frontier period of Washington offer an exciting and decidedly unvarnished view of our past, and include cases for adultery and debt collection, gambling and fraud, selling liquor to Indians and violence including murder. A full description of the record series is here. The Digital Archives has had a finding aid to the cases online for several years, but actually viewing these fascinating records has required a trip to a regional archive branch where the records are available in paper or microfilm. Now, thanks to the hard work of Eastern Region Archivist Jeff Creighton and his staff, the original documents for Asotin County have been scanned and are available online.The records for Walla Walla county are to follow, and it is hoped that the rest of the counties will be done in the coming years.

The records are searchable by any of our metadata fields, including the names of the plaintiff and defendant or by date. Unfortunately they are not browseable. You can get around this by searching for a date range that will include all the records (say 1800-2000) and then set the "records per page" display to its maximum of 100. The search results will show every record for the county, which you can then sort by clicking on any of the columns. Here is an example, sorted by cause. Click on the document icon to pull up a scan of the original. These are handwritten manuscript records, and not all are easy to read. The DeJa Vue document viewer plug-in used by the Digital Archives is helpful, allowing the user to zoom in, print off, or save the images.

These records open up new fields of research to historians and students. Indian are prominently mentioned in many including actions they themselves initiated. See for example this 1887 case in which William Stingy, a Nez Perce, accuses Indian George of horse theft. One wonders why Stingy used the white government's court system to seek justice rather than tribal remedies, and if the "Indian George" in the case is the same as the Nez Perce man of the same name who General Howard used to try and broker a peace with Chief Joseph in the Nez Perce War just ten years before. Other obvious topics from the records include gender relations including adultery and divorce, debt and bankruptcy, efforts to regulate the morals of early Washingtonians, including alcohol consumption, and the really striking levels of violence. These records would also make a great teaching resource.

We have room for improvement in our presentation of these records. The court cases, some of them 80 pages of longer, are chock full of names that are not currently indexed or searchable. Browsing would improve the functionality of the series. And ultimately it would be great to see some sort of crowd-sourced transcription of the records (though that is a long ways off at present).

Are you using the Frontier Justice records in your research or teaching? Drop me a line, I would love to hear from you.


exlibriscat said...

I've searched the Frontier Justice records in my genealogy research and found mostly probate stuff, but sometimes I find something interesting. For instance, my ancestor, Peter Jacobs, owned a brewery in Uniontown and got in trouble for selling liquor to a minor in 1884. I didn't know they had laws against that way back when.

Sharon said...

I was searching the Washington Digital Archives for informaiton on my Great Great Aunt Maryetta Swikert, Powers, Myers, Boland, Ott, Hodges. We knew she had been married multiple times.
In the Frontier Justice of Asotin County I found the records for a murder trial involving her exhusband Charles E. Myers who was tried for murdering her "friend" Elmer Stimpson. What interesting facts and statements given by all involved including her, Charles, and Maryetta's father, my Great Great Grandfather.