Tag Archives: Warren County Kentucky

Courtz and Sealz

Kentucky had been a state for ten years when the Judiciary Act of 1802 reorganized the federal court system. Together with a local district court judge, each justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (there were then six) was tasked with hearing cases in one of the nation’s six circuits.  The justices heartily disliked “circuit riding” for legal reasons, but also because of the difficulties of early nineteenth-century travel.  In fact, so intolerably distant were the judicial districts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Maine, and the territories that the Act did not even include them in any of its circuits. Not until 1807 did a newly created Seventh Circuit comprise Kentucky and its fellow outliers, Tennessee and Ohio.

Meanwhile, recognizing that its district courts were overloaded, Kentucky enacted legislation in 1802 establishing its own circuit court system.  Some circuits were comprised of more than one county, but Warren County alone made up the Warren Circuit.  Convening on the first Monday in March, June and September, the court succeeded to the powers of the old district and quarter-sessions courts, and had trial jurisdiction over both civil and criminal matters except those involving less than five pounds in money or one thousand pounds of tobacco.

But amidst all the administrative details of establishing the new courts, one was overlooked.  In 1804,  recognizing that “each of the circuit courts of this commonwealth should possess a seal of office, and no provision hath heretofore been made for that purpose,” the General Assembly directed each court to procure a seal for not more than ten dollars, to be paid out of the money collected from fines and costs. 

A few early court records in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library bear this seal.  In a design reminiscent of the Great Seal, the center shows a bald eagle bearing in its talons an olive branch and arrows.  Encircling the eagle are the words:

Oh dear. What happened?  Do we have a mistake resembling the “Inverted Jenny,” the 1918 U.S. postage stamp showing an airplane upside down?  Did the engraver become confused, thinking the “N” had to be reversed in order to appear correctly when the seal was applied?  Or do we just have an unschooled engraver trying to extrapolate the appearance of the uppercase letter from a lowercase “n”?  Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century gravestones sometimes bore reversed letters – “s” and “z,” in particular, as well as “n” – but an official seal? 

In any event, the backwards “N” doesn’t seem to have bothered anyone, perhaps because another ten dollars would have been required to fix it.  The seal stayed in use until at least 1839.  By 1860, another seal carried the correct lettering, together with a more pastoral image in the center.  We see that one in use until at least 1902.

Warren Circuit Court seals

Click here to access more information about locating these seals, along with a little history on Warren County’s early courts and the subjects of some early indictments.  Click here for a finding aid to some of our early court records.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“It is my will and desire”

Nineteenth-century Kentuckians commonly began their wills with a declaration of mental but not physical vigor.  I, [name], being weak and sick in body but of perfect mind and memory, or some similar phrase, was the usual prelude to a disposition of assets upon death.

Daniel Smith displayed a slightly different attitude when he composed his will in 1836.  Though the Warren County farmer would depart this earth less than two years later, he claimed to possess both “common understanding & memory” and to be “in my usual health.” 

In his will, he hinted at his prosperity and directed that “what earthly goods it hath pleased God to bless me” – cattle, sheep, horses, mules, household furniture, money, notes and bank stock – be used for the support of his wife Mary and “our two afflicted children Anna & Robert Smith.”  After the death of any two, the survivor was to receive $1500, then share the estate equally with three other sons and a daughter.  Small bequests also went to foreign missions in China and Burma. 

Smith’s instructions, however – all preceded with the phrase “It is my will and desire” – took up little more than half of his four-page testament.  The rest dealt with property to which he gave equally careful thought: his enslaved servants.

Smith set up a staggered schedule for their emancipation.  Moriah was to enjoy the rights of a “free white person” at the end of 1838, “provided she does not live within Ten miles of my family.”  Peter was to be “released from bondage” at the end of 1841; both he and Moriah were to receive aid from Smith’s estate if they were unable to support themselves.  Six others – Isaac, Peggy, Ellen, Jane, Charlotte and George – were to be freed between 1843 and 1850.  Children of the enslaved servants were not to be free until age 25, but if any of their freed parents should “desire to emigrate to Liberia,” the children could accompany them.

While emancipation by will was not unusual, Smith’s directives starkly illustrated the primacy of property rights over human rights.  In the case of Sam, an enslaved man who had “been accused of making some unwarrantable threats,” the promise of freedom at the end of 1848 would depend on his good behavior.  Any further misconduct, Smith instructed, and “he must be separated from my Family and sold as a common Slave.”  All of Smith’s enslaved servants, in fact, were subject to sale by his executors “up to the time at which they & each of them are to be free.” 

Smith’s control over his enslaved servants was most evident when it came to Moriah, due to be freed at the end of 1838.  Learning that Moriah “is inclined to use too much strong drink, & disposed to dissipation,” he revoked her emancipation in an 1837 codicil to his will.  Instead, she was to be hired out to “some good master who is Religious & pious” and who would treat her well and “furnish her with better & more comfortable clothes than common hired Servants is allowed.”  Part of the payment for her hire was to be put aside for her maintenance – the portion to increase “as she gets of less value” – and the balance invested for her benefit, to be used “as she may need it” or disposed of on death “as she pleases.”

Daniel Smith’s will – a remarkable document that arguably recognized some humanity in his enslaved servants, yet deprived them of agency even as his own power extended beyond death – is part of a collection of early Warren County Court records in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Special Collections Library.  A finding aid can be downloaded here.  For more collections, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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Making 1797-1850 Marriage Records Available Online

This week a patron from St. Louis came into the Library Special Collections Reading Room looking for documentation relating to his ancestors’ 1809 marriage in Warren County.  He had already been to the courthouse, where he was told that Special Collections had many of the original Warren County marriage bonds from 1797 to around 1850.  I was thrilled to be able to help him, because he was our first in-house patron to use the scanned Warren County Marriage Records online in TopSCHOLAR.  Rather than pulling out the vulnerable originals, I was able to guide him through the search process of finding the record online.  The marriage records have been scanned in the same order they appear in the collection, which is first arranged chronologically by year and then alphabetically by the gro0m’s last name.   If you don’t know the groom’s name, then you can do a keyword search by the bride’s maiden name by using the search box that appears in the top left corner of the page.  At this time, we only have the first fifteen years online.  We are adding new records incrementally as we complete the scanning and encoding.

Marriage bond.

An original Warren County marriage document from 1797.

Scanning these records and making them accessible is a time consuming and expensive process.  Personnel in Manuscripts & Folklife Archives will make tremendous progress on the project this summer, as we have a student and one part-time employee committed almost exclusively to the project.  The funding for their wages was made possible through a challenge grant made by Marilyn Forney, a friend of Special Collections from Pennsylvania but with local family ties.  Her grant was matched by members of the XV Club, Ray Buckberry, Tad Donnelly, Dean Connie Foster, and Jonathan Jeffrey.

The marriage records are our most requested resource both in-house and online.  This digitization project will not only make the items accessible to the public in the comfort of their homes, it will help save the documents by decreasing human handling.  To peruse the records scanned thus far click here.

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