Skip to content

Uncovering New Haven: Confronting history in centuries-old court records

“I love this case so much,” gushes Sarah Morin as she holds out a yellow, weathered, handwritten document carefully sleeved in acid-free plastic.

In the document, a court case from New Haven dating back to 1716, a particularly cheeky court clerk pokes fun at a defendant who appeared before the court on a seemingly regular basis – if the number of documents bearing his name is any indication. 

In this particular case, defendant Joseph Tuttle was accused of slander for allegedly calling someone a “whore master” and was brought before the court to answer for his crime. 

But on the docket, there are notes scribbled in the margins saying things like “whatsoever you think, you suddenly speak” and “Joseph Tattle don’t you prattle and then sweetly smile.” While it is not exactly Shakespeare it is still a document preserving not just a tawdry legal case but a personality long since deceased.

Sarah Morin is the project archivist for Uncovering New Haven, a massive archival undertaking to document, catalog, preserve, and digitize thousands of court records dating back to the time when one of Connecticut’s largest cities was still a colonial settlement. 

Uncovering New Haven started in December 2020 and was initially planned as a two-year project. When you actually see the volumes of materials still to process, though, you can understand why they’re planning to extend a little further.

The project was funded with a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), part of the National Archives. It was built upon a previous project archiving records from the City of New London and Litchfield County. 

Those efforts identified records pertaining to minority groups and kept specific records regarding those cases. 

Several shelves in the library archive building are dedicated to the Uncovering New Haven project. The ones with post-its have been cataloged. The ones without are what remain.

In the New Haven project, the goal isn’t just identifying but digitizing.  While they aren’t digitizing every single document, in accordance with the grant they are taking care to scan everything dealing with ethnic or gender minorities, including women, Black people, Hispanic communities, and indigenous cultures.

“Unfortunately, a lot of them are very brittle and damaged because they’ve spent hundreds of years being folded,” explains Morin, pointing out documents that have torn or worn down in spots due to the ravages of time.

“[People] don’t probably understand how much valuable information is in the court records,” says Damon Munz, the Government Records Archivist at the State Library. “A lot of times, too, it’s the only document that you might find a certain person that’s been mentioned because it might not be mentioned in the census or anywhere else.”

“Especially poor and marginalized communities because they wouldn’t have been well-documented in the historic record,” adds Morin.

It is a time-consuming process but when complete, the box of unsorted documents becomes a neatly labeled and easily searchable archive of colonial courtroom drama. 

Cue the Law & Order soundtrack.

The heart of Connecticut’s history isn’t in the marbled halls of the statehouse, the old-fashioned craftsmanship of the historic Mystic seaport, or even the textbooks crammed into backpacks and desks as kids head off to school each morning. 

The heart of Connecticut’s history lives in a warehouse in downtown Hartford, in tens of thousands of carefully cataloged boxes filled with millions of pieces of paper.

The Connecticut State Library archive isn’t an unfathomable expanse. It is perhaps smaller than you might imagine a room built to house the collected history of one of the original colonies might be. Still, it is easy to get lost among the many enormous shelves, some of them on tracks that allow for easy movement and compact storage.

The State Library became the official state archive in 1909 but it had been collecting records from the three branches of government since at least 1855. Within the 50,000 or more boxes is almost anything you can imagine – as long as what you’re imagining is documented on a piece of paper generated by a state government that’s existed since the 17th century. 

“Anything pretty much that documents the history of the state and its individuals,” explains Munz. “So we have tax abstracts — or the towns call them Grand Lists — and those are great for genealogists and stuff, and they document what people did, what they owned.”

The archives also include records from schools, churches, and courts, as well as rows and rows of boxes from the administration of every governor in Connecticut’s history. Its official focus is on documents from state government, but over the years it has also become host to municipal records when needed, should a town not be able to care for important documents.

A large section of an even larger aisle is dedicated just to the records for the Uncovering New Haven project. Each of the dozens of boxes is filled with dozens of individual records made up of delicate aged paper, folded several times over into a sort of booklet which must be carefully opened and flattened before it can be recorded by the staff.

Digitization requires a separate set of processes from the initial scanning of the file to the creation of metadata which makes the document searchable in a database. These digital records are particularly useful for genealogists or families digging into their history. 

They’re also a great help to local teachers.

“Most historical societies are open limited hours and usually those hours are during the school day,” says Khalil Quotap, Director of Education and Engagement at the New Haven Museum. “So if a teacher wants a document, they’d have to take a personal day and they’d have to take a day off or they have to find a day that they already have off and use that time to go do the research on a very limited basis. But digitizing them and making them easier for teachers to access, I think it only benefits everybody.”

Quotap works primarily with school groups and teachers on programs that help to engage local kids with the history of their hometown. He’s been following the Uncovering New Haven project since the beginning and says he appreciates any endeavor that aims to make historical documents more accessible for students. 

“It means that it’s readable. It means that it’s searchable,” says Quotap. “It means that you’re able to connect to different lessons, compare and contrast modern and the past and struggles that people in the past have had with what modern-day people have. Teaching them how the legal system works, and all those pieces, I think, come together to really grab the interest of the students, because without that connection, it’s just an old document.”

Perhaps one of the more fascinating things this project can do is to bring some element of humanity to local history. Oftentimes, history feels separate from our modern lives. 

Textbooks and biographies, though they tell real stories of true events, present those people and events as carefully preserved tales and images. Even historical reenactments carry with them a sense of fantasy and fabrication as actors go through the motions of a well-prepared script.

But these documents, for all the dryness of a court proceeding, provide a tangible glimpse into real lives. As with most things from before the Industrial Revolution, they are handwritten and many also contain notes, asides, and even doodles from bored court clerks going about their duties, like the clerk writing his little ode to Joseph Tuttle’s recurring inability to control his outbursts.

A collection of handwritten court files from the turn of the 19th Century, waiting to be unfolded.

In addition to some big-name defendants — including at least 66 cases dealing with New Haven resident Benedict Arnold and his sister Hannah, many from before he turned coat during the American Revolution – the project has allowed Morin and her team to chart changing cultural beliefs and values as New Haven (and the country) moved through the centuries.

“New Haven was a Puritanical colony, so there’s a lot of interesting things like, for example, they used to prosecute for fornication,” she explains. “In the early 1700s, there are a tremendous amount of fornication cases that were processed. 

They would even go after married couples if a baby came earlier than nine months [after the wedding] and the midwives would testify. They would charge them, both the husband and wife would be prosecuted, and in the 1600s they’d be whipped.”

Morin says that punishments would eventually be downgraded to a fine and as you move through the 18thcentury, those fornication cases begin to disappear entirely. The same can be said for witchcraft which was prosecuted throughout the 1600s but fell out of favor around the turn of the century.

“The Puritans weren’t concerned with legal technicalities, they were concerned with punishing the guilty,” Morin explains. “There was a later case where a man argued that he was not guilty based on a technicality, and he won his case. He would not have won it in an earlier era, so you are seeing the shift from the Puritan mindset to the revolutionary mindset to an industrial mindset.”

But these documents don’t just chart famous figures and humorous charges. In many cases involving property claims, there are people listed among the land and other assets. In this way, these boxes of old paper and ink become a record of chattel slavery and cast a stark light on the very different ways history has treated certain people. 

Many of the enslaved, indentured, or indigenous people recorded in these documents are recorded with only their first names, as many did not have surnames until generations later. It can make it difficult for people with diasporic lineage to chart their family history past a certain point. 

It can also be difficult for those whose ancestors perpetrated immoral acts to confront their family’s unseemly past, but both Morin and Quotap believe it is important to understand what really happened in order to move forward.

“We have large minority groups that are part of all of our school groups, and so the common thing is students want to see themselves in the exhibits — good, bad or ugly,” says Quotap. “The female students, the male students, all the different ethnic heritage and racial lines that our history doesn’t always tell. I think it’s really important for students to see themselves there and to understand what maybe have happened to people like them in the past, and either inspire or anger them to help to influence change.”

“I’m a believer in being honest about history,” says Morin, who says she has enslavers in her family tree. “I’ve seen the documented evidence that in the 1700s, 1600s, my family were enslavers. So I believe in being honest about that, and I say that because I think we need to reconcile it with that. Just because they did that, it doesn’t mean that I did. So I think that we have to approach it with that honesty and that willingness to confront that.”

The Uncovering New Haven project will be unearthing more secrets about our past for at least the next year. Morin and Munz say they will likely extend the project through December of 2023. During that time, Morin continues to document some of their more interesting findings on the Uncovering New Haven blog.

Support Local Journalism

Your support helps us tell better stories, hire more people with incredible skills, dig into more investigative leads, and deliver a great product. It makes a positive difference. 

Subscribe

"*" indicates required fields

Name
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Tricia Ennis

An Emmy and AP award-winning journalist, Tricia has spent more than a decade working in digital and broadcast media. She has covered everything from government corruption to science and space to entertainment and is always looking for new and interesting stories to tell. She believes in the power of journalism to affect change and to change minds and wants to hear from you about the stories you think about being overlooked.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.