Monday, March 9, 2015

RI Court Records

One of the standard entries on my to-do list for any genealogy research project is court records at the Rhode Island Supreme Court Judicial Records Center in Pawtucket (Supreme Court Judicial Records Center). They have civil, criminal and divorce court records from 1671 to 1900 and naturalization records until 1982. While many of the court case file papers are unavailable due to water and mold damage, the indexes and record books are available for all five counties. The nice part is that for court records up to 1900, they are all housed in one place, which makes searching a breeze, and you don't have to truck around the state hitting all the different courts. The strange thing about RI, or rather one of the many strange things, is that counties as a geopolitical unit are rarely important. Most records that genealogists use frequently are held at the town level, and the main exception is for court records. The five RI counties, Bristol, Newport, Providence, Kent and Washington all have plaintiff and defendent indexes as well as record books for each type of court.

There are two levels of civil court records that I usually search, the Court of Common Pleas and the Supreme Court record books, but the names of these courts have changed over time. It's always amazing to me how many folks are sued, and counter-sued, usually over unpaid debts and land disputes in colonial RI. More recent materials can also be found, as well. One of the more unusual books that I viewed as I was tracking down a family story about a mill riot and an arrest (covered in my seminar entitled "Broken Threads") was the 4th District Court at East Greenwich criminal court dockets that summarize the every day criminal court's dispensing of justice. Some of the fascinating information found in this book includes the person making the complaint, the "respondent" or defendent, the arresting officer, the court date, the judgement, court fees and disposition.

In 1922, for example, there was enforcement of drunk driving when John J. Iera was found guilty of "operating automobile while intoxicated" and he was fined $100 and charged $6.80 in court costs. There are records of assaults with dangerous weapons, domestic abuse, as well as info about who posted the bail bonds for the defendents. I did not find any court record for my arrested, mill riot-causing grandfather, but the charges may have been dropped and he may not have had to go to court.
RI 4th District Court Criminal Dockets at the RI Supreme Court Judicial Records Center in Pawtucket, RI.

Page from Criminal Court Docket, RI SCJRC, Pawtucket, RI
So, as you're researching your Roots in Rhode Island and thing you may have one of those mlill rioters in your family, don't forget to check the court records, and remember that they are organized by county, not town! I'll show some more treats that found in the RI court records in upcoming posts.

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