This article was written by Geof Huth, Chief Records Officer and Chief Law Librarian of the New York State Unified Court System. Before joining the court system in 2015, Huth worked for almost 25 years at the New York State Archives, where he oversaw the development and provision of training and publications for state agencies and local governments, the revision of guidelines for the Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund grants program, and the creation of retention schedules and appraisals. Huth speaks frequently about archives and records management, particularly the management of digital records, across the state and the country.
Photo: Supreme Court of Judicature and Court of Chancery Rolls of Attorneys (1754-1847)
The New York State Unified Court System consists of thousands of courts, large and small, all across the state. When most people think of the courts, they think of the traffic fines they have had to pay, the divorce they were recently granted, or the way a lurid crime story in their area of the state played out in the news. All of those cases are part of the functioning of the courts, and all are documented in their records. Eventually, the courts destroy some of these records when no longer needed. But some are kept forever.
The records of the courts of New York State extend back at least as far as 1674, and possibly farther still. For New York City alone, thousands of colonial records of the early courts still exist, and today our courts continue to keep part of the unwritten history of the city. History, we realize, doesn’t merely exist. History must be written with these records of the courts, and their operations and the stories within the cases themselves help us write that history. We always need the record to recreate and understand the past.
For the past sixteen months, a team of people from the Unified Court System’s Office of Records Management, with support and assistance from The Historical Society of the New York Courts, has been inventorying one of the most historically significant stores of early court records in the country. These records were held by the New York County Clerk’s Division of Old Records in the Surrogate’s Courthouse for just over a century. Most of these are civil cases, primarily arguments between parties about money owed and damages due that arose during the regular course of living their lives.
At first, we might see these as dry documents. They are filled with legalese, the occasional arcane term, and the opening sentences of some of these may extend for most of a page before their actual points begin to come into view. But, in reading hundreds of these, I have come to a different conclusion. I began to feel the sting of righteous grievance, understood the meaning of the loss of £5 or 20 guilders to an individual now centuries dead. I could not avoid seeing the pain of a sailor finally coming home to New York without having been paid for months of labor at sea. Each one of these stories is the story of real lives lived by people long gone and now remembered only through these bits of writing on sheets of paper, in heavy volumes, or across sheets of parchment sometimes feet in length.
Before thinking a little about the stories within these records, let’s first tell the history of the records themselves.
In 1665, Richard Nicolls, then the Governor of the Province of New York, revoked the Dutch form of government in the province and established the English form of government, complete with courts. However, we have no records of the courts from that early in time. The Dutch regained control of the province from 1673 to 1674, and the earliest records that still exist are from 1674, the year the English and the Dutch signed the Treaty of Westminster reestablishing English dominion over the colony. The provincial government set up many courts in these early years: the Mayor’s Court (a lower court in which the mayor of the city was the chief jurist), the Court of Oyer and Terminer and Gaol [Jail] Delivery (a criminal court), the Court of General and Quarter Sessions of the Peace (overseen by justices of the peace), the Court of Chancery (a court of equity), the Supreme Court of Judicature (a court of law serving also as a higher appellate court), and the General Court of Assizes (primarily the court of last resort in the province, though a few appeals could be made to the ruling Sovereign).
These records remained in lower Manhattan for centuries, virtually all of them moving less than a mile from where they were created or received from their creation until 2017. The Mayor’s Court and the Supreme Court of Judicature held court in the Stadt Hüys, the first city hall for New York (then Nieuw-Amsterdam), located approximately where 73 Pearl Street now stands. Early courts were often held in taverns and people’s homes. A second city hall, built on the corner of Wall and Broad streets, in 1703, has been replaced by Federal Hall. The next city hall, the only early one still standing, sits in the middle of City Hall Park in lower Manhattan. Most of the early court records that survive probably spent time in each of these buildings until they were finally moved in 1911 to the Surrogate’s Courthouse, a stout but stately Beaux Arts building initially constructed to serve as the Hall of Records for various records of the city and county of New York. Eventually, all of these early historical records, at least 10,000 cubic feet of them, fell under the control of the New York County Clerk, Milton Tingling.
And this is where the story of my interaction with these records begins.
In June of 2015, soon after I took the position of Chief Records Officer of the court system, I toured the seventh and eighth floors of the Surrogate’s Courthouse. What I discovered was a records storage system that was the state of the art a century before. Almost every room storing records was filled with large storage cabinets fixed to the floor and reaching nearly to the ceiling, with only narrow aisles between them—in order to ensure the highest storage density possible. But these storage conditions were not favorable to the preservation of paper, and each filing cabinet held dozens of metal Woodruff file drawers about four inches wide and twelve deep, making the management of these records tedious and difficult. Over the centuries, some records had become disordered, and others had been reordered into logical but unhelpful artificial arrangements by overzealous early to mid-twentieth century custodians of the records.
To determine exactly what was stored in this large facility, we had to review the records in detail. I assembled a team to begin this important work. The first were Jane Chin, my deputy, and all other staff of the Office of Records Management who worked in Manhattan: Vincent Armerino, Everton Stair, Terry Wong, and Terry Faison. Mike Benowitz of The Historical Society of the New York Courts also worked on the project until he took a new job. The archivist of the Division of Old Records, Joseph Van Nostrand, had worked with these records for decades, so he helped us understand the records and answered our many questions.
All of this is preamble. The real work was soon to come. We needed to create an inventory of these records and prepare them for their move to the New York State Archives, which will talk about in the next installment of this story.
The second half of this post by Geof Huth discusses important findings, the documents’ move to the New York State Archives, and the historical value of court records.