Missouri’s historic Supreme Court cases hold countless details about our state’s past. Tens of thousands of cases, dating back to 1783, examine topics such as slavery, agriculture, industry and education. These records provide insight into the day-to-day lives of Missourians, and help reveal the values that shaped our state during its colorful history.
Cases like this freedom suit highlight the brave fight for emancipation. In 1830, a slave named only in court documents as Ralph sued for his freedom, claiming that his time living and working in the free state of Illinois had made him a free man. The St. Louis Circuit Court denied his petition, but on appeal the Missouri Supreme Court awarded Ralph his freedom, citing the 1824 precedent: “once free, always free.”
Every day issues also appear in court cases, from horse speeding tickets to and buggy accidents -to the price of a good ‘ole feather bed. In 1849, William Clark’s was worth $20.00.
Until recently, researchers had to visit Jefferson City to study these cases, which could involve hours sorting through fragile documents. Now, thanks to a partnership between the Missouri State Archives and the Supreme Court of Missouri Historical Society, the original case files are being preserved and indexed in an online database, making them available for research from anywhere in the world. More than 12,000 cases have been indexed since 1999, and are searchable through the award-winning MissouriDigitalHeritage.com.
More than 9,000 of these original Missouri Supreme Court case files are currently being digitized thanks to a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. These files, which cover the period from Missouri’s statehood through the Civil War, include more than 864,000 pages that will be scanned and available online by late 2012.
Preservation of the case files has greatly benefited from an internship program, which the Supreme Court of Missouri Historical Society has supported for more than 10 years. Interns help to process the cases and enter important details of each case into the online database:
“The first step in restoring these documents is the basic cleaning and restoration. Any bindings, tape and ribbons are removed from the documents before they can be further processed. The second step in the process is the actual flattening of the records. These court documents were frequently kept in drawers, meaning that they were tri-folded, and that made them very resistant to flattening. And finally, we create database records that eventually go online with overviews of each case that we process.”
In years past, interns have discovered cases involving prominent Missourians, like Claiborne Fox Jackson, James Eads and the family of Daniel Boone.
Thomas Hart Benton, William Clark, Sterling Price, and Frank Blair can also be found in Court records. Their stories, along with the stories of countless other Missourians, offer a glimpse into the political, economic, and social issues of the past.
Thanks to the hard work of both the Missouri State Archives and the Supreme Court of Missouri Historical Society, and the financial support of the National Historic Publications and Records Commission, these court records are being preserved so future generations have access to the wealth of historical information they contain.