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Mayflower, Day by Day - Wednesday, 2 June 1621

2 Jun 2021 3:28 AM | Soule (Administrator)

Court Records

Land sales are not the only thing to show up in court records, although these land records highlight important areas, particularly where there was conflict between parties.  But so much of the everyday life of the colony can be seen in these court records, as well: elections, weights and measures, permits for taverns (ordinaries), land grants, excuses from military service, fines for absence from church services, levying troops and equipment, public expenditures, taxes, apprentice and servant indentures, divorces, laying out streets and towns, regulation of wages and prices, the reaction against Quakers, and quite a bit more.  And that does not touch on actual criminal trials, which were somewhat few and far between: as mentioned earlier, Plymouth went a good decade without a single jury trial.

These court records, however, need to be read carefully, because they are typically records of a decision or a final agreement, and what led up to that decision may not be written down.  For that, the more narrative histories (Bradford, Winslow, Morton) may be able fill in the blanks.  But this is why the use of these documents is both fun, in its detective-like work, and frustrating, because sometimes it doesn’t tell us even half of what we want to know.

To my mind, the greatest advantage of these records is that they were made at the time, and thus they are mercifully free from the presumptions and assumptions of later periods of history.  But we must be careful to ensure that we understand the circumstances of the time -- the capital offence of this type of scholarship is anachronism, or chronological inconsistency: the act of attributing a custom, event, intention, or object of one period (typically our own) to another period to which it does not belong.

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