Court Documents

For a number of years now, historians have recognized the richness of what are commonly called “court records”. They are increasingly interested in the paper trails left by the machinery of government with regard to social regulation and criminal justice in bygone eras, such as the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Court documents are of a widely diverse nature: they may include depositions, judgments, arrest warrants, correspondence and statements of all kinds. In the case of the court documents we have brought together for this website, they are also in fact government documents, since Queen’s County in New Brunswick was in those days governed by grand jury. The court house in Gagetown actually handled both criminal cases and sessions of the administration, both in front of a jury! Since costs for the care provided to Gamby were paid by the county and the province, requests for reimbursement have left paper trails in the archives.

The complexity of that kind of combined system, at once judicial and governmental, means the archives are a real jumble. Historians trying to use them have to deal with the incomplete and confusing nature of court records. Most of the documents were written by hand, though some were typed as typewriters came into greater use. Many documents are very difficult to read, because they were carelessly written or because the paper has deteriorated with time. Furthermore, some libraries and archive centres have collected, catalogued and microfilmed important documents, which is what the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick have done, separating criminal cases from the administrative sessions of Queen’s County. But though this may make their work easier, historians must remember that a certain amount of interpretation was exercised in selecting, classifying and organizing documents in order to create such a collection.

Even though court documents were produced by government bodies and respected lawyers and judges, historical criticism cannot be avoided. The authors may have made mistakes or simply lied, as people do. For example, the official versions of court minutes are generally better written, but not always as complete, as the drafts of these same minutes. Moreover, certain controversial decisions may have disappeared from official reports, like the decision of the taxpayers of Chipman to get rid of the Frozen Man, which has disappeared from court documents. Researchers must not forget that judges and juries, for example, do not leave their personal opinions and biases at the courtroom door, and that their notes are not always objective.