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New Orleans Public Library

Territory of Orleans. County Court (Orleans)
Territory of Orleans. City Court (New Orleans)

Criminal cases tried by Orleans County Court (1805-1807) and City Court (1807-1812)
Go to an Inventory of the records

Digital images are available online as part of the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Collection at the Louisiana Digital Library. The original documents are closed to researchers.

At its first session in 1804, the Legislative Council of the Territory of Orleans divided the Territory into twelve counties (Orleans Territory, Act, 1804-1805, XXV, sec 1), with New Orleans within the County of Orleans. The same act also established a County Court in each of the twelve counties and authorized Governor William C.C. Claiborne to appoint judges to the County Court benches for terms of four years. On May 1, 1805 Claiborne selected James Workman to serve as judge in the County of Orleans (Territorial Papers of the United States, Volume IX: The Territory of Orleans 1803-1812, Clarence Edwin Carter, ed., Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1940, p. 598). The statute also provided for a sheriff, a coroner, a clerk, and a treasurer to complete the staff of each County Court (Or. Terr. A.,1804-1805, XXV, sec 2). During its first session, the Territorial Legislature authorized the appointment of attorneys to act on behalf of the Territory, relieving the court clerks of this duty (Or. Terr. A., 1805, III, sec 1). 

The County Courts were given jurisdiction in civil matters involving debts of more than fifty dollars or injuries to persons or property of less than one hundred dollars. The Legislative Council also assigned the County Courts jurisdiction in all non-capital criminal matters; that is, those which could not be punished with death or which were not exclusively within the jurisdiction of a superior court (Or. Terr. A., 1804-1805, XLIV, secs 4, 6).

In 1806, the Territorial Legislature expanded the jurisdiction of the County Courts, authorizing them to hear all criminal cases brought against slaves, even capital ones. Criminal cases involving slaves were not tried by a jury, but rather by a tribunal consisting of a judge or two justices of the peace and three to five white landowners. In non-capital cases, a single justice of the peace and one or two landowners would suffice (Or. Terr. A., 1806, XXXVI, secs 1, 22). Additionally, territorial law allowed a slaveowner whose slave was executed or incarcerated to seek compensation from the government for the loss of his property.  

In 1807, the Territorial Legislature established Parish Courts to replace the County Courts. In New Orleans, however, a City Court was created instead, in recognition of the city's special needs. The City Court (and the Parish Courts created in all other parts of the Territory) received exactly the same jurisdiction over criminal cases as the County Courts had previously possessed. Again, the governor was empowered to appoint the judge presiding over City Court for a four year term. Governor Claiborne appointed L. Moreau Lislet to the City Court bench in 1807, and again on April 9, 1811 (Territorial Papers, p. 749, p. 984). In 1812, the State Legislature replaced the City Court with the Court of the Parish of New Orleans, again with identical jurisdiction (La. A., 1812, p. 114, sec 1, 3).

The Records

The records of the criminal cases tried by the Orleans County Court and the City Court consist of manuscript suit records only. Cases numbered 2 through 107 are from the Orleans County Court; cases 108 through 242 are from the City Court.  

The contents of the individual suit records vary greatly. The majority of the Orleans County Court records consist of a single sheet, and provide only the defendant's name and occupation, the charge, the date, and the name of the victim or an inventory of stolen property. Often some information about the outcome of the case is written on the back of the bill. The records from City Court often offer more detailed information in addition to the basics mentioned above. For instance, they may include some of the following: bond documents, search or arrest warrants, statements of testimony, or orders to the sheriff to incarcerate a prisoner. The records contain neither transcripts of the trial nor, in most cases, detailed information about the charge beyond the largely formulaic statement found in each suit record. In general, official documents like bills of information, indictments, and warrants are in English, while statements of testimony are very often in French.  

Because the City Court was authorized to try -- by special tribunal -- capital cases involving slaves, the suit records contain cases related both to a slave revolt of significant magnitude which occurred in 1811 and to a conspiracy among New Orleans slaves in 1812. These suit records illustrate how justice functioned differently for slaves than for free people, and contain unusually detailed information concerning the verdicts and sentences reached by the tribunals. Approximately 40 of the 232 cases deal with these revolts or with other cases of slave discipline, while approximately 70 of the bills of information or indictment charge the defendants with assault and battery, about 65 with larceny, and about 10 charge the defendant with fraud or swindling. The remaining cases involve more idiosyncratic charges. 

A typical example of a case related to the 1811 revolt is City Court #185, Territory v. Guery or Gery, the slave of James Fortier. The charge is insurrection. The case record consists of two documents, an arrest warrant and a bill of information. The arrest warrant names two other defendants besides Gery -- they were tried separately. The warrant notes that the three slaves were arrested and further calls for the summoning of five "good and lawful freeholders of the City of New Orleans" to act as a tribunal in the case: Messrs. De La Croix, Bellechasse, Duverge, Livaudais, and Lanusse. The document is dated January 16, 1811 and signed "John Drouillard, deputy Sheriff." Bellechasse also had a slave on trial for insurrection. 

Also on the warrant is the Clerk of Court Thomas S. Kennedy's order for the sheriff to call the tribunal. The qualifications to serve on the tribunal are reproduced from the legislation that established the tribunal system. Neither the proprietor of the slave, nor any relation of the owner within four degrees of consanguinity, may serve on the tribunal (Or. Terr. A., 1806, XXXVI, secs 1, 22). The charge of insurrection is stated formally: "having made or caused to be made an insurrection in the Territory of Orleans, or having been an accomplice, aider and abettor of persons making or causing to be made an insurrection in the said Territory." The front of the bill of information is in French, but the verdict and sentence are written on the back in English, signed by the five members of the tribunal and approved by City Court Judge L. Moreau Lislet, as shown in the image above.

 The case records have been flattened, but many are fragile or have separated into several pieces. An inventory of the records and of five folders of miscellaneous documents is available.

Digital images are available online as part of the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Collection at the LOUISiana Digital Library. The original documents are closed to researchers.

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8/1997-- dmascari; updated 8/25/2007