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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Researching the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley


“Prior to the establishment of police forces, beginning in Boston in 1837,” the Colonial Society of Massachusetts explains, “courts were probably the form of secular authority with which the citizenry had the greatest contact. Early court records, accordingly, mirror almost every aspect of civil authority.” 

In early Massachusetts, civil, criminal, and administrative matters were handled at the county level by the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of General Sessions.   Civil cases for matters involving at least 40 shillings were handled by the Court of Common Please; more minor matters were handled by an individual justice of the peace.  Criminal cases and matters of county administration were handled by the Courts of General Sessions from the seventeenth century until 1827, when the Courts of General Sessions were dissolved. After that date, criminal matters were handled by the courts of common pleas, while administrative authorities were assigned to the county commissioners and commissioners of highways.

The Hampshire County court records are held at UMass Amherst, as part of the Hampshire Council of Governments records. They have also been digitized (by the Internet Archive) and are available on the website of UMass Special Collections and Archives.  Volumes are arranged chronologically, and hold both the records of the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of General Sessions (a volume’s online title may indicate that it holds both, but may hold both or only one or the other).   The Court of General Sessions and the Court of Common Pleas met in the winter, spring, and fall; each record begins with the date of the meeting and a list of the justices and jurors present.  In the margins are the surnames of the parties at odds and the date of the event while a brief paragraph in the record itself provides a summary of the issues and actions.  Users of these volumes should not expect to find an index.  Meetings of the Court of General Sessions of the Peace addressed a wide range of matters, from highway construction and repair to allegations of fornication and child maintenance.  Warnings out appear in these pages (an important step in establishing who was eligible for public support, and one of the places that people of color appear most regularly in these records), as well as appointments and licenses for retailers and tavernkeepers.

General Sessions and Common Pleas for Hampshire County are housed physically at SCUA and are online at the Internet Archive, here.

Court Records Further Reading

Whiting, Gloria McCahon. “Race, Slavery, and the Problem of Numbers in Early New England: A View from Probate Court.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 3, 2020, pp. 405–440. JSTOR, Accessed 22 June 2021.


Hindus, Michael S. "A Guide to the Court Records of Early Massachusetts," Colonial Society of Massachusetts,