Jump to Content

Frontier Justice: Guides to the District Court Records of Washington Territory

Ask An Archivist!

In 1984, the Washington State Archives received a grant for $110,000 from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to locate all of the case files of the Washington Territorial District Court (1853-89), create abstracts of each case, and index them by all by the names of the people appearing in the files, and by subject. During the course of the two year project, over 37,000 territorial court cases were inventoried, and over 130,000 names were indexed. The project also arranged for all of the files to be microfilmed for preservation purposes. The Washington Territorial District Court had jurisdiction over a wide variety of different kinds of cases. It heard cases involving civil actions, criminal violations, and cases of probate. About 42% of the cases related to the collection of debts and land disputes.

For genealogists, the richest files are usually the probate cases, which include details about heirs, debts and personal and real property owned at the time of a person's death. But even civil cases can place a person in a specific place and time, which is valuable to genealogical research, and, of course, the criminal files contain a wealth of information. For the general historian, the files contain rich detail about the society and culture of the time. The case files offer valuable insights into how people lived, modes of travel, types of employment, crime, settlement patterns, and the nature of the economy.