Federal Legislative Petitions, Part 1

Today, guest blogger Nancy Maxwell covers federal legislative petitions and the types of information that can be found in them. Yesterday’s post introduced Nancy and provided background details for understanding these petitions. Please leave comments for her!


Nancy Maxwell

Researching federal legislative petitions can be done at The Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC. It is located in the main National Archives Building in downtown Washington, DC. The Center maintains a Research Room to provide on-site reference assistance to Congressional scholars, historians, attorneys looking for legislative intent, and genealogists searching for petitions and claims. Resources include material referred to and generated by many congressional committees.


Source: Library of Congress, American Memory, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, House Journal

Of great interest to genealogists are records of various congressional pension committees. Pension committees of the House of Representatives dealt primarily with private legislation concerning claims and pensions. Claims and pensions contain information relating to the private lives of individuals more than any other Congressional documents. Laws passed in favor of petitioners for pensions were considered private laws, and applied to specific persons or groups. These committees granted pensions, authorized payment of claims, or allowed some other form of relief to an individual or legal body.

During its first 150 years, the House created a number of standing committees to report on the merits of petitions claiming the right to relief from federal government. Research involving private claims against the federal government can be complicated and time-consuming. To conduct a thorough search for records relating to claims of individual, it’s often necessary to examine indexes and records of both houses of Congress.

Claims were brought before the House by petition or memorial from the claimant, or as bill or resolution passed by Senate. It was common for a public representative or prominent citizen to present the claimant’s case in front of Congress. It’s not unusual to find documentation relating to a claim had been charged out of records of one Congress to be used as supporting materials for claim submitted by the same claimant at later Congress. Claims and petitions submitted to the claims committee of the House have, on occasion, been located among records of Senate and weren’t always returned.

Role of Court of Claims

The Court of Claims was created in 1855 (10 Stat. 612) to hear claims against the United States. It relieved pressure on Congress by providing some claimants with an opportunity to present certain types of claims against the government. Before the establishment of this court, the only way to settle claims was to apply to the Treasury Department and petition Congress for relief only if the claim was rejected. Records of this court from 1855-1966 are located at the National Archives buildings in Washington, DC and College Park, MD. The finding aid to these records is Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the United States Court of Claims, PI 58 (1953) by Gaiselle Kerner.

American Memory Century of Lawmaking

House and Senate Journals mention federal petitioners and identify their claims up to 1875 and refer petitions or bills to committees. These journals can be found on the free Library of Congress American Memory web site, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation.

Following are two examples from the House Journal of petitioners, Samuel Aborn and William M’Kee, and their claims. Samuel petitioned for compensation of services rendered to the late Continental Army. It doesn’t specify what services and supplies he rendered and furnished, but it does tell us his place of residence in Rhode Island and from which army post he operated.

Source: A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Volume 2, p. 52, January 31, 1794

William M’Kee’s petition tells us a great deal about him and his claim. We have a demonstrated father-son relationship, knowledge that the father is deceased, and the father’s late residence. William is specific about his claim, even giving the year his father’s corn was appropriated for the Continental Army. If William had stated how much he thought the corn was worth, we would have an idea from the petition about the price of that food item during the war.

Source: A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Volume 2, p. 51, January 31, 1794

We can tell that consideration of William’s petition was either postponed or suspended. We can also check the Century of Lawmaking site for further mention of the fate of these two petitions.

So petitions can contain varying amounts of information. In these cases, both provide significant genealogical and historical details and information that may not be found anywhere else.

I mentioned earlier that over the years, Congress crated several claims committees. The following committee descriptions tell you something about those committees and how long they existed:

Claims, 1794-1946. Documents consist mainly of petitions and memorials submitted by claimants, but sometimes documents supporting their claims are included.

Pensions and Revolutionary War Claims, 1813-1825. This committee eased the burden of the Committee on Claims. It was changed to the Committee on Revolutionary War Pensions in December 1825. Many of its files contain not only the original petition or memorial, but also additional documentation submitted to substantiate the claim.

Military Pensions, 1825-1831. These claims were similar to other early 19th-century claims petitions. For each Congress they are arranged in alphabetical order, and generally contain original petitions or memorials as well as assorted supporting documents.

Invalid Pensions, 1831-1946. Before 1865-1867, petitions and memorials came mostly from persons seeking pensions or private legislation to correct administrative problems. Between 1867 and 1901, petitions and memorials dealing with private legislation were removed from committee’s petition and memorial files and incorporated into the general accompanying papers file. After 1901, records relating to private claims will be found in bill files for each Congress.

Revolutionary Pensions, 1831-1880. Petition and memorial files contain original petitions of claimants, and committee papers files consist primarily of original committee reports on individual private claims. In many cases petition and memorial files contain additional documentation submitted along with petitions or memorials as proof of claim. If you’re conducting a search for records relating to claim of a specific person, you should search both series. In some cases, original petitions, memorials, or associated documentation are filed along with committee report. Both committee papers and the petitions and memorials are arranged in alphabetical order by the claimant’s name.

Pensions, 1880-1946. Petition and memorial files are sparse–less than ½ inch per Congress.

Revolutionary War Claims, 1825-1873. Many files contain not only original petitions or memorials referred to the committee, but also additional documentation submitted to substantiate claims. As above, both series of records (petition and committee report) should be searched.

War Claims, 1873-1946. This committee was created in 1873 when the name of the Committee on Revolutionary Claims (1825-1873) was changed to Committee on War Claims, and its jurisdiction expanded to include “claims arising from any war in which the United States has been engaged.” The majority of records of this committee are of the post-Civil War Southern Claims Commission.

Private Land Claims, 1813-1911. Petition and memorial files before the 39th Congress (1865-1867) contain original petitions and memorials along with supporting documents. Petitions and memorials are arranged alphabetically by the name of the claimant. In some cases claimants from particular geographical areas were grouped together and relief measures were indexed under the name of the state, territory, or city. Many petitions included supplemental documentation offered in support of claims. After the 37th Congress (1861-1863), petition and memorial files are almost non-existent. Their documents were filed in the accompanying papers file from 1865-1905, and after that, in committee bill files. Sometimes they contain a significant amount of legal arguments and evidence, including documentation of the origins of claims, examination of claims and town sites, maps, testimony, notarized affidavits, decisions of the General Land Office, decisions of Surveyor General, and copies of House and Senate bills, committee reports, and printed documents.

Judiciary, 1813-1986. From 1813-1865, records relating to claims are primarily among petition and memorial files. Between 1865 and 1903 Judiciary Committee claims files may be found in either its committee papers or petitions and memorials files, but in most cases they were removed from the Judiciary Committee and included in large alphabetical accompanying papers files.

Tomorrow, I’ll share examples of the availability and genealogical value of accompanying papers, congressional committees that dealt with various types of petitions and claims, and three additional federal sources of petitions: Territorial Papers, American State Papers: Claims, and the U.S. Serial Set.

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