Federal Legislative Petitions, Part 3

Today, Part 3 of Legislative Petitions finishes up guest blogger Nancy Maxwell’s series on federal petitions by private citizens.

Nancy Maxwell


The Territorial Papers of the United States are historic documents gathered from files of National Archives and other U.S. government departments. The House Committee on Territories, established on December 13, 1825, reported legislation concerning organization, authority, and standing of territorial governments; statehood; authority of cities and towns; boundary disputes; and on matters relating to public lands, taxation, public works, homesteading, railroads, road construction, bond issues, public education, Indians, prohibition, and wildlife. Petitions and memorials made to this committee include the years 1825-1871, 1873-1879, 1885-1927, 1931-1933, and 1935-1946.

The Territorial Papers are available in print and online versions. They contain many names found in petitions submitted to various governmental agencies.  However, sometimes there won’t be any names, just the terms “sundry claimants” or “sundry inhabitants.” Many things can be learned about persons whose names appear on petitions:

  • Text of a petition often contains clues that provide details about one’s ancestors.
  • Migration trail of an ancestor can be traced through multiple territories or states.
  • Insights into personal feelings, culture, literacy, hardships, and historical details about an individual.
  • Names of potential family members who may have signed petition.
  • Information about individuals who lived in the area prior to its becoming a part of the U.S.
  • Signature in original petition can be compared with other known ancestral signatures

Here we have part of a petition from inhabitants of Mississippi Territory requesting recognition of land claims and for statehood, followed by a partial list of petitioners:

Source: Territorial Papers of the United States, v. 6, The Territory of Mississippi, 1809-1817, pp. 449-450

Next is a petition from residents of Arkansas County in Arkansas Territory requesting extension of the mail route from Arkansas Post to Ouachita in 1819. Note the retention of the original (mis)spellings:

Source: Territorial Papers of the United States, v. 19, The Territory of Arkansas, 1819-1825, pp. 35-36

Petitions were submitted for reasons important to the time period. In one instance, in 1889, 13,000 citizens of Missouri protested admission of Utah as a state because polygamy had not been explicitly forbidden in its proposed constitution.

Petitions in the Territorial Papers have been transcribed faithfully from original documents. They are a primary source for researchers desiring a true understanding of the needs of their ancestors as presented to these residents’ legislators.


The American State Papers are a 38-volume set of legislative and executive documents of Congress from 1789 to 1838. They are considered a part of the U.S. Serial Set which officially began in 1817. The full-text collection of the Papers can be found online at American Memory.

The Papers have been divided into ten classes:

  • Foreign Relations
  • Naval Affairs
  • Indian Affairs
  • Post Office Department
  • Finances
  • Public Lands
  • Commerce and Navigation
  • Claims
  • Military Affairs
  • Miscellaneous

Researchers can search for references to petitions in these volumes. However, the actual petitions are not included. For example, in Volume 1 of Public Lands, mention is made of petitions to the House Claims Committee for bounty land in Virginia from John Nelson and Susannah Russell in January 1798:

Source: Library of Congress, American Memory, A Century of Lawmaking, American State Papers: Claims, 1:71

The House recommended rejection of these claims, but researchers will not only have knowledge of the petitions but also why they should be disallowed.

Petitions and memorials came from corporate entities as well as individuals. Here we have an 1811 petition from manufacturers of morocco leather in Charlestown, Massachusetts asking for the prohibition of imported morocco leather in order to maintain their livelihoods:

Source: Library of Congress, American Memory, A Century of Lawmaking, American State Papers: Finance, 2:471

Researchers can follow up on the status of these petitions by searching the House and Senate Journals. A search reveals that the Charlestown petition was referred to the Committee of Commerce and Manufactures. The next step would be to check the Accompanying Papers files (described in my previous post) for this committee for the actual petition.


The United States Congressional Serial Set, commonly referred to as the Serial Set, began publication in 1817. Many private relief petitions and claims can be found here. It contains the House and Senate Documents and the House and Senate Reports which are usually from committees of Congress dealing with proposed legislation and investigation of various issues. They include all other papers that the House or Senate order to be printed and cover a wide variety of topics. Documents before 1817 may be found in the American State Papers.

The Serial Set is also searchable on-line at the Library of Congress American Memory web site up to 1875, but its searchability varies considerably. Some items have limited (index only) or no search capability, in which case researchers will need to consult more complete sources of the Serial Set. One such source is the subscription database HeritageQuest™ Online, available only through libraries and other institutions. It contains only private relief actions, memorials, and petitions from the Serial Set and the American State Papers. Serial Set documents in HeritageQuest cover the years 1789-1969. Here are a couple of examples from the HeritageQuest Serial Set database:

Source: HeritageQuest Online, U.S. Serial Set

This petitioner claimed to have access to a “secret” way of making “artificial plaister of Paris” and wanted the privilege of making and selling in the U.S. for less money than it would take to import the real deal, if he could get exclusive rights to do so for 15 years. Checking the Accompanying Papers for the Committee on Agriculture may reveal whether he was successful.

Let’s look at one more:

Source: HeritageQuest Online, U.S. Serial Set

After reading the report, we can see that Mary von Kusserow’s efforts to increase her Civil War widow’s pension from that of a captain to that of a lieutenant-colonel were finally successful.

Did you know that similar kinds of petitions can be found at the state level? Next week, Nancy will guide us through those records.

Please leave comments and questions for Nancy. This is her first blogging experience. I think she’s done a terrific job explaining one of my favorite kinds of record sets – the ones that are true GeneaGems, but which are way underused by genealogists.



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