State Legislative Petitions & Genealogy, Part 1

Last week, guest blogger Nancy Maxwell led us through the federal legislative petition research process in a four part series – And Your Petitioners Shall Ever PrayFederal Legislative Petitions – Part 1Federal Legislative Petitions – Part 2  and  Federal Legislative Petitions – Part 3.

Nancy Maxwell

Nancy is an experienced librarian-genealogist who is one of my oldest genea-buddies. Click on her name under her photo for her resume.

This week, Nancy is presenting a two-part series on state legislative petitions and their genealogical value.


Today I’ll discuss accessing state legislative petitions. We’ll look at examples of sources that have the actual petition, and sources indicating that a petition was generated. State petitions are as genealogically valuable as petitions to the federal government and they can be found in a number of places, such as the archives of the state’s Secretary of State, state libraries and archives, and in digital collections produced by these agencies. Historical newspapers can also be sources of petition and claims information that can be used to locate the actual petition. Let’s look at newspapers first.

Local newspapers may mention the activities of the state legislature, including items under consideration. Sometimes those items include petitions, and newspapers can provide the information you need to attempt to locate a petition. Below is an example from NewsBank, a library subscription service.

Source: NewsBank, America’s Genealogy Bank, Historical Newspapers, Albany Register (Albany, NY), 16 January 1797

America’s GenealogyBank is a sub-database of NewsBank, which is accessible only through libraries that subscribe to it. It contains several digitized historical newspapers from all over the U.S. and their years of coverage. Two other available newspaper databases offering institutional and personal subscriptions are and Before undertaking a search in any newspaper database, browse the title list first to be sure there’s a newspaper covering the place and time you’re interested in searching.

The aforementioned legislative notice contains important information about actions taken on various petitions. The next step would be to attempt to locate this petition. I’ll talk about such locations shortly.

This example is from the Richmond, VA Whig:

Source: NewsBank, America’s Genealogy Bank, Historical Newspapers, Richmond, VA Whig, 1 January 1850

There’s also a free web site courtesy of the Library of Congress – Chronicling America – that contains information about historic newspapers and select digitized newspaper pages from 1789-1924.

Source: Library of Congress – Chronicling America, Wheeling, WV Daily Intelligencer, 21 April 1859

This is a West Virginia newspaper but it mentions a legislative divorce in progress in Pennsylvania. It’s not unusual to find a reference to legislative acts taking place in other states, so this gives us another reason to check newspapers for mention of legislative petitions and claims.

The right search terms matter when scouring newspapers for mention of legislative petitions. Words such as “petition”, “relief”, or “pension”, along with ancestor surname, may bring positive results. If the search involves a war veteran, including the name of war will narrow the search.

After learning about the federal legislative petitions, navigating the state records seems much easier. Tomorrow, Nancy will conclude with examples of petitions from selected states.


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