Category Archives: Legislative Petitions

State Legislative Petitions & Genealogy, Part 2

Today, Nancy will conclude her series on federal and state legislative petitions and their immense value to genealogists.

Nancy Maxwell


The Massachusetts Archives Collection (also known as the “Felt Collection”) isn’t digitized but genealogists can search for particular information about individuals in petitions on their search page.  They include original records of the governor, Council, General Court, secretary, and treasurer. Volume 303 in the archives collection is entitled “Petitions, 1659-1786, Petitions to the Governor and General Court” and covers a variety of subjects. Many of these are copies of petitions found elsewhere in this collection and range from tavern licenses, divorce petitions, and land grants to records pertaining to compensation for loss of a horse or siting of meeting house. Some finding aids include the database, table of contents (in notebook), and a name index.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives offers an online index to personal names appearing in the Acts of Tennessee, 1796-1850 which can be found here. It does not, however, include the hundreds of names of persons who signed the petitions. The index to the petitions themselves can be found here. (  If you find a petition of interest, the web site provides instructions on how to order a copy.

Here is a sample from the name index:

The South Carolina Department of Archives and History has petitions dating from 1776-1883, the bulk of them dated 1782-1866. They’re also on 109 microfilm reels. But be aware that archivists indexed only the first 20 names in each petition. In the example below, from the search results you can view index terms and get a description of the petition. Petition images are not on-line but genealogists can order copies through the web site.

Source: South Carolina Department of Archives and History

Ancestry has the database Texas, Memorials and Petitions, 1834-1929. In the petition below, dated 3 March 1836, John M. Smith and William M. Smith needed time to prepare an application for pardon. Petitioners thought the two didn’t have enough time to do so, considering the distance and state of the roads, so they asked to have the Smiths’ execution sentence suspended.

Source: Ancestry

The Virginia State Library and Archives has created the database Virginia Memory, which includes all of its legislative petitions.

Petitions to the General Assembly were the primary catalyst for legislation in Virginia from 1776-1865. Some public concerns addressed in these documents included taxation, religious freedom, divorce, military claims, division of counties, slave manumissions, and town incorporations. They also frequently contain additional support documents such as wills, deeds, resolutions, judgments, affidavits, naturalizations, maps, wills, and other items of genealogical interest. Petitions increased in frequency during period of colony and commonwealth. Interestingly, they vanished after the Civil War except for very particular purposes.

In this example, William Drummond and Elizabeth Overby petitioned for a law changing the names of John Jones Overby and Josiah Overby to Drummond.

Source: Library of Virginia, Virginia Memory

Following is an 1861 petition from the citizens of Charlotte County, Virginia, to Governor John Letcher, asking that the state draft all able-bodied free blacks to work on Civil War fortifications because they feared that free blacks forced into unemployment by the war would become a danger to the safety of the community.

Source: Library of Virginia Legislative Petitions

Something you may have noticed in these examples is that petitions for divorce and name changes were handled by state legislatures from the beginning of the colony through the middle of the 19th century. These actions eventually passed out of state jurisdiction to courts because they took up too much time that legislatures needed for more urgent business. Genealogists should keep this in mind when searching for early divorces or name changes.


I’ve mentioned memorials and claims in this blog series as well as petitions. It’s important to know the differences between these documents. A petition in the 18th and 19th centuries, generally speaking, included a prayer that that a claim be granted. A memorial was a written statement of facts accompanying a petition. It didn’t contain a prayer that the claim be granted. A memorial also expressed opposition to (‘remonstrate against’) some pending action.

In modern usage there’s no apparent difference between a memorial and a petition, and petition has become the commonly accepted generic term. But to understand a document in its historical context, it matters that we use meanings for words that were appropriate for the time period and document in question.


We can conclude by observing that legislative petitions are a uniquely valuable genealogical resource. They:

  • Demonstrate what was important to contemporary ancestors
  • Provide proof of residence in a certain place at a certain time
  • May provide previously unknown genealogical information, such as who neighbors were (if a local petition)
  • Place ancestors in historical context
  • Add depth and breadth to ancestral lives
  • Provide clues that may lead to additional ancestral information
  • May provide original signatures of ancestors.

Now what genealogist would not want an ancestor’s autograph!

This concludes my series about federal and state legislative petitions. I hope they will help you learn more about your ancestors and maybe get you over the proverbial brick wall. I also want to thank Linda for asking me to be her guest blogger.

Links to previous posts in this series:

And Your Petitioners Shall Ever Pray: Legislative Petitions
Federal Legislative Petitions, Part 1
Federal Legislative Petitions, Part 2
Federal Legislative Petitions, Part 3
State Legislative Petitions & Genealogy, Part 1

Thank you, Nancy! You are welcome back any time. 🙂



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.


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.