Vermont Court Records
Introduction: 150 Years of Vermont Court Records
Over the past three years, the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration (VSARA) has undertaken a major initiative to preserve and provide access to Vermont’s archival court records. The pre-1945 records of eight counties are now processed and open for research. In addition to tracing the development of Vermont’s courts and legal system, court records document the lives of a diverse cross-section of Vermonters. Their individual cases richly detail personalities, values, relationships, livelihoods, and possessions.
In the aggregate, court records chronicle the sweep of history, and all of the accompanying social, economic, and legal changes. They also represent continuing social issues, such as responsibility for care of the poor and elderly, environmental concerns, regulation of intoxicants, and treatment of offenders. Records concerning disputes over land, roads, and estates reveal the past and document individual or communal rights that persist to the present. Court records are an invaluable primary resource for all kinds of researchers -- genealogists, students, social and economic historians, local historians, legal historians.
Until the late twentieth century three courts operated at the county level in Vermont: the county court, the supreme court, and the court of chancery. County courts originally heard only civil cases. In 1825 they gained unlimited criminal jurisdiction, and in 1870 they took over divorce proceedings from the supreme court.
The supreme court “rode circuit” -- by horse, train, or automobile -- for over 100 years, traveling to each shire town for county sessions. In 1894 Montpelier became the permanent base of operations. The supreme court originally presided over all criminal and divorce cases, holding jury trials and appeals from lower courts. It eventually became almost exclusively an appeals court.
The chancery court dealt with legal issues which could not be remedied by applying common and statute law, but required judgments based on fairness or “equity.” Foreclosure proceedings and complicated business dissolutions took place in chancery court. The court also operated outside of written law in issuing injunctions. In chancery court a single judge, called a chancellor, presided. The supreme court heard equity cases until 1839, when chancery court became a part of county court sessions. In 1969 Vermont chancery functions merged into civil court proceedings.
Court records offer a unique, multifaceted perspective on Vermont history. This exhibit focuses on a few prominent legal and historical themes, and introduces some of the many men and women who had their day in court.
Click on images or captions to view more records for each case.