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Project History
In September 1999, the St. Louis Circuit Court Clerk invited the Missouri State Archives, a division of Missouri's Office of Secretary of State, to initiate a project to preserve and make accessible the historical records under the clerk's control, which dated from the court's inception in 1804.
To make the project manageable, the Archives, led by its Local Records Program staff, decided to restrict the work to documents created before 1875, the year a new state constitution made St. Louis an independent city, and which also roughly marked the end of the post-Civil War and Reconstruction period. Structuring the project in this manner meant tackling approximately four million pages of documents that were often in fragile condition or disarray.
The bulk of the records document the case history of civil suits brought by ordinary men and women pursuing justice in disputes over debts, damages and broken promises. Criminal cases dealing with theft, destruction of property, slander, and murder are also well represented. Chancery cases are less numerous, but deal with the equitable distribution of property such as in divorce and land partition cases.
Historical figures featured in these records include Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Moses and Stephen F. Austin, and others prominent in America's westward expansion. The original Dred Scott case is just one of nearly 300 freedom suits. Other cases involve Missouri's most important nineteenth century U.S. Senator, Thomas Hart Benton, St. Louis's founder Auguste Chouteau, and fur-trade entrepreneur Manual Lisa.
The extraordinary value of the records and the scale of the project led to the formation of partnerships to push the project forward. In the fall of 1999 the Bar Association of Metropolitian St. Louis endorsed the project and has volunteered to serve as a sponsor, and UMB Bank made a lead donation to the Bar's fund.
In the summer of 2000, the archivists transported historical case files from the Civil Courts building to the Circuit Court Record Center, a new space provided by the Circuit Court dedicated to document processing and conservation treatment. That same fall Washington University in St. Louis agreed to create student internships for the project and to place documents concerning important historical themes online. In January 2001 the freedom suits brought by Dred Scott and his wife Harriet in 1846 became the first cases to go online, attracting nearly a million information requests from visitors from around the world in their first year on the web. Later that year, the American Culture Studies Program in Arts & Sciences expanded this initiative by digitizing additional cases and creating a web-based search tool.
Other institutions soon joined the project as well. The University of Missouri-St. Louis began sending student interns in the summer of 2001, St. Louis University in the winter of 2002, and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville in 2004. In the summer of 2001 faculty from each of these universities and Central Missouri State University, along with staff from the Missouri State Archives, organized an academic advisory committee for the project to help select series for digitization and discuss methods to stimulate research and teaching using the records.
Work on the St. Louis Circuit Court records expanded again when, on July 7, 2000, President Bill Clinton officially designated the records through 1830 an "American Treasure" and announced that the Missouri State Archives had won a grant from the Save America's Treasures program to provide conservation work for the collection and preservation microfilming. In a release at the time of the announcement, the White House characterized these records as "a premier judicial collection documenting westward expansion during the territorial and early statehood period, 1790-1830...[which] illustrates broad themes of American intellectual and social history."
In December 2002 the Missouri Historical Society agreed to loan its collection of Circuit Court records, dating from 1804, to the State Archives for inclusion in this project.
As of February 2006, over 9300 images from 292 freedom suits, 70 cases relating to the St. Louis fur trade, 32 cases involving references to Native Americans, and 98 cases relating to Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, or members of the Corps of Discovery, all previously unknown to history, are available online through the St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project website.
An annotated guide to all known case files from 1804 through 1830, a collection of 80,000 records, became available in June 2006. These records, which have undergone preservation microfilming, are available at the Missouri State Archives-St. Louis.
The archival team continues its document processing and indexing efforts on subsequent years.
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Missouri Supreme Court Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh discusses the importance of the St. Louis Circuit Court Records with Circuit Court Clerk Mariano Favazza and former State Archivist Kenneth H. Winn.
Missouri Supreme Court Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh, right, discusses the importance of the St. Louis Circuit Court Records with Circuit Court Clerk Mariano Favazza, left, and former State Archivist Kenneth H. Winn, center.
Staff member William Glankler extracts informational content from a case file.
Staff member William Glankler extracts informational content from a case file.