Court’s archive documents 19th century slavery lawsuits

In 1819, a woman slave named Winny filed a lawsuit in St. Louis Circuit Court that would establish an important judicial precedent. Winny sought freedom for herself and her children, charging one Phebe Whitesides with trespass, assault and battery and false imprisonment. On Feb. 13, 1822, a jury agreed and the court declared Winny and her children free. Whitesides appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which upheld the verdict, establishing as law that slaves who had once resided in a free territory or state were to be freed. Between 1814 and 1860, nearly 300 of these freedom suits were filed in the St. Louis court. Now, thanks to that court’s Historical Records Project, the records of these freedom suits are available online. They include Winny v. Whiteside as well as the original Dred Scott case. The files displayed here show the original, tattered, handwritten papers, among them an array of petitions, affidavits, depositions, summonses, motions, jury instructions, and evidentiary documents, all documenting these petitioners’ fights for freedom.

The freedom cases are the latest addition to the project’s Web site, but by no means all it contains. The archive includes all the court’s records from 1804 to 1875, most of which involve, as the site itself describes it, “civil suits brought by ordinary men and women pursuing justice in disputes over debts, damages and broken promises.” But another collection worthy of note is devoted to Lewis and Clark. It consists of 82 court actions in which Meriwether Lewis, William Clark or other members of their Corps of Discovery were parties or prominent actors. Most of these cases are disputes concerning promissory notes, debts, and the payment and assignment of notes and debts.