Digitizing ancient records
POUGHKEEPSIE — Dutchess County Historian Will Tatum, guardian of the written records of Dutchess County’s past, breathed a sigh of relief last week when he and his team completed Phase 9 of the Ancient Document Online Archive project.
At this point, 167,000 pages of handwritten records of the Dutchess County Courts of Common Pleas and General Sessions from 1721 to 1889 have been digitized and made accessible to the public, said Tatum.
“The Court of Common Pleas and General Sessions is the predecessor of today’s court system,” he explained.
They involve civil cases that mostly consisted of debts, he said, while “the criminal court ran the gamut from fraud to murder and all sort of salacious crimes.
“The contents of this collection are all the evidentiary statements, depositions—the narrations which laid out the case from the plaintiff’s perspective—and the various writs and other items which made up what we would consider the case file today,” he said.
By detailing personal and local history, the documents give valuable insight into the way the country evolved in the colonies, he said.
The many cases involving debts demonstrate the stark disparity between the haves and the have-nots, he said, and the ways in which many entrepreneurs and farmers struggled to overcome obstacles.
Other records showed that even members of the upper classes, such as a grandson of famous Revolutionary War Gen. Philip J. Schuyler, could also end up facing “financial calamity.”
The records also illustrate the small ways that the colonists resisted British rule. For example, British law restricted the degree to which ore could be refined, so that it would be processed in England instead, a limitation which affected the economic opportunities of the ironworks that dotted eastern Dutchess County.
However, a 1750 lawsuit against a Dover miner reveals that miners were processing ore and producing tools for blacksmiths and others despite the royal edicts.
Thousands of court records remain to be processed. To that end, the Online Archive project was recently awarded another year of funding from the New York State Archives Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund.
Once digitized, the fragile documents are treated and stored in acid-free containers at a specialized facility in Pennsylvania, then returned to the county for archiving.
Tatum, who credits County Clerk Brad Kendall with both the inspiration and implementation of the Online Archive project, explained that much of the local work was done by the staff of that office.
Noting that information is not of use to anyone if it is not used, Tatum encourages anyone having difficulty finding the material they want to call his office for help at 845-486-2381.