Utah Territorial Case Files, 1870-1896
Territorial Case Files of the US District Courts of Utah, M1401
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The records reproduced in this publication originated in the US district courts at Salt Lake City, Ogden, Provo, and Beaver, seats of the four US judicial districts that existed in the territorial period. When Utah became a state in 1896, these territorial courts were dissolved, and their records were transferred to the new US district court for Utah, and to the circuit court (10th circuit) in Salt Lake City.
Most of the 2,593 case files transferred to the US district court concern crimes of cohabitation, usually polygamy. Each file generally contains a printed complaint form, a warrant for the arrest of the defendant, and subpoenas ordering the defendant's wives to appear as witnesses. A case file may also include orders of the court, a transcript of the testimony, a memorandum of court costs and disbursements, sureties' bond, and a notice of appeal, if applicable. Few Judgments are given.
This series also includes case files involving robbing the mails, illegal voting, violations of liquor and tobacco tariff laws, possession of counterfeit coins, and embezzlement. The 95 case files transferred to the US circuit court primarily concern trespassing, both on private and public land; illegal fencing; illegal cutting; and land disputes over preemptions and homesteads. Other subjects include unlawful cohabitation, violations of postal laws, defrauding the federal government of tax revenue, and counterfeiting.
Each case file usually contains a complaint stating plaintiff’s cause of action, an answer by the defendant, and summons. Occasionally Included are subpoenas, demurrers, findings of fact, records of disbursements, and judgment and execution.
Portions of the information in this section are from the introductory remarks that precede each roll of microfilm from which the images in this title are taken. A PDF of the full introduction is available here.
The system of territorial government established by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was a model for later legislation of the same kind, including the act establishing the territorial government of Utah, passed September 9, 1850 (9 Stat. 455).
But the balance between federally appointed territorial governors and judges on the one hand and territorial legislatures on the other, which worked well enough for the rest of the US territories, did not work in Utah. There the Mormon community had already established its own "State of Deseret" in 1849, and the federal attempt to graft its own authority onto the existing structure was a failure. The territorial government in Utah retained the character of its Mormon predecessor for some two decades, its members looking to Brigham Young for leadership. Federal appointees had to work within the existing polity because there was very little, short of a full-scale war, that Congress or the Executive in Washington could do to protect and support them.
After the Union victory in the Civil War and the coming of the transcontinental railroad to Salt Lake City, federal authority began to assert itself, nowhere more emphatically than in the courts. Crusading federal Judge James B. McKean, appointed in 1870, attacked the "probate" courts for usurping judicial powers properly belonging to the federal courts in the territory. These local probate courts had been recognized along with the federal courts by the 1850 establishment law, and the territorial legislature had, by an act passed on February 4, 1852, given them the same powers as the federal courts, reducing the latter to judging the few cases that locals were willing to take before them. McKean managed to change this situation somewhat, succeeding in convening grand juries to investigate persons suspected of plural marriage and obtaining hundreds of indictments and convictions for adultery and bigamy. Some of these cases reached the Supreme Court, which promptly threw them out on grounds that the federal judges in Utah had no authority to try such cases.
Congress took the hint and also its first real step toward righting the balance of authority in
Utah in 1874 by passing the Poland Laws (18 Stat. 255), which officially returned the probate courts to their original status as administrators of wills and estates. In addition, the offices of territorial marshal and attorney general, which had overlapped similar federal offices, were abolished. On March 22, 1882, Congress took an even more decisive step: the Edmunds-Tucker Act (22 Stat. 30) made polygamy a crime punishable by fine or imprisonment. It also disqualified persons who believed in or practiced polygamy from holding public office or participating in jury duty. The passage of this act sent many prominent Mormons into hiding and intimidated the rest of the community. Between 1888 and 1893 more than 1,000 verdicts in cases of unlawful cohabitation were secured. Undoubtedly federal court actions played a significant role in the church's decision in 1890 to end its approval of plural marriage. This action signaled the beginning of the accommodation of the church to the national system. After five unsuccessful attempts by the territorial government, Utah was finally granted statehood on January 4, 1896 (28 Stat. 111).
The information in this section is from the introductory remarks that precede each roll of microfilm from which the images in this title are taken. A PDF of the full introduction is available here.
Using the collection
After the cases were transferred to the US District Court for Utah and the 10th Circuit Court, they were arranged by both courts alphabetically by the initial letter of the defendant's last name, renumbered, and bound into volumes. These volumes were unbound for the purpose of microfilming their contents, but the order of arrangement was preserved.
At Fold3, cases are in order by year, then alphabetically by defendant.
The original records are located at the Rocky Mountain Region of the National Archives in Denver, which also holds 670 cubic feet of court records created after Utah became a state in 1896. Included are civil, criminal, and bankruptcy cases for the period 1896 through 1958. The branch also holds docket books, indexes, and related bound volumes created between 1880 and 1948. More recent records of the US district courts for Utah are held by the Denver Federal Records Center.
The Denver branch also holds US district court records for the territories and states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming, as well as the pertinent records from Record Group 276, Records of the US Courts of Appeals.
The National Archives in Washington, DC, has related material in Record Group 267, Records of the Supreme Court of the United States; Record Group 118, Records of US Attorneys and Marshals; and Record Group 60, General Records of the Department of Justice.
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Search or browse the Territorial Case Files of the U.S. District Courts of Utah 1870-1896 here.