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Using the Supreme Court of Louisiana Historical Archives: Additional Help

The Supreme Court of Louisiana Historical Archives contains thousands of cases from between the years 1813 and 1921. These dates include the court's founding in 1813, the Civil War, and the post-war Reconstruction era.

Need help identifying a case?

Slavery and Free Persons of Color

“It is my belief that in some aspects, such as in the law of slave crimes, slave law in Louisiana was harsher than its counterparts elsewhere; in other ways, such as in laws concerning emancipation, it was milder: in allowing slaves to purchase themselves and to sue directly in court for their freedom, Louisiana law placed more value on the humanity of slaves rather than on their status as property. Most often, however, Louisiana slave law was simply different.

Schafer, Judith. Slavery, the civil law, and the Supreme Court of Louisiana. Louisiana State Univ Pr, 1994. xiv.

Louisiana law is the result of a mixing of cultures: Spanish, French, English, and American, which to a large degree also reflects the state of Louisiana as a whole. This combination of common and civil law has created a fascinating blend of customs unique to the state over the course of many generations, and among them were the various practices regarding slavery and free people of color.

Schafer noted that “Slaves are regarded as persons and property”, and because of this distinction, laws existed to control the treatment of slaves, to provide them limited rights in a court of law, and to manage their status as objects of value in antebellum Louisiana. Under certain conditions slaves could purchase or be granted their freedom, acquire land and property of their own, or even purchase slaves themselves. At times could even include members of their own family.

The Historical Archives of the Supreme Court of Louisiana houses hundreds, if not thousands, of these cases.

Locating Cases Related to Slavery or Free Persons of Color

Researchers interested in locating cases related to slavery or free persons of color may have to engage in a few "trial and error" searches via LexisNexis.  Most cases do not refer to either subject in modern or familiar terminology, and in other cases common legal terms may have been abbreviated or rearranged in different fashions.

In this way some cases may refer to either "slaves" or "servants", while others may refer to either "free persons of color" or "free colored persons".  Additional terms to consider are emancipation, mulatto, public rights, and civil rights.

Cases that cite Article Thirteen of Act Number 38, or Article Fourteen of the Act of 1869 may also prove relevant.

A "wildcard", or "*" symbol, can be used to simplify the search process by returning results that contain any variation of a word, but may also yield an overwhelming number of results. 

A sample search query that would cover a wide range of terms related to slavery and free persons of color would be as follows:

slav* OR "f.p.c." OR "f.w.c." OR "f.c.w." OR "f.c.p." OR "f.m.c." OR "f.c.m" OR negr* OR "free woman" OR "free man" OR "free people" OR emancipat* OR mulat* OR colored OR "man of color" OR "woman of color" AND "act no. 38" OR "article 13" OR "article thirteen" OR "act number 38" OR "act 38" OR "unconstitutional" OR "article 14" OR "article fourteen" OR "13th article" OR "thirteenth article" OR "14th article" OR "fourteenth article" OR "act of 1869" OR discrimination OR "civil rights" OR "civil right" OR "public rights" OR "public right" AND louisiana

Researchers should feel free to utilize this query and modify it to suit their specific needs.

Tools for Finding a Case

Legal Terminology

In the same way that researchers may be met with a variety of terms pertaining to slavery and free people of color when researching those subjects, researchers interested in other subjects should familiarize themselves with the precise legal vocabulary practiced by the court as it pertains to their particular topic.

 

For example, historians interested in placage, the antebellum practice of white men keeping a black mistress, will not find any cases if they search for "placage" in LexisNexis. The appropriate legal term is "concubinage," and a search for that word yields fifty-five cases where the term occurs previous to 1865.

 

An excellent resource for discovering the terms you may wish to search is William K. Dart and Edward F. White's Louisiana Digest Annotated (1917; Second series, 1937; new 1951; the latter of wihch is in our Reference Collection under KFL 57.L66), which gives case citations as well as cross-references to other useful terms. Another useful source is West's Louisiana Digest 1809 to Date (Reference Collection KFL 57 .L66).

Unreported Cases

Court opinions were not always required to be published. If the judges applied well-established principles to a case with no novel facts, they often did not bother to publish the opinion as it had no value as a precedent. But what is of little interest to the lawyer might be of great interest to the historian or anthropologist. These "unreported" cases are potentially useful to a variety of researchers, but accessing them can be difficult due to a lack of published references. Lists of "Cases Not Reported" are available at the front of the annual report books published after 1865, but these listings lack summaries and require a perusal of the case documents themselves.

 

Besides the annual reports, researchers may consult the docket indexes to the New Orleans sessions to discover cases involving individuals, companies or institutions from that portion of the state. Thomas C. Manning's Unreported Cases Heard and Determined by the Supreme Court of Louisiana, from January 8, 1877, to April, 1880, Digested, Reported, and Condensed (St. Louis: Nixon-Jones Printing Co., 1884), is another useful resource, and a copy is available in the Dart Collection (Mss 140).

State Constitution and Legislative Acts

Researchers interested in locating case files that deal with portions of the state's constitution or legislative acts may wish to consult Theodore Roehl's Annotations to the Statute Law of the State of Louisiana (New Orleans: F. F. Hansell & Bro., Ltd., 1917), a copy of which is available in the Dart Collection (Mss 140). This breaks down the Civil Code, Code of Practice, Constitutions (1812-1913), and Acts of the Legislature (1822-1916) into their articles, sections, and acts, and lists the legal citations for all Supreme Court cases that deal with these individual components.