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Bristol County, Massachusetts Court Records

Identifier: MSN/COL 2717

Scope and Contents

The Bristol County Court Records are an accumulation of single-sheet file documents issued by (or directed to) the judiciary of Bristol County in southeastern Massachusetts, mostly during the colonial period. Seventy-eight of the 96 records date from the Second Charter period in Massachusetts legal history (1692-1760); 56 predate 1730; five date from the seventeenth century. The earliest document is a 1696/7 writ of attachment issued by Bristol County justice John Saffin; the latest is an 1816 recognizance issued by Zebedee Macomber. The Bristol County collection includes documents deriving from every tier of the county court system. More than 60 per cent of the documents in the collection relate to cases referred to or heard by the Court of General Sessions, including most of the items predating 1725. Around 25 per cent relate to cases before Common Pleas; most of the remainder document cases heard by individual county justices. The collection includes examples of at least 15 specific document types, representing various stages of judicial procedure. Among those more frequently encountered are: complaints and petitions directed by plaintiffs (and others) to the several courts; summonses, writs of attachment, and arrest warrants (instruments used by the courts to initiate legal proceedings, served by a sheriff or constable); bonds of recognizance (whereby the courts sought compliance by threatening the forfeiture of pledged monies); writs relating to jury duty; jury presentments; and memoranda of judgment and writs of execution. Most of the Court of Common Pleas documents pertain to actions between private individuals for the collection of debts. The General Sessions documents typically indicate either minor criminal offenses against order (sabbath violations, vagrancy, drunkenness, and so on) or sexual misconduct (especially fornication and bastardy). Also represented are cases against public officials, usually selectmen (failure to hire a minister or elect a constable; over- or under-taxation). Only occasionally do two or more documents within the collection pertain to the same specific case. Many of the documents—especially warrants—bear endorsements.


  • Creation: 1696/7-1816

Conditions Governing Access

There are no access restrictions on this collection.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright status for collection materials is unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.

Biographical / Historical

Bristol County was established in 1685, and was incorporated into Massachusetts Bay with the dissolution of the Plymouth colony in 1691. During the colonial period, its notable towns included Attleborough, Berkeley, Dartmouth, Dighton, Easton, Freetown, Norton, Raynham, Rehoboth, Swansea, and Taunton. Barrington, Bristol, Little Compton, Tiverton, and Warren lay within Bristol County until 1746, when the colonial boundary was redrawn and the towns were consigned to Rhode Island. The county seats were Bristol and, after 1746, Taunton. At the base of the county court hierarchy were the one-man courts of the county's justices of the peace. These courts had jurisdiction over minor civil suits (in which the amount at issue was less than 40 shillings, and title to land was not in question) as well as over cases involving petty criminal offenses, like profanity, defamation, or minor trespass. Cases heard by individual justices could be appealed to the county's two trial courts, the Inferior Court of Common Pleas and the Court of General Sessions of the Peace. Common Pleas, composed of four justices meeting quarterly at Bristol (or Taunton), possessed original jurisdiction over all civil suits in which damages sought exceeded 40 shillings, except for those involving the crown as plaintiff. General Sessions was also a quarterly court, composed of Bristol County's justices sitting collectively. In its adjudicatory capacity it heard all but the most serious of criminal cases. It also had extensive county administrative functions; it oversaw road and bridge construction, issued licenses (including licenses to sell alcohol and to operate boarding houses, several examples of which are included in the collection), and approved town by-laws. This judicial structure changed relatively little over the course of the eighteenth century.


1 Cubic foot (96 folders. )

Language of Materials



An accumulation of 96 single-sheet manuscript file documents issued by or directed to the judiciary of Bristol County in southeastern Massachusetts, mostly during the colonial period.


The collection is arranged chronologically, one item per folder.

Bristol County, Massachusetts Court Records
George Rugg
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Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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Repository Details

Part of the University of Notre Dame Rare Books & Special Collections Repository

102 Hesburgh Library
Notre Dame IN 46556