St. Louis Circuit Court Legal Encoding Project
Digital Library Services
About the Project

Previous Projects    |     Current Project    |     Contributors

Previous Projects

The present, IMLS-funded project would have been impossible without the past projects and efforts formed around the historical cases in the St. Louis Circuit Court archive on which it is built. The first step was of course the recognition of the importance of the material in the files of the St. Louis Circuit Court at the old court building. As Robert Moore, a National Park Service Historian attached to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (and the first to publish on freedom suits beyond Dred & Harriet Scott) describes, when he first looked at the freedom suits, he had to shake off coal dust to read them. As the importance of the material—and not just the freedom suits—began to be recognized, plans were developed for the re-housing of the documents. The entire record was deposited with the Missouri State Archives-St. Louis, in the Globe Building in downtown St. Louis, where archivists could began the long tasks of the cleaning, arrangement, description and preservation of the material. Along the way, grants from The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Save America's Treasures programs helped continue this work.

Close on the heels of plans for the curation of the records came discussions regarding possibilities for providing greater access to the documents through digitization. The Missouri State Archives partnered with Washington University Libraries on the first project, and with American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis on a subsequent project. The first project focused exclusively on the Dred Scott case, which imaged and transcribed 85 documents associated with the case. The second project, the St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project dealt with a broader set of cases, comprised of four collections: freedom suits; suits relating to the early fur trade in Missouri; suits involving Native Americans, and suits related to Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. In this project, case files were imaged (but not transcribed) and a database of metadata was developed to organize the materials.

In 2006, the Washington University Libraries created a new unit for a greater focus on digital projects, Digital Library Services (DLS). Maintenance of the Dred Scott digital collection fell to DLS and in 2007, undertook to further improve access to the case documents by migrating the HTML transcriptions to TEI (the Text Encoding Initiative, a widely-used standard for the encoding books as electronic texts) XML for robust markup and improved search, resulting in the Revised Dred Scott collection. A graduate student with experience in legal standards and pratice, Dr. Crystal Alberts, was hired to assist with the migration. Alberts quickly noticed that the "titles" of the documents given in the Dred Scott case files were often descriptive, rather than following conventions of legal practice, i.e., referred to as "petitions," "summons," "pleas", etc. DLS staff members researched vocabularies and schemas to use in encoding this information but could not find an appropriate standard. The absence of a suitable schema for markup of historical legal texts seemed a need that deserved to be filled, and this need was the basis of the grant application made to the Institute for Museum and Library Services in 2009.

Current Project

The proposal submitted to the IMLS by the Washington University Libraries, in partnership with the Missouri History Museum, had two primary emphases: 1) the creation of a set of extensions to the TEI for markup of historic legal documents, and 2) the transcription of all the cases that were included in the original St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project, encoded in TEI and with the extensions to the TEI for legal documents developed by the project. But the project has goals beyond the schema and the encoding of the cases, in terms of content but also access and interaction. Additional project content includes:

This content is indicative of some of the other project goals beyond the straightforward increased access to the cases, and accurate representation as legal documents through the implementation of the schema. While all the legal documents in the collections are compelling from a variety of perspectives, it is the freedom suits that have received the most attention, and for good reason. Even nearly twenty years after freedom suits besides Dred Scott, the fact that enslaved African-Americans could and did sue in court for their freedom before the Emancipation Proclamation is not widely known. This is completely understandable from one perspective, because the context of what is widely known today about the status of slaves then makes the idea of an enslaved person suing for his or her freedom—beyond the implausibility of this even being a legal possibility—seems almost inconceivable, when considering the ramifications for a person undertaking such a suit. And as many historians writing about the suits have remarked, the possible (and actual) consequences of the decision to sue for one's freedom were indeed grave. There is no other way to describe the decision than as heroic. And heroic acts deserve remembrance. The fact is, however, many of those who undertook these suits are known only by one name, and in many cases, the individual is known only by the court record recorded here.

The reason for including the supplementary materials of the city directories and freedom bonds in the project was only partly in hopes that some of the names in the court cases might be matched in those materials. The other, and potentially more consequential reason is that the city directories are one of the most popular resources at the Missouri History Museum Library. They are popular specifically with people using them for genealogical research. As popular as genealogy has become in recent years, it has become especially popular with African Americans. Many genealogical searches begin not with historical documents, but stories passed from generation to generation. While historians may have exhausted official records in their efforts to identify the individuals in these cases, there may be family stories that can be matched to these individuals, and the supplementary resources have been included in hopes that genealogical researchers who can connect a family story with one of these names will share the story, and submit it so it can be included in the visualization showing the relationships, not only between the people in the cases, but between those people and their descendents, putting ourselves in their story.

Project Contributors

More than most projects, this project was uniquely an effort of a several groups of contributors, who devoted significant time and areas of expertise to make the project a success.

Digital Library Services & Washington University Libraries: Staff—Erika Cohn, J.D., M.L.S., Makiba Foster, M.L.I.S., Guy Gray, Andrea Johnson, Tim Lepczyk, M.S.I.S., Andrew Rouner, Ph.D. (Project Director), Shannon Showers, M.L.S., Cassandra Stokes, M.L.I.S.; Students—Kaitlin Thompson, Elizabeth Mohan, Jennifer Brazier, Promita Majumdar, Judith Ohikuare, Marcia McIntosh, Candace Girod...and many others!

Missouri History Museum: Emily Jaycox, M.L.S., Jason Stratman

Humanities Digital Workshop (Washington University School of Arts & Sciences): Doug Knox, M.A., Steve Pentecost, M.A., Perry Trolard, M.L.I.S.

Washington University Law Library: Dora Bertram, J.D., M.S.; Hyla Bondareff, J.D., M.S.L.I.S., Aris Woodham, J.D., M.L.I.S.

Project Advisors

Kenneth Winn, Ph.D., Director of Library and Public Services, Supreme Court of Missouri; John Barden, Ph.D., J.D., Director, State Law and Legislative Reference Library, Maine State Legislature; Nicholas Finke, J.D., InterActive Legal, LLC; David Konig, Ph.D., Professor of History and Professor of Law, Washington University

Friends of the Project

John Dougan, M.A., State Archivist; Michael Everman, C.A., Archivist, Local Records Program-St. Louis, Lynn Morrow, Director Local Records (Missouri State Archives); Robert Moore, M.A., Historian, National Park Service, The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial; Lea VanderVelde, J.D., Josephine Witte Professor of Law, University of Iowa Law College; Philip Berwick, J.D., Associate Dean for Information Resources & Senior Lecturer in Law, Washington University School of Law; Joseph Lowenstein, Ph.D., Professor of English in Arts & Sciences, Director, Humanities Digital Workshop, Washington University; Shirley K. Baker, Vice Chancellor for Scholarly Resources & Dean (retired); Gail Oltmanns, Associate University Librarian, Jeff Huestis, Associate University Librarian (Washington University Libraries)

Special Acknowledgement

As indicated above, the present project is built on the foundation of the St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project, and used images and metadata created from that project, provided by the Missouri State Archives. And a special thank-you is owed to Michael Everman, who oversees the physical documents in the Globe Building, and never refused any request for assistance, and has been indispensable to so many researchers of this archive.