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Frontiers in History
Ideas from the National Archives for NHD 2001

Resources at NARA's Rocky Mountain Region (Denver)


Records of U.S. Territorial, Circuit, and District Courts

United States district and circuit courts were created by the Judiciary Act of 1789. The jurisdiction and powers of these Federal courts have varied with subsequent legislation, but district courts generally have had original jurisdiction in admiralty and bankruptcy cases, suits for penalties or seizures under Federal laws, noncapital criminal proceedings, and suits exceeding $100 in which the United States was the plaintiff. The circuit courts heard appeals from the district courts and had original jurisdiction over actions involving aliens or citizens of different States and law and equity suits where the matter in dispute exceeded $500. The Judiciary Act of 1911 abolished the circuit courts and provided for the transfer of their records and remaining jurisdiction to the district courts. Territorial district courts generally were established by the organic act that created the territory and had jurisdiction over Federal civil, criminal, and bankruptcy actions as well as civil and criminal jurisdiction similar to that of State courts. Records created by a territorial court acting in its capacity as a Federal court often became the property of the Federal district court upon statehood.

Related records at NARA's Rocky Mountain Region document the actions of Federal district and circuit courts in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota and Dakota Territory, Utah, and Wyoming, and date back as early as 1848. Cases reflect such pertinent frontier topics as the conflict over establishment of railroad rights-of-way, water rights, the sale of liquor on Indian land, theft of U.S.mail, the treason prosecution of individuals who aided the Southern cause during the invasion of Confederate forces in New Mexico, polygamy, illegal entry upon the public domain, and a murder indictment for Henry Antrim, a.k.a. "Billy the Kid." The records generally consist of dockets, registers, and case files, which usually include motions, orders, affidavits, petitions, judgments, and other documents filed by attorneys or issued by the court. (Record Group 21, Records of the U.S. District Courts)

Records of Homesteading, Mining, and Other Land Entries

The transfer of public land to private ownership has had a lengthy legislative history that can be traced back at least to the Ordinance of 1785. This act authorized the survey of public lands into rectangular sections one mile square and their sale, in lots of one section or more, to the highest bidder. The General Land Office (GLO) was established within the Department of the Treasury by an act of April 25, 1812, to administer all public land transactions except surveying and map work (which came under the supervision of the GLO in 1836). In 1849, the GLO was transferred to the Department of the Interior where it was merged in 1946 to form the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). During the long period between the Ordinance of 1785 and the creation of the BLM, many laws provided for the disposal of the vast resources of federally-owned lands into private ownership, including various bounty-land acts, credit sales, preemption, homesteading, timber culture, desert land, mining claims, and others. The primary contact for the prospective land owner was the local land office. Related records at NARA's Rocky Mountain Region, which begin as early as 1860, include those of land offices in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, North and South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. The records include tract books, which document individual land entries based on location; register books and abstracts that record entries by type; survey plats and location certificates; as well as correspondence and administrative records of the GLO and Surveyors General. (Record Group 49, Records of the Bureau of Land Management)

Records of Indian Agencies

An Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) was established in 1824 within the War Department, which had exercised jurisdiction over relations with Indian tribes since the formation of the Federal Government. The Office was transferred to the Department of Interior in 1849, and was officially designated the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in 1947. The Bureau has been responsible for most of the Federal Government's relations with tribes of Indians that it recognizes, which excludes some groups of Indians in Eastern States, and others who ceased to function as cohesive tribes prior to the establishment of the Federal Government in 1789. Beginning in the 1830s, it was the policy of the Federal Government to persuade Indian tribes to sign treaties giving up their ancestral land and accept land in OIA-administered reservations. The OIA's and BIA's programs have had an impact on virtually every phase of tribal development and individual Indian life, including education, health, land ownership, financial affairs, employment, and legal rights. Records in NARA's Rocky Mountain Region include those of federal Indian agencies and schools in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, beginning as early as 1870, and include the Blackfeet, Crow, Flathead, Arapahoe, Shoshone, Ute, Pueblos, and Mescalero Apache tribes, among others. (Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs)

Records of United States Marshals

The Judiciary Act of 1789 made provision for U.S. attorneys and marshals who are appointed by the President and have functioned under the general supervision of the Department of Justice since its creation in 1870. U.S. marshals serve as officers of federal courts, and are responsible for assuring the integrity of the federal judicial process by providing security for federal court personnel, by maintaining order in courtrooms and other judicial areas, and through the prompt and orderly execution of court orders. In addition, the Marshal's Service has jurisdictional responsibility to respond to emergency situations, such as civil disturbances, which violate federal law or endanger federal property, and in recent decades, to ensure the enforcement of voting rights laws. U.S. Marshal's records in NARA's Rocky Mountain Region that pertain to the frontier experience include fiscal records of marshals in the Territory and State of Wyoming for the period 1875-1896. The records include bound volumes that list compensation to witnesses and jurors; dockets of actions taken on cases; accounts of expenses such as fees for jurors and witnesses and the support of prisoners; lists of writs received and served; and lists of prisoners at the U.S. Penitentiary at Laramie that record the name of prisoners, date of delivery to the Penitentiary, nature of crime, length of sentence, date of birth, education, and conduct. The crimes listed include grand larceny, manslaughter, obstructing trains, robbing the U.S. mail, passing counterfeit money, and assisting soldiers to desert. (Record Group 527, Records of the U.S. Marshals Service)

Records of Preservation of Historic Sites

The Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service was established by the Secretary of the Interior in 1978 to serve as the Federal focal point for planning, evaluation, and coordination related to natural, cultural, and recreational resources. It managed programs that helped preserve and maintain various components of the nation's heritage, including grants to states and the National Trust for Historic Preservation for historic surveys and plans, and acquisition, restoration, and rehabilitation of historic and cultural properties. The agency was abolished in 1981. Records in NARA's Rocky Mountain Region document the establishment, maintenance, or proposed development of properties and historic sites throughout western states, and include archaeological surveys, correspondence, memorandums, plans, publications, and reports. Sites relating to the frontier experience include Fort Apache; the Presidio of San Francisco; Lincoln County, New Mexico; the Alamo; and Fort Laramie, among others. (Record Group 368, Records of the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service)


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