Utah Territorial Case Files

On the 38 rolls of this microfilm publication are reproduced 14 cubic feet of records created by the U.S. territorial courts in Utah between 1870 and 1896. Those records are part of the holdings in the National Archives designated as Records of U.S. District Courts, Record Group (RG) 21, and are in the custody of the National Archives--Denver Branch.

The records reproduced in this microfilm publication are those described in entries 1 and 2 of the Preliminary Inventory of Records of the United States District Court of Utah. The records originated in the U.S. district courts at Salt Lake City, Ogden, Prove, and Beaver, seats of the four U.S. 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 U.S. district court for Utah and to the circuit court (10th circuit) in Salt Lake City. At both courts, the cases were rearranged 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. The cases transferred to the U.S. district court are filmed first, followed by the cases transferred to the U.S. circuit court. An alphabetical index of the names of defendants and plaintiffs is reproduced on the first roll of this publication. The index lists the individual's name, the case file number, and the microfilm roll number.

Most of the 2,593 case files transferred to the U.S. 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. Pew Judgments are given. This series also includes case files involving robbing the malls, illegal voting, violations of liquor and tobacco tariff laws, possession of counterfeit coins, and embezzlement.

The 95 case files transferred to the U.S. 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, infrequently, counterfeiting.

Each case file usually contains a complaint stating plantiff's cause of action, an answer by the defendant, and summons. Occasionally Included are subpoenas, demurrers, findings of fact, records of disbursements, and Judgement and execution.

Temporarily unavailable. Should be back in May.

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 U.S. 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).