New to Ancestry: Criminal and Prison Records from Chester County, Pennsylvania

Does your family tree have roots in colonial Pennsylvania? If it does, you may want to check out an index of Chester County criminal and prison records that Ancestry recently acquired. The collection includes five databases of records that have long been available on Chester County’s website. Some records date back to 1681, one year prior to Chester County’s founding by William Penn. Now that records are searchable through Ancestry, all five databases can be searched at one time.

“Chester County was one of the most populous areas at the time in Pennsylvania,” said Mindi Stevens, a researcher at AncestryProGenealogists who specializes in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. “If you’re researching a family in Chester County and you can’t find them, or if you’re not finding a lot of information, it’s a good idea to check these records. You never know what kind of court case might pop up. Your person might be a defendant, or there could be someone else who might have brought a suit against them, for land disputes and different things. Court records can be helpful, especially in a time like this where there’s not a lot of other records.”

What records can be found in this collection?

The Languishing Prisoner Petitions from 1718-1790 are records of people who sought to be released from jail. “Once they put people in prison, there were times when they just left them there. They didn’t necessarily keep track of who was supposed to get out when,” Mindi said.

The Oyer and Terminer was a high criminal court that handled the county’s capital offenses, and it’s here one can find records from 1802 to 1910 pertaining to serious crimes such as murder, treason, rape, burglary, robbery, and arson.

Court officials met four times a year to hear cases about less-serious crimes that had transpired in the county, and those records can be found in the Quarter Session Indictments from 1681 to 1870. The most common cases heard were for fornication and bastardy, assault and battery, theft and horse theft, counterfeiting, and rioting.

Records kept by the Chester County sheriff are found in the Gaol (Jail) Keepers’ Docket from 1804 to 1857. Prison Discharge records from 1843 to 1872 were filed with the court clerk, and here one can find documentation of prisoners who had served their sentences but had not paid the necessary fines.

I found the person I was looking for — now what?

Because this collection is an index, you will not find images of the original records on Ancestry. Generally, the index contains the names of the defendant and plaintiff, the type of suit or court case in which they were involved, the date the action was taken, and the nature of the crime. Once you have found your person in the index, don’t stop there! Copies of the original records can be ordered from Chester County and likely contain a wealth of information that isn’t included in an index.

To really understand the circumstances of the people involved in these records, it would be wise to get some historical context. What can you discover about the laws of the era? As a colony, Pennsylvania had its own laws and customs that were “separate and distinct from the other colonies,” Mindi said.

Now that you have placed your ancestor in a specific time and place, you may be able to find them in census records. In addition to the U.S. Federal Census that has been enumerated every 10 years since 1790, Ancestry has a collection of U.S. Census Reconstructed Records from 1660 to 1820, and an index of compiled Pennsylvania censuses and census substitutes from 1772 to 1890.

Have you searched through this newly available record set on Ancestry? Tell us what you found in the comments below.