Guide to Civil War Resources at the Missouri State Archives
Supreme Court of the State of Missouri
The Supreme Court is the state's highest court. It reviews important, often controversial legal issues that affect Missourians and involve the state constitution and laws. The Court was created in 1821. For its first fifty-four years, the Court held session in various cities, rotating between St. Louis, St. Charles, Cape Girardeau, and Franklin. At various times, the Court also sat at Fayette, Bowling Green, Boonville, Palmyra, Potosi, Lexington, Columbia, Hannibal, Jackson, and St. Joseph. The 1875 Constitution provided a permanent seat in Jefferson City.
Record Group 600: Supreme Court of the State of Missouri, 1804 - 1896; arranged chronologically, numerically by court case number.
The Missouri State Archives holds over 5000 cubic feet of Supreme Court records, which include legal files of cases argued before the Court, both during the territorial period and after statehood.
The files and opinions of the Court are informative in what they reveal about life in Missouri from the antebellum age through reconstruction. Supreme Court cases provide great insight into antebellum and wartime Missouri, offering observations about historical development in the politics, economics, and social issues of 19th century Missouri. A wide range of topics is available for research, including slavery and freedom suits, business and industry, local and state elections, dueling, agriculture and mining, morality issues, and the role of women in society. Supreme Court records can be used with a variety of documents from other collections, including the Governors' Papers, various series in the Secretary of State's Office, and the General Assembly for a fuller look at specific historical topics.
The history of slavery or life as a free black in Missouri can be studied in cases from the territorial era to the antebellum years. As in most slaveholding states, slavery was inextricably tied to matters of economics and property rights; protection of the owner's property interests was the primary concern. The Missouri Supreme Court records include pertinent information about the institution of slavery in antebellum Missouri. Often, physical descriptions of slaves appear in estate settlements or runaway slave circulars; medical conditions of the slaves are discussed in cases of fraudulent sales; genealogical lines are traced in wills, as well as market value. In addition, Missouri law allowed anyone, white or black, wrongfully enslaved, to sue for freedom. These cases started at the circuit court level, but could be appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, as in the case of Dred Scott and many others. These various types of cases combine to give depth to the overall portrait of slavery in Missouri, from the view of the slaveholder as well as the view of the slave suing for freedom. For more information about the Dred Scott case, read “Missouri's Dred Scott Case, 1846-1852.”
Cases appealed to the state Supreme Court during the Civil War offer commentary about the difficulty of maintaining a judiciary system during war. Many war era cases involve treason, Union Military Bonds, and the activities of the militia during the war, including arson, theft, and destruction of property. There are also cases detailing the difficulty of recovering a debt, citing that the indebted person “joined the army.” Ousting orders (vacating county offices) and bushwhackers are also relevant topics to this period.
In the years following the Civil War, new social and political realities emerged in the state as Missourians who supported the Confederacy were systematically disenfranchised. The new 1865 Constitution demanded, as a voting condition, an "Ironclad Oath" be taken to affirm wartime loyalty to the Union. Frank Blair, a former pro-Union Congressman who served as major general in the Union Army, opposed this prerequisite to voting; at an 1865 municipal election in St. Louis, he substituted his own oath. When his ballot was rejected, Blair sued and lost in circuit court. In Blair v. Ridgely, the Missouri Supreme Court also rejected his challenge to the oath. A final appeal to the United States Supreme Court ended in a badly fractured court whose failure to muster a majority let the earlier decision stand. The Ironclad Oath was removed from the Missouri Constitution in 1870.
Post-Civil War court cases reveal the attitudes of white Missourians about the prospect of a new African American citizenry. Although the legislature did not pass laws segregating public accommodations, local segregationist customs were upheld in Supreme Court decisions, and many of Missouri's theatres, restaurants, rail transportation facilities, and more, remained segregated for much of the twentieth century. The fight for civil rights, including integrated schools, is reflected in many court documents through the late nineteenth century.