Category: Courts & Councils

An Account of the Compilations of the Statute Laws of Tennessee (as of 1902)

By , March 6, 2016

by A.V. Goodpasture, A.M., B.L.

[Transcriber’s note: Original punctuation has been retained.]

Roulstone’s Laws.

1803 Roulstone's Laws

1803 Roulstone’s Laws

The first compilation of the laws of Tennessee was printed and published by George Roulstone, at Knoxville, in 1803.

Roulstone was a printer by trade. He came here from New England, and in 1791, began the publication, at Rogersville, of the Knoxville Gazette, the first and, for sometime, the only newspaper published in the Southwest Territory. He was a man of more than ordinary intelligence. As public printer, he had published the Session Acts, both of the Territory and State.

In his compilation, he did no more than to reprint the Session Acts, and bind them together in a single volume. The work is a literal reproduction, even to clerical errors, of the Acts and Ordinances of the Governor and Judges of the Territory of the United States of America, south of the River Ohio; of the Acts of the Territorial Assembly; and of the Acts of the First, Second, Third and Fourth General Assemblies of the State of Tennessee, thus bringing into one volume the statute laws from 1792 to 1801, without other editorial work than the arrangement of an index. It was, however, a manifestation of considerable enterprise, since the stock for carrying it on, had to be transported many hundreds of miles, at great expense. But complete sets of the Session Acts were, even then, so scarce as to invite the undertaking, and at this day, hardly a library in the country could supply itself with a complete set of the Session Acts of the State, without utilizing this Roulstone reprint.

“Possibly it is the first bound book printed in the state. The fact that it was issued bound (increasing the possibility of survival) and the knowledge that Roulstone printed the book as a personal venture should render this book somewhat more likely to be found. Nonetheless, it is virtually never offered for sale today” (Allen). [Quoted by Donald Heald, bookseller, who had a copy of the book listed for sale in early 2016 for $12,000.]

Fisk’s Compilation.

In 1803, the Legislature appointed Willie Blount (1769-1835) and Moses Fisk (1759-1843) commissioners to revise, select and compile the acts and ordinances of the Governor and Judges of the later Territorial Government; the acts of the late Territorial Assembly; and the acts of the General Assembly of this State, which were then in force and use; and also to make and add thereto a careful selection of the statute laws of North Carolina, passed previous to the passage and acceptance of the act of cession; and directing that they insert in said volume the charter from the Crown of Great Britain, the lords proprietors’ great grant, the ordinance of Congress for the government of the territory northwest of the river Ohio, the Constitution of this State, the Constitution of the United States as amended since ratification, the Act of Congress admitting this State into the Union, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation of the United States, together with the treaty of peace between the United States of America and Great Britain.

Willie Blount was learned in the law, had already received and declined an appointment to the supreme bench of the State, and had written and published a “Catechetical Exposition of the Constitution of the State of Tennessee,” and his fitness for a place on the commission could not have been questioned, but for some reason he never acted under his appointment.

Moses Fisk was a native of New England. He was a graduate of Dartmouth College, and had been for seven years a tutor in that institution. He had declined the presidency of the University of North Carolina, tendered through Governor William Blount, and at his solicitation, took up the law, but never devoted himself to it.

He prepared his work alone, and submitted it to the Legislature in 1805, but it appearing that it was incomplete, he was paid a compensation of $300 for the services he had performed and expenses incurred, and was allowed to withdraw his compilation for the purpose of completing the same according to the act of 1803, and was directed to lay it before the next session of the General Assembly for their revision or any regulation they might make relating to it. He did not have it completed and ready to be submitted to the Legislature before its session of 1809, and Haywood’s Revisal appearing in the meantime it was never submitted to the Legislature nor published.

Haywood’s Revisal.

Haywood’s Revisal was published in 1809, and embraced the public acts of the General Assembly of North Carolina and Tennessee, enacted from 1715 to 1807, then in force in Tennessee.

John Haywood (1762-1826) came to Tennessee from North Carolina in 1807, and that his Revisal appeared in 1809, is sufficient evidence, both of his familiarity with his subject, and his immense capacity for work. It is peculiarly fortunate for the State that the work was taken up by Judge Haywood at that time. He was a native of North Carolina, whence we obtained the body of our laws. He had been Attorney General of the State from 1791 till 1794, when he was elected to the bench of the Superior Court of that State, which position he held until his resignation in 1800; and had published a “Manual of the Laws of North Carolina,” “Haywood’s Justice” and “Haywood’s Reports” of the opinions of the Superior Court of North Carolina, from 1789 to 1798. He was an untiring worker, and in the estimation of Chief Justice Henderson, of that State, an abler man never appeared at the bar or sat on the bench of North Carolina.

Haywood’s Revisal differs from Roulstone’s Laws, in that it embraces the Constitution of the State of Tennessee (1796), and the laws of North Carolina in force in this State, by sessions and chapters. It omits the acts and ordinances of the governor and judges, and brings the acts of the General Assembly down through the first session of the seventh General Assembly, in 1807, by sessions and chapters, but omits all reference to chapters containing laws of a private nature, and such as were not then in force.

Judge Haywood’s biographers seem to omit this Revisal from the list of his works, but it is not certain that, in its results, it is not his very greatest publication. Its chief value to the State consists in the accuracy and discrimination with which he culled the statute laws, of North Carolina, for a period of seventy-five years, from 1715 to 1789, and brought into his compilation only such as were in force in Tennessee. A less learned and accurate lawyer, or one not so thoroughly grounded in the laws of North Carolina, could hardly have succeeded so well. It was immensely popular at the time, going through three editions in six years. The third edition, published in 1815, brings the compilation down to 1813, adds the Constitution of the United States, gives numerous marginal notes, indicating the subjects of the sections, and carries the general subject matter treated, at the top of the page, through the book. It is rarely, if ever, referred to in our reports, for the reason that it is in no sense a digest, but sets out the acts chronologically, by sessions and chapters, making reference to the original acts easy and natural.

Scott’s Revisal.

Haywood’s Revisal was followed and superseded in 1821, by the “Laws of the State of Tennessee, including those of North Carolina, now in force in this State, from the year 1715 to the year 1820, inclusive,” by Edward Scott, of Knoxville, who was for thirty years, one of the judges of the Circuit Court of Law and Equity, of this State. The work, which is very comprehensive, was published in two large volumes. It had the sanction of the Legislature, upon the approval of its plan and execution, by the judges of the Supreme Court, which it received, Judge Haywood then being upon the bench of that court. Indeed it was a valuable work. It contains more matter than Haywood’s Revisal, and is provided with marginal notes and references to subsequent alterations and amendments, the first effort in this direction that had yet been made.

In addition to the matter contained in the compilations of Roulstone and Haywood, Scott’s Revisal embraced the second charter granted by King Charles II, to the proprietors of Carolina; the great deed of grant; the act of Congress accepting cession of certain lands from North Carolina: an ordinance for the government of the territory of the United States, northwest of the river Ohio; the act of Congress providing for the government of the territory northwest of the river Ohio; the act of Congress receiving Tennessee into the Union; an appendix, containing the articles of Confederation; treaties made by the United States with France, England, Spain, and with the Indian tribes; the act of Congress respecting the authentication of records from other states, naturalization, and the removal of causes from State to Federal Courts; rules of practice in the Supreme Court, and the District Federal Courts; and precedents for Justices of the Peace. It differs also from Haywood’s Revisal, in giving the captions of such chapters, in the acts of Tennessee, as were not inserted, in their proper order.

All subsequent revisers have relied on this work almost exclusively for the statute laws of the State prior to 1821.

Haywood & Cobbs’ Revisal.

Valuable as Judge Scott’s compilation undoubtedly was, it failed to meet a demand which was being felt for a digest of the statute law of the State. To satisfy this growing want, the Legislature, in 1825, passed an act for the appointment of two persons, learned in the law, by joint ballot of the General Assembly, to digest and revise the statute laws of this State and of the State of North Carolina, then in force and of a public nature, in such a manner, that when there were several statutes on the same subject, the whole might be reduced into one, in which should be comprehended the provisions contained in each, with marginal notes, showing the date of the passage of the several acts, and stating the substance of each section.

In pursuance of this act, the General Assembly elected Judge Haywood who had now added to his six years on the Supreme bench of North Carolina nearly ten on that of Tennessee; to his two volumes of North Carolina Reports, three volumes of Tennessee Reports, and to his Manual of the Laws of North Carolina, three editions of his Revision of the Laws of Tennessee. They associated with him Robert L. Cobbs, a native of Virginia, who had commenced his career as a physician, and acted as a surgeon in Jackson’s army at New Orleans, but had afterwards studied law, and at this time, was esteemed the most eminent lawyer at the Columbia bar. He was elected Solicitor General of the ninth district, in 1819, but resigned the position to undertake this work, in 1825.

In 1826, the Legislature passed a resolution providing that where said persons in revising the laws, may ultimately not be able to agree as to what head any part of the law shall be placed under, or whether any law, or part of a law, be obsolete or suspended, expired or repealed, that such differences should be decided by Wm. L. Brown, who was required to act in such case or cases; and he did so act in at least one case. They disagreed as to the act of 1715, ch. 31, sec. 7, the point of disagreement being as to whether that part of the act of 21 James I, ch. 16, sec. 3, which provides that “all actions of debt grounded upon any lending or contract without specialty Shall be commenced and sued within Six years after the cause of such action and not after,” was in force by virtue of the act of 1715. Judge Haywood thought it was not. Gen. Cobbs was of the contrary opinion, and Judge Brown concurred with him, and it was so held by the Supreme Court, in Tisdale vs. Munroe, 3 Yer., 320, Ch. J. Catron delivering the opinion of the court.

Judge Haywood died December 22, 1826, before the work was finished, and it was completed by Gen. Cobbs, and submitted to the Legislature in 1827. He was directed to include the acts of 1827, and to avail himself of the assistance of Judge Brown. After an examination by a joint select committee, of which Judge Nathan Green (1792-1866) was chairman, the work was ordered printed. The publication was delayed, however, until the session of 1829, when it was again ordered to be printed, and to include the public acts of that session, which James A. Whiteside was directed to prepare. It was contemplated that this addition should be completed before the close of the session, but that being found impracticable, the whole matter of its publication was committed to Mr. Whiteside, who brought it out in 1831, in two volumes.

The first volume, including all the statutes of Tennessee and North Carolina passed from 1715 to 1729, inclusive, which were in force, except what was denominated the “Land Law,” was made on the plan prescribed by the Legislature, and had appended to it, the Articles of Confederation, Constitutions of the United States and of the State of Tennessee (1796), and precedents for Justices of the Peace.

The second volume was devoted entirely to the “Land Law,” which it treated under numerous divisions, indicating for the most part the district in which the land lay, the services for which it was granted, or the purpose to which the proceeds of its sale was devoted. The appendix to the second volume contained the treaties made by the United States with Indian tribes in relation to land in the State of Tennessee; acts of Congress relative to the authentication of records, the naturalization of foreigners, and the removal of suits from the State to the Federal Courts.

This publication marks two important departures in the compilations of the statutes – it was the first digest of the statute laws of the State, and was also the first compilation issued by the State itself.

Caruthers & Nicholson’s Statutes.

Although Haywood & Cobbs’ compilation was in the direction of a more perfect revision of the statute laws of the State, it did not give entire satisfaction to the profession. It was not intended wholly to supersede Scott’s Revisal, and on that account increased rather than diminished, the books of statute law necessary to the profession. Moreover, the State had adopted a new Constitution since its publication. It was not long, therefore, before a new compilation was undertaken by Robert L. Caruthers and A. O. P. Nicholson, two of the most illustrious names in the annals of Tennessee.

Robert L. Caruthers (1800-1882), the greatest advocate this State has ever produced, was also one of its soundest judges. He occupied a seat upon the Supreme bench from 1853 to 1861, and closed his long, upright, distinguished and useful career, at the head of the law department of Cumberland University, in the establishment and success of which institution, he was, more than any other man, instrumental.

His associate, Alfred O. P. Nicholson (1808-1876), then a young man, lived to achieve the highest distinction as an advocate, journalist, statesman and jurist. At the time of his death, he was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the State.

Their work, commonly known as Caruthers and Nicholson’s statutes, was issued in 1836, and was done ably and accurately. It was received with great favor by the profession, with whom it was the standard until the adoption of the Code in 1858. Taking the statutes brought into Scott’s Revisal, up to 1820, and the session acts subsequent to that date they undertook to arrange them under their title in alphabetical order, so dividing and subdividing them, that every distinct subject could be found under its appropriate title. And in arranging them under the several titles, they placed them in the order in which they were passed, in this way combining a chronological with an alphabetical order. A new feature of this compilation, is the notes, containing references to judicial decisions on constitutional questions, and on statutes, when deemed necessary for a correct understanding of them. It contains the Declaration of Independence; Constitutions of the United States and the State of Tennessee (1834); Acts of Congress on Naturalization, on the authentication of record, on the removal of causes from the State to the Federal Courts, accepting certain lands from the State of North Carolina, and receiving the State of Tennessee into the Union; and in the appendix, forms, notes of explanation and remarks, arranged under the different titles of the compilation, which is especially notable for their departure from the old system, in conveyancing and other forms, in the direction of brevity and perspicuity, which was afterwards followed in the code.

Nicholson’s Supplement.

In 1846, Judge Nicholson published a volume of “Statute Laws of the State of Tennessee, of a general character; passed since the compilation of the statutes by Caruthers and Nicholson, in 1836, and being a supplement to that work.” The plan of the work is simple and inartificial. The several acts are published in full, under their respective titles, arranged in alphabetical order.

Code of Tennessee.

The State of Tennessee had a claim against Smith Criddle which was litigated in the Chancery Court at Franklin. The Legislature seems to have set apart the fund arising from that suit, to procure a new revision and digest of the laws of the State. In January, 1844, it passed a resolution providing that two persons of sufficient learning and ability be appointed by the judges of the Supreme Court, whose duty it should be to revise and digest the general statutes of the State, and the reports of the Supreme Court, with a proviso, that the person so appointed should receive in full compensation therefor, the balance due the State from Smith Criddle, then pending in a suit in the Chancery Court at Franklin, and no more and not otherwise. This proviso defeated the main object of the resolution, but there was another that bore rich fruit for the profession and the State. It provided “that the persons appointed to digest the decisions, shall be the owners of the book, and may proceed to publish the same as soon as it is prepared; but the same shall be done on their own responsibility.”

In pursuance of the resolution, the judges of the Supreme Court, on the 5th day of February, 1844, appointed Francis B. Fogg (1795-1880) and Return J. Meigs, who, the late W. B. Reese, says, was for fifty years Mr. Fogg’s only rival in knowledge and general scholarship. The inadequacy of the Smith Criddle fund prevented the revisers from undertaking a revision of the statute law, but under the second proviso, Mr. Meigs did undertake, and in 1848, published, a Digest of the Decisions of the Supreme Court, which has no superior in any State of the Union.

The matter rested here until 1852, when by resolution of the General Assembly, Return Meigs and Wm. F. Cooper were appointed to revise and digest the general statutes of the State, with power to suggest any amendments or alterations which they might deem advisable. The resolution also provided that they should receive as their compensation, the balance remaining unexpended of the amount recovered by the State against Smith Criddle. But remembering, doubtless, the fate of their former resolution, it was further resolved, “that if said gentlemen are not willing to undertake the revisal of the statutes upon the terms aforesaid, that the governor is hereby authorized to contract with them or others for the work, upon such terms as he may deem proper.”

Return J. Meigs (1801-1891) was a man of wide learning and ripe scholarship, as well as of high legal attainments. If he had needed any other recommendation, his admirable Digest of the Decisions of the Supreme Court, that had just lately appeared, demonstrated his fitness for this work.

William F. Cooper, who was born in 1820, still survives, “full of years and full of honors.” Like one of our former revisers, he was educated for the medical profession, but abandoned it for the law, in which he attained the very highest eminence, both as a jurist and a law writer. He was successively chancellor of Nashville division, and judge of the Supreme Court of the State.

Shortly after their appointment, the revisers met to consult upon a plan of work and a division of labor, with a view of completing the digest before the meeting of the next Legislature. Owing to Mr. Meigs’ professional labors and his duties as State librarian and in other public capacities, he was not able to spare the time Mr. Cooper was willing to devote to the work entrusted to them. It was first agreed between them, that Mr. Meigs should reduce into manuscript the laws of a general nature in Scott’s Revisal, and that Mr. Cooper should rewrite the laws from 1820 down, putting them in their own language and in alphabetical order, with a view of afterwards throwing the material thus prepared into some suitable order of arrangement. Mr. Meigs’ engagements being such as to prevent him from accomplishing his task in the time allowed, a session of the Legislature passed, without a report, and they then agreed to adopt a division of the laws into four parts, viz: Public Rights, Private Rights, Redress of Civil Injuries, and Crimes, the first two parts to be prepared by Mr. Meigs, and the last two by Mr. Cooper. Mr. Meigs was still not ready to report at the session of 1855-6, and informed Mr. Cooper that he felt it his duty to go over the whole of the statutes in the manner suggested in their first agreement, and that view the latter accepted as applicable to himself also, and the work proceeded on two independent lines, so that they were never able to submit to the General Assembly a digest produced by their joint labors.

Mr. Meigs reported that he had revised and digested, in conformity with his arrangement with Mr. Cooper, the laws falling under the general divisions of Public Rights and Private Rights; while Mr. Cooper submitted with his report a complete digest of the laws of the State, with such alterations as he deemed advisable, analytically and systematically arranged, which he stated to be the exclusive work of his own hands, unaided by the gentleman who was expected by the General Assembly to co-operate with him in the production of a joint digest.

Both reports were submitted to the General Assembly at its session of 1857-8, and were referred to a joint select committee of that body, composed of Senators Joseph B. Heiskell, W. P. Davis and W. C. Whitthorne, and Representatives W. C. Dunlap, C. W. Rowles, H. B. Bate, Michael Vaughn, S. T. Bicknell and M. Bullock, and by them referred to a sub-committee, composed of Joseph B. Heiskell, Chairman, and Micajah Bullock and Samuel T. Bicknell. This sub-committee, with the advice and assistance of Messrs. Meigs and Cooper, revised their work, reporting the code in sections from day to day to the General Assembly, where it passed three readings, and was thus enacted by the State, under the name of the “Code of Tennessee,” a work that has justly taken a place in the front rank of American codes.

It is due the State to add, that in addition to the $1,000 realized from the Smith Criddle claim, it paid each of the revisers the sum of $4,000 for his services.

The arrangement of the code, which is that of Judge Cooper, was made after a careful examination and comparison of the various State codes, as well as the Code Napoleon and Sergeant Stephens’ analysis of the laws of England. It is divided into four parts, and combines systematic grouping, under appropriate titles, of laws having a natural connection, with suitable sub-divisions into chapters and articles to ensure ease of reference. Each part is divided into several titles, in the most natural order; each title into Chapters arranged systematically; the chapters being again sub-divided, when necessary from the nature of the subject or extent of material, into articles methodically arranged. It also carries system into the sequence of sections, instead of throwing them together without method just as the law happened to be read, making each chapter read as nearly like a treatise on that branch of the law as the nature of a digest will permit. In like manner the arrangement of chapters under a given title, is such as to follow the natural order in every case where the subject would permit.

Shankland’s Supplement.

In 1871, James H. Shankland, of the Nashville bar, published the public statutes of the State, passed since 1858, as a supplement to the code. It was designed to exhibit in one view the public laws of the State, enacted since the code, and at a distance of thirteen years of such great changes as those from 1858 to 1871, was absolutely necessary to the profession, in the absence of a better work. It went through a second edition in 1872.

Thompson & Steger’s Code.

Shankland’s supplement was entirely superseded by the appearance, in 1873, of “A Compilation of the Statute Laws of the State of Tennessee, Including Acts of Session of 1870-1,” by Seymour D. Thompson, of Memphis, and Thomas M. Steger, of Nashville. This work is commonly known as Thompson & Steger’s Code. It gives the sections of the code, in force, in their proper order of sequence, prefixed by their proper sectional numbers, while the laws passed since the code, are inserted under the sections relating to the same subject, and are designated by the number of the preceding section, with a letter added. It also gives notes of the judicial decisions of this State and the United States, involving a construction or an important application of the statutes embraced in the compilation. The work had gone through two editions, when the General Assembly agreed to supply it to Justices of the Peace, provided, it should include all acts down to, and including the acts of 1873. Three sessions of the Legislature had been held since the appearance of the first edition, and the acts of these sessions were included in a supplement to the third edition, and was also bound separately to supply purchasers of the first and second editions. The first edition was published in three volumes, and the second and third in two.

Milliken & Vertrees’ Code.

By a resolution of the General Assembly, in 1883, Vertrees and W. A. Milliken were authorized, directed and empowered to revise, digest and codify all the general laws of the State, and to have the same published in one volume, if practicable, under the title of “Code of Tennessee.” They were directed to prepare and arrange it on the plan of the present code, with notes to each section, containing citations of statutes from which same were taken, and all decisions of the Supreme Court construing the same. In pursuance of this authority, they published in 1884, “The Code of Tennessee, being a compilation of the statute laws of the State of Tennessee, of a general nature, in force June 1, 1884,” in one volume. This compilation brought the acts down through the session of 1883, and the notes of decisions through 11th Lea, and a few cases that were to appear in 12th Lea. The sections of the code were renumbered, but the original numbers were retained, in brackets. in the margin. This compilation is usually designated as Milliken & Vertrees’ Code.

While the compilations of Thompson & Steger and that of Milliken & Vertrees are each commonly given the title of “Code,” and sometimes “Revised Code,” our Supreme Court has held, in the case of Burnett vs. Turner, 3 Pickle, 124, that there is no “Revised Code” of Tennessee, the Legislature not having adopted or enacted any compilation of our statutes as such, since the enactment of the code in 1858, which being the first code is not itself a revision, but is the original and only Code of Tennessee.

Shannon’s Code Supplement.

To bring Milliken & Vertrees’ Code up to date, R. T. Shannon, of the Nashville bar, published, in 1893, under the title of “Code Supplement” the public and permanent statutes, passed from 1885 to 1893, inclusive. The work is intended as a supplement to the Milliken & Vertrees’ Code, and is properly and consecutively arranged with reference to its sectional numbers. It brings the statute laws of the State down to this date, and is better arranged than the supplements to either the former compilations.

This ends the list of compilations of Tennessee statute laws. The formation of the system was complete with the enactment of the code of 1858. All subsequent compilations have looked only to the incorporation, under the same plan and arrangement, of the acts passed subsequent to its adoption. It is an admirable system, and peculiarly adapted to the wants of the people for whose government it was intended. The State owes much to the circumstance, that during the whole of its formative period, her ablest lawyers were induced to devote their great learning and ability to building and binding her statute laws into the splendid structure it has assumed. No list of the most eminent lawyers of the State would be complete, that did not contain the names of Haywood, Caruthers, Nicholson, Meigs and Cooper, and so long as our present system is maintained, it will be a monument to their just conception of the genius of our laws, and the intelligent labor with which they reduced them into a system, and in an especial manner, to the analytic and systematic mind and untiring labor of Judge Cooper.

NOTE. This article was prepared before the publication of Shannon’s Code, which is the one now in use.

Source: The American Historical Magazine and Tennessee Historical Quarterly, A. V. Goodpasture, Ed. Volume VII, 1902. Nashville. Pgs. 69-79. See Google Books for free download.

Searchable Index to Tennessee Supreme Court Cases

By , April 18, 2015

The Tennessee State Library and Archives has undertaken a massive project to index the nearly 35,000 case files in its collection of documents from the Supreme Court.  These documents are absolutely loaded with historical information that will benefit nearly every researcher.

Click here to search the index — note it is not yet complete!

The following information is from the TSLA introduction to this invaluable collection

About the Supreme Court Cases

The files located in the Tennessee Supreme Court Cases represent an especially valuable resource for historical and genealogical research at the Tennessee State Library and Archives [TSLA].  The volume of cases is extraordinary, with well over 10,000 boxes of material in storage.  Chronologically, the cases encompass the period from about 1809 to approximately 1950.  The scope of subjects discussed in the cases is equally impressive, comprising the full range of criminal cases as well as land issues, debt,  slavery and estate disputes, among many others.  The content of the case files range from very brief records to a complete summary of all the proceedings, sometimes involving hundreds of pages.  Transcriptions of trial testimony from the lower courts, when they exist, usually appear in cases beginning in the late nineteenth century.  Within the cases, one can discover details that throw light on personal data, community life and family relationships, making the Supreme Court cases an inestimable tool for genealogists.

Tennessee’s original constitution made no provision for a Supreme Court. Instead the state retained the court system of North Carolina, which comprised the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions and the Superior Court of Law and Equity.  In 1809 the Tennessee legislature formed the Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals and, finally, the Constitutional Convention of 1834 created the Supreme Court as its own entity.  The legislature fixed the seats of the Court — Knoxville, Nashville, and Jackson — to correspond with the three grand divisions of the state, East, Middle, and West.  The Court heard appeals from both Circuit (criminal and civil cases) and Chancery (cases of equity) courts.  Originally, the Supreme Court consisted of three judges; but, after the 1870, the number was set at five members.

A Work in Progress

Creating an index to the Supreme Court case files is a huge task, involving many members of the TSLA staff. Supplemented in the early stages by grants from the Supreme Court Historical Society and the Administrative Office of the Courts, the project continues with funding from the TSLAFriends and With more than 35,000 cases entered so far, we estimate the project is about 25% complete. Updates are being added to the website as the work progresses.

Petition of Isaiah Medkiff to Impeach Ambrose Yancey

By , January 24, 2014

Petition 22-2-1801 to the Tennessee General Assembly


From:  Isaiah Medkiff of Grainger County

Re:  Impeachment of Ambrose Yancey, Clerk of Grainger County

Medkiff charges that Yancey is guilty of altering the records, issuing false transcripts in cases where it is interested [sic], losing papers belonging to his office, not entering Judgement of Court when his brother was a party, “and finally his office is in a horrid situation.”

Medkiff requests that the following men be called on for depositions:  William Cocke, William Garret, John Cocke, Edward Scott, James Grant, Hugh L. White Esq., and Capt. George Bean.

The petition was sent to the TN House of Representatives on 7 October 1801, after which it was “read and referred to the committee who have the petition for the removal of Joseph Powell from the office of Justice of the Peace under consideration.”

The depositions mention the individual names William Yancey, Col. Ore, John Menefee J. P.; a case between William Moffett and John Bird; Robert Yancey, Sheriff of Grainger County; the case of State vs. David McEnelly and John Ray; the Bail of Thomas Colbert; and a copy by Stephen Heard.

Source:  Abstract of the petition, published in the TN Genealogical Society‘s “Ansearchin'” News, Vol. 2, 1993, pp. 75-76.

1801 Petition Regarding Courthouse

By , January 24, 2014

Petition 14-2-1801

Dated 29 October 1801

To the Tennessee General Assembly from Henry Howell, James Fears, William Millikin, and Michael Massingill

In 1797, they were appointed to purchase land and lay off a place for the erection of a court house, prison, and stocks in Grainger County.  They did so and contracted with Charles Smith to do the work, giving him their bond for $400.

The county received the properties and, for nearly two years, has used the building, for which it has paid only $100.

Smith brought suit, and the four were forced to pay the debt and court charges.  They now ask for a legislative act to refund their losses.

Source:  Abstract of the petition, published in the TN Genealogical Society‘s “Ansearchin'” News, Vol. 2, 1993, page 72.

An Introduction to Grainger County

By , June 20, 2011

First settlement of Grainger County was begun about 1785, along the valley south of Clinch Mountain, at the head of Flat Creek. Some of the first settlers were some who had resided originally in what is still Hawkins county. A prominent pioneer, James Ore, located at a place known as Oresville, about one mile east of Bean Station, near the close of the 18th century.

The act creating Grainger County was passed on April 22, 1796, and the boundaries were described as follows: "Beginning on the main road leading from Bull’s Gap to Hayne’s Iron Works, on Mosey Creek, at the house of ‘Felps’ Read, running a course to the Kentucky road on the north side of Holston River, then north fifty degrees west to the Virginia line, then west with said line to a point northwest of the end of Clinch Mountain, and to a ridge dividing Richland and Flat Creeks to Holston River at the upper end of the first bluff above Boyles’ old place, then up the course of the river to the mouth of Panther Creek to near the houme of John Evans."

The county court was organized on June 13, 1796 at the home of Benjamin McCarty, who lived approximately two miles below Rutledge. The magistrates present at this first court were Thomas Henderson, Elijah Chisum, James Blair, John Estes, Phelps Read, Benjamin McCarty, James Moore, John Bowen, John Kidwell, John Sims, William Thompson and Major Lea. This group elected the following officers:

  • Ambrose Yancey, Clerk of the Court
  • Martin Ashburn, Sheriff
  • Phelps Read, Register
  • John Estes, Ranger
  • James Moore, Coroner

The Constables appointed were:

  • Reuben White
  • William Smith
  • Samuel Cox
  • John Russell
  • John Rhea
  • Elizs Davis
  • John Hibbert

The location of the seat of justice caused much difficulty, and was not permanently settled until 1801, in Rutledge. Meanwhile the court was held at various places: John Bunch’s, Martin Asburns’, Mitchell’s Spring, and occasionally at a place on the north side of Clinch Mountain. The first courthouse was completed in 1801, near the site of the present courthouse, and was erected by Francis Mayberry.

In 1830 the population of Rutledge was given as 150, and it was made up of one school, one church, three stores, two taverns, two hatters, two blacksmiths, one saddler, and two tanners.

The county academy, known as Madison Academy, was in operation about 1842, and the first building stood on a bluff south of the town. In 1865, a new two-story frame building was erected on a lot just east of the town.

Early Newspapers of Grainger County

There were only two 19th Century newspapers established in Rutledge:

  • The Enterprise, established by J.N. Hodge in 1883.
  • The East Tennessee Eagle, a Republican paper started by G.M. Williams and G.T. Norris, in April, 1887.

This information was prepared by Betty Allen in 1997. All rights reserved.

Record Transcriptions in the USGenWeb Archives

By , June 18, 2011

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Court Minutes


Military Records





State Penitentiary Inmates, 1831-1850

By , May 13, 2011

The following table contains the 21 residents of Grainger county who were incarcerated in the Tennessee State Penitentiary during the period 1831 (its opening) and 1850. The roster is part of Record Group 25 at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

If you have corrections for this list, please contact the Webmistress.

Surname Given Name(s) Crime Age
Alford Riley felony 58
Atkins George larceny 40
Baker John felony 28
Bevil Elvis horse stealing 24
Boatman George incest 70
Brewer Mehala petit larceny 18
Bunch William petit larceny 16
Davis Edmund grand larceny 42
Everill Parker malicious stabbing 46
Fergeson William keeping & passing counterfeit money 43
Lemon Narcissa petit larceny 17
Mobley Aaron murder 27
Moore Alex N. grand larceny 24
Owen William larceny 27
Pennington James arson 25
Rice James S. bigamy 42
Shropshire Joel burglary 37
Shropshire John petit larceny 23
Vaughn Isaac forgery 25
Whitlow Solomon burglary 29
Willis Richard burglary 33

Mayor and Aldermen of Morristown vs. George A. Shelton

By , May 13, 2011

At Knoxville:  September Term, 1858

  1. Constitutional Law. Town charters granted by the County Court. Const., art. 11, §7. Acts of 1849, ch. 17, and 1856, ch. 254. The act of 1849, ch. 17, authorizing the County Courts, upon certain conditions, to create town corporations, is a valid and constitutional enactment.
  2. Cases Cited. The State vs. Armstrong, 3 Sneed, 634.

From Grainger

This was an agreed case, submitted to the Circuit Court of Grainger, to test the validity of the charter of the town of Morristown, which was incorporated under the provisions of the act of 1849, ch. 17. The question arose upon a motion on behalf of the plaintiff to have certain real estate of the defendant condemned and sold for corporation taxes. At the August Term, 1858, Judge Turley disallowed the motion. The plaintiff appealed in error.

Heiskell and McFarland, for the plaintiff.

Shields, for the defendant.

Caruthers, J., delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case seems mainly intended to test the validity of the incorporation of Morristown. There is an agreed case presenting the facts.

The question is made upon a motion to sell the land of defendant for the satisfaction of the tax assessed by the corporate authorities under the charter. The corporation was organized under the general act, for the incorporation of towns, of 1849, ch. 17. It is not controverted but that the proceedings in this case were in strict conformity to the provisions of that act, and the question is as to its constitutionality.

This statute establishes a general and complete system of municipal government for towns, cities, and villages, and provides, in the 9th section, the mode by which the inhabitants of any particular town may adopt and organize under it. They shall apply by petition, to the County Court setting forth their desire to avail themselves of its privileges, with a description by metes and bounds of the limits of their town, which shall be spread upon the minutes of the Court, and registered in the register’s office.

The objection taken is, that the power to grant charters of incorporation is vested alone in the Legislature, and cannot be delegated to the Courts, or any other authority. The clause in the Constitution on this subject, is the proviso to the 7th sec. of the 11th art., in these words: “the Legislature shall have power to grant such charters of incorporation as they may deem expedient for the public good.” This affirmative communication of this power to the Legislature operates as a negative upon its exercise by the Courts, or its delegation to any other authority.

But then the question arises, has it been delegated by this act? We think very clearly not. The doubt upon this subject has, as it seems, grown out of a misconception of the case of The State vs. Armstrong, 3 Sneed, 634. That case was correctly decided beyond all question. It was upon the act of 1856, ch. 254, by which the full and broad power to create corporations was given to the Circuit Courts, and was, therefore, held to be in violation of the Constitution.

Not so in this act. It gives the County Court no power on the subject but to record the petition for the benefit of a perfect and complete charter, and designates the boundaries to which it is to apply — that is, to prescribe the corporate limits of their town. It cannot add to or diminish the powers, privileges, and immunities granted, nor make the least change of any kind in the charter. The legislative will is fully declared in the act, and nothing is left to the Court but to locate and apply it to any community who may petition for it, and bring themselves within its provisions.

This is very different from the act of 1856, by which the extent and character of the powers given, and the particular objects of the corporation were to be fixed by the Court, or rather, in effect, the wishes and desires of the applicants in this respect ratified by the Court. That was [as palpably in conflict with the Constitution, as this is in conformity to it. There is no discordance between this decision and that; the cases are entirely different.

The object of the Legislature was to save the great waste of time and money consumed in the making and printing separate acts for the incorporation of the thousand towns and villages that might and would spring up in this growing and prosperous State; and we may suppose that the importance, so far as practicable, of producing uniformity in the municipal powers and privileges of the citizens and corporate authorities of all the towns had its influence upon them. This would certainly be desirable, and is a strong consideration in favor of the policy of the act.

This act is nothing different in principle, in reference to this objection, than what is called the “free banking law”; and the constitutionality of that act has not, that we are aware, ever been questioned. If one is not obnoxious to the objection, the other is not. That was a single complete charter of incorporation that might be adopted by a thousand companies, and constitute them bodies corporate and politic for the purpose of banking, upon a compliance with its provisions. This was to be done by application to certain State officers, and the performance of the specified conditions.

Then, we hold, that the mayor and aldermen of Morristown had a right to exercise all the powers and to enjoy the privileges conferred by the act of 1849, among which was the power claimed in this case.

We therefore reverse the judgment of the Circuit Court, and sustain the motion of the plaintiffs.



Head, John W., comp. Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Tennessee During the Year 1858 [to 1859], Volume 1. Nashville: J. O. Griffith & Co., Printers (1860), pp. 24-27.

John (a Slave) vs. The State of Tennessee

By , May 13, 2011

At Knoxville:  September Term, 1858

Criminal Law. Continuance. Act of 1827, ch. 30, §2. The act of 1827, ch. 30, authorizing a continuance at the first term upon the affidavit of the prisoner, that he cannot go safely to trial on account of popular prejudice against him, should receive a liberal exposition in favor of human life. Thus, a prisoner indicted for a capital felony was not arraigned at the term at which the indictment was found, for the want of time; and at the succeeding term, upon his arraignment, he asked a continuance under the provisions of the act of 1827, ch. 30, §2, which was refused him. This is held to be error. The “first term” in the sense of the statute, means the term at which the prisoner is arraigned for trial: and it is then that such an affidavit of itself, entitles him to a continuance.

From Grainger

The prisoner, a slave, was indicted in the Circuit Court of Grainger county, for murder. At the April Term, 1858, before Judge Turley, he was tried, convicted, and condemned to suffer death. He appealed in error to this Court.

J. B. Heiskell, for the prisoner.
W. B. Reese, Jr., for the State.

McKinney, J., delivered the opinion of the Court.

The plaintiff in error was indicted in the Circuit Court of Grainger, for the murder of a female slave, the wife of the prisoner. He was found guilty, and sentenced to be hung. The case is brought up by an appeal in error; and the error assigned is, the refusal of the Court to grant a continuance of the case.

It appears from the record, that the indictment was found at the December Term, 1857, just before the close of the term; and after the traverse jury had been discharged, and all the other business of the Court had been continued over to the next term; in consequence of which, the prisoner was not arraigned on the indictment until the following April Term. At the April Term, upon being charged on the bill of indictment, the prisoner presented his affidavit under the act of 1827, ch. 30, sec. 2, asking a continuance, on the ground of the great excitement in the public mind to his prejudice. But the application was refused, and he was put upon his trial.

The act referred to, provides, that if the defendant in a criminal case, in which a change of venue is not allowed by law, “will make oath that there exists too great an excitement to” (his) “prejudice, to come to trial at the first term, it shall be a sufficient cause for a continuance for one term only.”

It is said the continuance was refused on the ground, that, as the prisoner was not put upon trial until the next, or second term after the indictment was found, he had, in fact, had all the benefit of the delay contemplated by the statute; and, therefore, the reason of the law had ceased to apply, and the case was not within the statute.

This construction is wholly inadmissible. In favor of life, the statute is to receive a liberal exposition; such is the uniform principle. The construction contended for, and adopted by his honor, the Circuit Judge, is directly in the face of the plain words, as well as the spirit of the act. The act explicitly declares, that upon oath being made as therein prescribed, “it shall be a sufficient cause for a continuance for one term.” And it is not for the Court, either to say that it shall not be a sufficient cause, or to gainsay the truth of the statement verified by the defendant’s oath.

It is clear, that, by the words “first term,” was meant the term at which the prosecuting officer of the government demands the arraignment and trial of the defendant.

On this ground, the judgment must be reversed, and the prisoner be remanded for a new trial.


Head, John W., comp. Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Tennessee During the Year 1858 [to 1859], Volume 1. Nashville: J. O. Griffith & Co., Printers (1860), pp. 49-51.

John Mayse vs. John and James Lafferty

By , May 13, 2011

At Knoxville

  1. Evidence. Plat annexed. Marked boundary will control. A plat annexed to a partition, or grant, is competent evidence to be looked to in ascertaining the true boundary of the land set apart: but the party is entitled to the lands actually appropriated, and if the land has been actually surveyed, with the lines marked different from the plat, the marked boundary will control.
  2. Boundary. Statue of Limitations. Act of 1819, §1. If, at the time of the execution of a deed, the lines are marked, and the boundary thus made varies from the lines of the previous conveyances under which the bargainor claims title; and the lines marked are known and recognized by the parties as the true boundary of the land, an adverse possession of such land for a period of seven years, claiming up to the new boundary thus made, will vest an estate in fee in the conveyee.

From Grainger

This cause was heard at the December term, 1856, before Lucky, Chancellor. Decree for the complainant. The defendants appealed.

Crozier, Shields, and Reese, for the complainant.
Heiskell and Barton, for the defendants.
Wright, J., delivered the opinion of the Court.

The decree of the Chancellor, in this cause, should be affirmed. We are satisfied from the proof that the verdict of the jury is correct, and that the true line between the parties was established by it. The decree, then, being sustained by the proof and the verdict of the jury, should stand, unless the Chancellor, in his charge to the jury, upon the issues submitted to them, committed some error. This, it is insisted by the defendants’ counsel, he did.

But, after a careful examination of the charge, we are unable to perceive any error in it of which the defendants can complain.

It is objected, that the Chancellor did not give force enough to the survey, or plat, made out by the surveyor and commissioners, who divided the lands of John Coulter in 1812, and under which Jane Yancy derived her share in her father’s estate.

The Court was asked to charge the jury, that the plat annexed to a grant, or partition, has the effect to control general or directory calls, and even locative calls, and is entitled to great weight in ascertaining a boundary, and particularly so, when it concurs, substantially, with course and distance.

In answer to this, the Court instructed the jury, that the plat was a circumstance to be taken into their consideration in ascertaining the true boundary of the land allotted to Mrs. Yancy; but it might be disregarded if the calls and other evidence in the case showed that the commissioners intended, and did include the whole of the 400 acre tract in their partition, going to the extreme boundary of that tract.

This is, in substance, the doctrine laid down by this Court in Tate v. Gray’s Lessee, 1 Swan, 73, and is not in conflict with Bell v. Hickman, 6 Hump., 398. The party is entitled to the lands actually appropriated; and if the land had been actually surveyed, and the lines marked different from the plat, the marked boundary would control it. In this case, the evidence was abundant, of an actual survey and appropriation at variance with the plat; and the instructions of the Court were right.

It is next objected that the charge of the Court, in answer to the 4th, 5th, and 6th propositions of defendants’ counsel, was erroneous. It may be well here to state, that the defendants had, in the year 1844, purchased of John M. Preston a tract of land adjoining that in dispute, and claimed that the deed taken by them covered the land in controversy, and that under it they had held seven years possession, and had title by the statute of limitations. This deed, however, and a regular chain of prior conveyances, showed that it did not embrace the land in dispute, but in fact called to adjoin the John Coulter 400 acres, and to corner on the three pines spoken of as a corner of his grant, and established by the jury as the true corner. But it appeared that the defendants, and those of whom they claimed, had held many years possession of two small pieces of the land, within the land in dispute, having them enclosed up to the disputed line; and that when Preston made the deed, one of defendants, upon a survey of the land, had, in some way, marked a line with his knife, so as to include all or a part of the disputed land. And the other proof in the case abundantly shows, that the possession of defendants was a naked one.

In this state of the case, the Court, after allowing the defendants to hold under the statute of limitations, to the extent of their actual enclosure, instructed the jury further, that if at the time Preston made his deed to the defendants, he went on the ground, designated and marked a line different from that called for in his deed, and the defendants held and claimed up to that new line, being different from the one designated in the conveyance and in the previous conveyances, and the same was held by the defendants for seven years, adversely, it would be such color of title, that, under the statute of limitations, they would be vested with the fee under the first section of the act of 1819; but that unless there was full and complete evidence that there was another line, known, marked, and recognized by Preston, at the time of his conveyance, different from the line called for as the line of the John Coulter 400 acre tract, defendants’ deed would be confined to and bounded by the line which the jury might believe was the true original line of the grant; that should they believe the original north line of the 400 acre tract was where the complainant contended, the defendants’ deed stopped at that point, unless a different one was marked and recognized by Preston at the date of his deed, in which event defendants’ deed would go to it. That a line to be marked must have the usual designations on the trees, or other distinct and visible indications, showing, with reasonable certainty to the enquirer, that it was a boundary line.

It is alleged that this charge, in their inquiry as to the boundary, confined the jury to the acts and declarations of the parties at the time Preston made his deed to the defendants, and excluded from their consideration all antecedent and subsequent acts — possession and the like — tending to show where this true line really was. But we think an examination of the whole charge will show that this is not so, and that the case was fairly submitted to the jury upon all its facts, and that certainly the defendants have no valid ground of complaint against the charge.

The merits of the case have been reached, and we affirm the decree.



Head, John W., comp. Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Tennessee During the Year 1858 [to 1859], Volume 1. Nashville: J. O. Griffith & Co., Printers (1860), pp. 60-64.

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