Yankee Jurisprudence: The Court and Legal Culture of Colonial New London County, Connecticut

Date of Completion

January 2012


History, United States|Law




This dissertation examines the New London County Court and the legal culture its participants created in colonial Connecticut. The county court was the workhorse of the colonial British legal system—where a wide range of civil, criminal, and administrative matters were addressed, and where a great many residents gained legal savvy as disputants, witnesses, or spectators. The New London County Court calls for in-depth attention because of several distinctive features. First, African New Englanders and Indians (particularly Mohegans and Pequots) appear in the court in significant numbers, reflecting the county's relatively high concentration of these groups. Second, court sessions rotated between the two ports of Norwich and New London, making the court more geographically accessible than its regional counterparts. Third, given the relatively high numbers of mariners in the population, the records shed light on the maritime economy's reliance on the county court. ^ My study examines all manner of county court business from the court's creation in 1666 to 1775, including the court's importance as a judicial and administrative hub, the courtroom experiences of African New Englanders and Indians, the litigated maritime economy, and colonial criminal patterns. I find that nearly all county residents respected the court for its success at its primary goal of keeping the peace through procedural means and adjudicated ends. This was achieved because the institution's major players—judges, officers, jurors, litigants—adhered to a set of core legal and social norms: respect for legally literate leaders, due process in court, the primacy of local issues, protection of individually-driven economic growth, and a pragmatic commitment to equitable outcomes. Adherence to these norms yielded notable results. Many Indians and free blacks found the court to be an accommodating forum for successfully resolving legal and economic disputes. The court was also tied to the maritime economy as mariners carried Connecticut law with them in their travels. Finally, judges exercised discretion in promoting peace as they issued sentences blending corporal punishments and civil remedies. ^