The Supreme Court was created in 1722 by an act of the Provincial Assembly and was originally required both to hold sessions in Philadelphia and to travel on circuit for the trial of cases. Appellate sessions were formerly held in several different locations, but now the court sits only in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh. In addition to its appellate jurisdiction, the Supreme Court also has original, but not exclusive, jurisdiction of habeas corpus cases, mandamus or prohibition of courts of inferior jurisdiction cases, and quo warranto cases involving any Pennsylvania officer holding state-wide jurisdiction. As part of its general administrative authority under the Commonwealth’s unified judicial system, the court is responsible for establishing rules governing the practices and conduct of all state courts.


Affidavits of Defense, 1784-1808. (2 cartons) Arranged chronologically by date of oath. These handwritten forms were used to show whether there was a just and legal defense to be made by the defendant against the claims of the plaintiff. This process was completed for hearing before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The affidavits typically show the dates of the oath and of the Supreme Court hearing, and the names of the litigants, and alderman or justice of the peace who witnessed the swearing. The following court case includes an affidavit of defense referencing an African American: Burke vs. Allen, case no. 149, December 1800.

Autograph File, 1683, 1767-1815. (3 boxes, 1 folder) Arranged alphabetically by surname. The documents within this series were extracted from their original files in 1925 due to their unique historical value. Included in this series is "A Return of Prisoners Confined in the Gaol of Lancaster County the 14th Day of May, Anno Domini 1781," which provides the prisoner name at time of commitment, the name of the person by whom committed, and the nature of the crime. Included on this list is "Negroe Abraham, a runaway Servant to James Brown" and "Negroe Mishich, a runaway slave property of Jos Irwin of Conogogig."

Certiorari and Habeas Corpus Papers, 1753-1775, 1777-1787. (4 cartons) Arranged chronologically by court term. These papers were used to appeal a lower court verdict. The certiorari papers requested transcripts from a lower court to be given to a higher court for review of the proceedings. The habeas corpus papers were writs used to bring a person before a court. Many of the writs that were used to compel appearance of slaves before the court provide the slave’s name, place of residence and name of his master. In some instances familial relationships are mentioned and details are entered such as where the slave worked and when he or she was purchased. The following are some examples of writs involving African Americans:

• Chester County: Cato, "a Negro man," was charged with stealing his wife Mary and their three children, Betse, Cato, and Isaac, from their owner and master, Samuel Moore of Chester County, on March 13, 1786. He was discharged April 1, 1786.

• Philadelphia County: Pompey, "a Negro man," the property of Mr. Isaac Wihoff, was charged with disorderly conduct on May 29, 1786, but was later discharged on July 19, 1786.

Coroners’ Inquisition Papers, 1751, 1768-1796. (1 carton) Arranged chronologically by filing date. Reports of inquisitions conducted by a county coroner and a twelve-man panel who had viewed a body to determine the cause of death. These inquests investigated the need for criminal prosecutions and were used as the basis for indictment at the grand jury inquest if needed. Inquisition papers are signed by the coroner and several witnesses. When possible, the name of the victim, the approximate date and manner of death, the date and place of the inquiry, and the location of the body of the deceased are given. The occupation, age and race of the deceased person also sometimes appear and, in the case of a slave, the name of his or her master is provided. In one case a white male criminal was allegedly killed by "a Negro male criminal." Several of the documents report "unknown Negroe men" found in the "work houses" in Philadelphia where the cause of death was reported as follows: "the aforesaid departed this life by the visitation of God in a natural way and not by any violent ways or means whatsoever to the knowledge of the said Jurors."

Escheat Papers, 1796-1822. (11 folders) Arranged by court term and case number. This series was arranged originally in chronological order by the earliest document date with some case papers added. On September 29, 1787, "An Act to Declare and Regulate Escheats" established a process by which the Commonwealth acquired the real and personal property of persons who died intestate or without heirs. For the execution of this law, a Supreme Council was commissioned consisting of John Nicholson (also comptroller general) as escheator general, Clement Biddle and William Irwin who in turn appointed a deputy for each county. These officers held inquisitions and rendered decisions concerning escheated property. Inquisitors were warranted by the county sheriff and witnesses’ testimony taken. If the escheators court found no claim or will, the property was turned over to the state. Otherwise, claimants were to appear at the next session of the Supreme Court. This process was changed by an Act of April 2, 1821, whereby the auditor general assumed the duties of the escheator general and the Courts of Common Pleas replaced the Supreme Court. The following is a sampling of relevant materials regarding African Americans:

• May 18, 1780, Marriage license issued to "Negro Sam Bevis with the leave of his Mullatoe Catherine Johnston," recorded by Archibald McClean, in York County.

• July 24, 1780, Indictment of John, "a Negro man," in Philadelphia, for a felony; fined two thousand pounds and committed to prison.

• August 1780, Indicted with trespass and assault on two occasions, Negro Tom, a slave. Thomas Patton was fined five pounds for each account, before William Henry, Esquire, of Lancaster County.

• September 20, 1780, Negro Jim, Negro Daniel, Negro Not, Negro Cato and Negro James under the Court of Oyer and Terminer were fined 2,000 pounds for larceny in Philadelphia.

• November 1780, Negro Sol, slave to William McIntire, of Lancaster County, was charged with larceny and fined one hundred and fifteen pounds.

• January 28, 1782, Negroe Violet, a spinster indicted for larceny, was convicted and fined two pounds and committed to jail in Philadelphia,

• January 28, 1782, Negroe Lucy, a spinster, indicted for keeping a disorderly house and a tippling house was fined twelve pounds and ten shillings and was committed to jail.

• October 25, 1782, Robert Cochran, late of the City of Philadelphia and "main person" of Negroe Barney, was charged with larceny in Philadelphia .

• February 25, 1783, Negro Richard and Negro Took were charged with fornication and battery and each fined ten pounds in Chester.

• October 28, 1783, Sam Zachery, late of the City of Philadelphia, "Negroe," was fined one shilling for larceny and committed to jail.

Insolvent Debtor Papers, [ca. 1789-1805, 1812-14]. (7 cartons) Arranged chronologically by first letter in surname of debtor, and thereunder chronologically by date of filing. Papers relating to insolvency cases brought before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in the Eastern District. Types of papers filed include petitions, bonds, assignments, renunciations of assignments, debt schedules, and certificates of discharge, reference, and naturalization. The petition of Samuel Butcher, July 7, 1791, lists all of his property, including his slaves: a Negro man named Fortune, and a Negro girl five years of age. Butcher transferred all of his property to the designated assignees in order to pay his creditors.

Miscellaneous Records of the Supreme Court of Nisi Prius, [ca. 1786-1800]. (45 volumes) Arranged by the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania as follows: "Beyond a partial attempt to arrange them by counties they are here presented in a chaotic condition, with the hope that the index may enable the searcher to find the wheat concealed among much chaff." Indexed internally in volume 44, alphabetically by surname of person involved in Supreme Court proceedings. This index inaccurately and incompletely references the previous volumes. Volume 45 is indexed internally, alphabetically by surname. These records were originally presented to the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania after the basement of the State House in Philadelphia was cleared out in 1895. These records were then compiled and later deposited by the Genealogical Society with the Pennsylvania State Archives. The volumes contain a wide variety of miscellaneous Supreme Court records, including court minutes, coroner’s inquisitions, proceedings in cases, lists of marriage, public housekeepers, and tavern licenses issued. Some pre-Revolutionary records exist, identifying George III as the reigning monarch. An example of the type of materials found relating to African Americans is a 1782 deposition by Michael Shafer of Berks County who on several occasions sold slaves to Charles Carr, an employee of John Lesher. Shafer’s deposition alleged that John Lesher never paid Michael Shafer.

Writs of Habeas Corpus for Negro Slaves, 1786-1787. (2 folders) Arranged chronologically by date of writ. Dozens of writs resulting from the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery and responding memoranda concerning detained African American men, women, and children were filed with the Supreme Court. These contain diverse types of information that vary with each writ. Many of the documents provide the slave’s name, place of residence and name of master. In some writs, the age and/or date of birth is given, familial relationships are mentioned, and particulars are entered about where the slave worked and when he or she was purchased. Documents are present for cases filed in various counties including Chester, Cumberland, Lancaster, Philadelphia, and York. Some examples are:

Chester County: Writs concerning the case of Negro girl named Phobe English who was allegedly purchased by Alexander McMonigel of Chester, Pennsylvania from George Taylor of the Borough of Wilmington. The earliest of these reads: "The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to [Alexander M. Monagale of New Garden Township in the County of Chester,] GREETING, You are commanded, that the Body of [Phobe English - a Negro Girl about seven or eight years of age] under your custody detained, as it is said, together with the day and cause of [her] being taken and detained, . . . " (1785). Other proceedings in this case are dated 1787 and 1789 and result in a decision of the state Supreme Court "that the said Phobe English was born free and is now free from any slavery or servitude; that her mother Elisabeth English, her Grandmother and Great Grandmother appear to me to have been also born free." It is signed by Thomas M. Kean, September 19, 1789.

Cumberland County:

• 1780, John Calhoon registered the following Negroes: Diana, Nell, Pegg, Fanny, Phobe, and Tom.

• 1780, John Herron registered Jerry, Sall.

• 1780, John Young had one "Negro wench named Pegg."

• 1780, John Creigh of Carlisle owned Jean.

• 1780, Robert Miller of Carlisle registered Darby, Violet, Toy and Abraham.

• 1780, property of Stephen Duncan, a Negro man named Frank.

• 1781, property of James Steward of Georgia, Negroe Frank, 21 and Dinah, 16 years old, held in Carlisle by James Langston..

• 1783, property of Richard Bitler, a Negro female called Charlotte, daughter of a wench called Mott.

• 1787, property of John Moore of West Pennsburg, a Negro female born 1785 and Tobias, a male born Oct. 1787.

• 1787, Property of William Brown, a Negro girl named Sidney.

• 1787, Property of Reverend James Johnston, a Negro girl named Tamar.

• 1789, Property of William Robinson, a Negro girl named Lucy.

• 1789, Frank West of Tyrone Township owned Sligo, Jacob, Poll, Chamont, Mila, Lewis, John, and Debby.

• 1789, Negro child called Nell belonging to Frank Campbel.

York County: Writs relating to the case of "Negro Hannah" who had been brought into Pennsylvania by her master, Robert Crawford, and kept longer than the six months allowed under Pennsylvania’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. On May 26, 1787, William Askew reported that in the year 1781 he had purchased the estate owned by Robert Crawford in "Hambleton" Township, York County. Askew complained that Robert Crawford would not comply with the contract respecting Askew’s title, and in consequence Askew brought a suit against Crawford on the 22nd day of February 1782. Askew testified that "the Saturday following, I had the writ served on Crawford and it was the Monday following that Negro Hannah applied to William McClean, Esq. for a pass and although I do not at this time remember what time Crawford brought the Negro and her children from Maryland to Pennsylvania yet I do know and will remember that the aforesaid Negroes were held as Crawford’s slaves by him in Pennsylvania after they came from Maryland more then six months." On May 25, 1787, William Cochran stated that "Negro Wench Hanah, came to his hous and handed him a paper signed by William McClean, Esq., setting forth that the said Negroe Wench had right to hire herself as any other free woman where she might find employ; from this time that Said Crawford came into this county from Maryland, I new the Negro Wench to be in the service of Mr. Crawford as a slave, which was above six months, when I saw the paper."


Court Papers, 1757-1761, 1763, 1765-1776, 1778-1782, 1786-1787. (7 boxes) Arranged alphabetically by name of county, and thereunder by court term and case number. These documents from the Oyer and Terminer Courts include case files, judicial administrative papers, and diverse records from the Mayor’s Court of Philadelphia; minutes from Nisi Prius courts of Northampton and York; and tavern license petitions from Philadelphia. Among those pertaining to African Americans are:

• Berks County, 1772. Elizabeth Bishop, wife of John Bishop was charged with the murder of their slave Louis[e].

• Berks County, 1775. An inquisition into the death of Peter, the slave of John Patton of Heidelberg Township. Thomas Roach was charged with the murder.

• Berks County, 1776. The jury’s decision in the case of the King versus Thomas Roach.

• Berks County, 1761. The testimony of Margaret Stuyter in regards to her husband, an African American man named Charles, who was suspected of murder.

• Lancaster County, 1767. Testimonies involving the murder of Dinah, a slave of William Crawford. Two men were tried separately for the same crime.

• Lancaster County, 1781. York, a slave of Michael Ego was charged with the rape of Elisabeth Snyder.

• Lancaster County, 1781. Phobe, a slave of James McCally, and Matty, more commonly known as Patty and formerly called Charity, a slave of Amos Slaymaker, were charged with the burning of Slaymaker’s barn.

• Northampton County, 1780. Negro Abraham was charged with murder.

• Philadelphia County, 1768. Richard Wild was tried in the murder of one of his slaves, Cloe. When asked to pay funeral expenses Wild claimed Cloe was really Rosanna, a slave of Sylvera Liguance, Jamaica.

• Philadelphia County, 1774. An unmarried mulatto Elizabeth was indicted and tried for the murder of her newborn baby.

• Philadelphia County, 1775. Mulatto George was charged with the manslaughter of William Rice.

• Philadelphia County, 1778. Joseph Head, a Negro boy, was charged with stealing a mare owned by Arnold Kramer.

• Philadelphia County, October 1781. Negroe Fanny was charged with murder but was found "not guilty."

• Philadelphia County, September 1782. A Negro slave owned by William Parker, named Peter, was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to be "hanged by the neck till he be dead."

• Philadelphia County, 1782. The case of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania versus Negro Peter in the murder of Negro James.

• Philadelphia County, 1782. Testimonies involving the breaking and entering of William Ball’s house. Those on trial included John Dorset, a slave of Samuel Hillegro, Lot and Luz Suzey, two free mulattos, and John Freeman, alias Samuel Nurick.

• York County, 1780. Testimonies concerning the robbery of McSherry’s store and house. The testimony involves George Weaver, Jacob Sherman, and his slave Dick.


Appeal Papers, 1799-1981. (80 boxes, 20 cartons) Arranged by court term and case number. Papers filed with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in the Middle District for appeals from lower courts, including petitions for certiorari, petitions for extension of time, acknowledgments of record, notices of appeal, judgments, opinions of the justices, praecipes for appearance (which call for the appearance of interested parties before the court), and petitions for appeal. The petitions for appeal enumerate the arguments in support of an appeal and also list the questions raised in the case due to the decisions of the lower courts. Appeals relating to African Americans include:

• Adams County, 1812. Deposition of widower Christiana Bittinger with regard to the changing of the name of her slave from Coll to Sall and a deposition of Elizabeth Baum, daughter of Nicholas Bittinger, regarding this slave girl named "Sall." Later in the same year, several documents from Franklin County refer to this same Negro slave woman called Sall who was registered from birth as Collin and called Coll by her first owner, Nicholas Bittinger, even though her mother, family, and friends called her Sall. There are several depositions from Bittinger’s widow, daughters, and the son-in-law who last owned her stating that Sall was indeed named Collin (Coll). Included in the Franklin County file is a deposition of Barbara Lehr, also a daughter Nicholas Bittinger, verifying that the slave called "Sall" was also recorded as "Collie, Coll, and Collin." A deposition from York county dated 1819 has "slave ownership register certificates" of Richard McCallister and Nicholas Bittinger relating to the deposition concerning Sall, Collin or Coll of Franklin County. In addition to Sall (Coll), other slaves are listed for Richard McCallister and Nicholas Bittinger.

• Franklin County, 1812. Lydia Furguson, "a woman of color," was charged as a runaway. She had belonged to Lord Fairfax in nearby Alexandria, Virginia and claimed she was to be freed upon his death and left $100 in his will.

• Lancaster County, 1818. Daniel Haines took Negro Tom to jail for refusing to go to New Jersey with Mr. Isaac Low. Mr. Low then sold Tom to a Mr. Philips to take to Kentucky; Tom then refused to go to Kentucky.

• Franklin County, 1819. Negro Sal gave her daughter, Mulatto Mave, to William Holiday’s daughter Ruth Somerville. Ruth’s husband James Somerville, claimed that Mave had left him and was no longer in his possession.

• York County, 1840. Appeal no. 52 contains several documents connected with the case of the Commonwealth vs. Prigg, an important case used as an anti-slavery weapon to create new fugitive slave laws in Pennsylvania. In 1837, Edward Prigg, a professional slave catcher from Maryland, seized Margaret Morgan and her children. She was the wife of Henry Morgan, a free African American who lived in the Lower Chanceford Township, York County.

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