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Unearthing the Past: The Burright Brothers and Van Wert County’s Legal Legacy

by | Mar 28, 2024

Genealogists and history enthusiasts understand the thrill of uncovering the stories that weave the fabric of our past. One narrative that captures early American justice’s early stages involves the Burright brothers, Orrin and Asbell, in Van Wert County, Ohio. Their participation in the county’s first murder trial indictment jury marks a significant event in local history and sheds light on the evolution of Ohio’s court system in the 1840s. So, how can genealogists approach researching historical court records in Ohio, focusing on Van Wert County, to uncover tales like that of the Burright brothers?

The Ohio Court System in the 1840s

Understanding the structure of the Ohio court system during the 1840s is crucial for genealogists delving into historical records. The system was primarily composed of three levels:

  1. Supreme Court: This is the apex of Ohio’s judicial hierarchy, with justices traveling across the state to hear appeals.
  2. Court of Common Pleas: Serving as the primary trial court at the county level, handling civil, criminal, and equity cases.
  3. Justices of the Peace: Operating at the township level for minor disputes and civil duties.

This structure reflects the early efforts to establish a formal legal system despite the challenges of travel and communication at the time.

Van Wert County’s Judicial Beginnings

Established in 1837, Van Wert County was on the frontier of American expansion. The county’s legal system, embryonic yet functional, mirrored Ohio’s broader judicial framework but was adapted to the local context. The Court of Common Pleas was central to the county’s legal proceedings, dealing with everything from land disputes to criminal cases. 

The First Murder Trial

The first murder trial in Van Wert County is a landmark event for its legal significance and the community’s involvement in the judicial process. Orrin and Asbell Burright’s roles as members of the indictment jury highlight the participatory nature of justice at the time. Beyond its immediate legal ramifications, this trial helped set the foundations for the county’s legal system and its handling of serious crimes.

Researching Historic Court Records

For genealogists interested in exploring similar stories or uncovering their ancestors’ involvement in historic legal proceedings, here are some avenues for research:

Online Databases and Archives

  • Van Wert County Clerk of Courts: Start with the county’s Clerk of Courts website for digital archives or guidance on accessing historic records. The Clerk of Courts office manages and archives all Van Wert County Court records, including civil, criminal, and other case types. 
  • Ohio History Connection: A treasure trove of historical documents. Formerly known as the Ohio Historical Society, this organization provides access to a wide range of historical documents and records related to Ohio’s history, including court records.
  • Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org: Familar to most genealogists, Ancestry and FamilySearch have vast collections of digitized versions of court records, though access might require a subscription.

Physical Archives and Libraries

  • Local Historical Societies: The Van Wert County Historical Society is a local historical society dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of Van Wert County. They may have archives or knowledge about historic court records and other local historical documents.
  • State Archives: The Ohio State Archives preserve state government records and documents of historical value, providing a resource for researchers interested in Ohio’s past.
  • Local Libraries: Libraries, especially in the county seat, may have microfilm of old newspapers and other documents that can shed light on historical trials and legal matters. The Brumback Library is the Van Wert County public library.

Tips for Successful Research

  1. Be Patient. Researching historical records can be time-consuming. Some records may not be digitized and may require in-person visits.
  2. Be Specific: When possible, have specific details at hand, such as case numbers, names involved, and dates, to streamline your search.
  3. Reach Out: Don’t hesitate to contact archives, libraries, and historical societies directly. Staff can often provide guidance or suggest other resources.

Conclusion

The story of the Burright brothers and their role in Van Wert County’s first murder trial indictment jury offers a fascinating glimpse into the early legal system of Ohio. For genealogists, this narrative is just one of countless waiting to be discovered within historic court records. By understanding the structure of the court system and knowing where and how to conduct research, you can unearth the stories of your ancestors and their communities, adding depth and color to your family history. Whether through online databases, physical archives, or local libraries, the past is ripe for exploration, and the tales of justice, like that of the Burright brothers, provide a compelling lens through which to view it.