29 May 2010

Habeus Corpus

One little “back story” illustrates—for the uninitiated—the trail a diligent family historian must sometimes follow to reach the authentic source for one fact. Citing a source gives the reader of the family history an idea of how grounded that fact is, how much weight it carries as evidence. It tells the reader what the source is, who created it, and where it is.

The fact I needed to verify was:
George Porter the prisoner was released from the York Jail in July 1814 on a writ of habeus corpus.

Where did that piece of information—that fact—come from? I first saw it in a typescript monograph and could have cited it as my source:
Charles Black, "Register of Persons Connected with High Treason, During the War of 1812 With the U.S.A" (monograph, 1926); Archives of Ontario, MU 1368.

Some researchers might stop here as having cited an “authority,” but was it really? What Black did was compile a list of people. A compilation is derived from material in a prior existing source. There was no footnote or citation to where he obtained the information. However, in his text, Black made reference to “AO Term Book, steel case 7” which seemed to apply to the fact I wanted.

Therefore I might have elaborated my citation as:
Charles Black, "Register of Persons Connected with High Treason, During the War of 1812 With the U.S.A" (monograph, 1926), Archives of Ontario, MU 1368; citing AO Term Book, steel case 7.

That sounds more authoritative to the reader, n’est-ce pas? But does it tell the reader what the source actually is? What was it Charles Black actually viewed to give him that information? One asks oneself, what is an AO Term Book? What is a “steel case 7”? Most readers would be nonplused to judge the merit of such a source. Or where it is located.

How to proceed from there? Well, I suspected the AO referred to Archives of Ontario (although the designation is also used for [British] Audit Office archival material). Then it seemed logical that only a judge could have issued such a writ. I knew from experience with provincial records that the Court of King’s Bench handled treason cases. Into the finding aid I went for Archives of Ontario’s court records. Yes, term books exist for the right period. Then a trip to see the source on site. No steel cases, though. The original books are now housed in acid free boxes, and I found what I wanted in box 7.

My eventually footnoted citation should probably appear something like this:
Upper Canada, Court of King’s Bench, Rough Term Books, 1794-1855, Book 7 (1812-1816), 14 July 1814: Decor, Fowler, and Porter; Archives of Ontario (AO), RG 22-127-0-7.

The rough term books are transcripts of court clerks’ records of decisions from the judicial bench. They are the closest contemporary records we have for trial results, since detailed trial proceedings—as we know them today—rarely exist in the nineteenth century. Hopefully that citation will tell the reader that a court record is a sound source to support my fact, and provides the necessary information for retrieval of the same.

Tracking ancestors is not all a family historian sometimes has to do. Tracking the provenance of a piece of information sometimes becomes necessary and is good research practice. Thanks for the clue, Mr. Black, but not for the prolonged hunt!

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