Currently, the Tucker-Coleman Papers are undergoing a serious overhaul. Groups of boxes are being subdivided into intuitive series within the collection, and the finding aids for each are going digital, making the Tucker Coleman Papers more accessible to researchers than ever.
I have had the privilege of re-housing, organizing, and creating the finding aid for the new Legal Material series, which contains all legal papers of lawyer and judge St. George Tucker (1752-1827), who was a contemporary and friend of Thomas Jefferson and like him attended the College of William & Mary and studied law under George Wythe. The series is comprised of Tucker’s law lectures, notebooks, court dockets, as well as records from county, circuit, district, and appeals courts. The papers related to individual cases are especially interesting, ranging from indentures to affidavits to personal letters. In describing some of the material, I’ve had to teach myself some “legalese.”
For me, as a graduate student in history, going through these, for the most part handwritten, papers has done more than simply hone my paleography skills (though I am certainly grateful for that). The papers have given me additional insight into life in British North America and the early United States. Back to the issue of legalese, I was surprised by the continuity of the legal system from the colonial era to today. In attempting to identify a document, I often typed phrases directly from the manuscript in front of me into Google, turning up results for present-day documents!
The Legal Material series is a gold mine for researchers interested in the legal history of British colonial America and the early United States, but the content of the cases could prove extremely fruitful for any researcher of early America. There are, for example, records relating to a particularly well-known case, Hudgins v. Wright, which had significant implications for race and slavery in early nineteenth-century Virginia. In addition, the collection is a rich source of material culture and wax seals and blue paper have been a big part of my life this semester.
Few historians are granted the valuable opportunity to work on the other side of the reference desk, housing and arranging primary source materials. Working on collections like the Tucker-Coleman Papers has improved my archival research skills, something that I will benefit from in the future.
Mark Mulligan is a graduate student in History and a 2013-2014 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.