The transciption, which follows, is of the records of Maryland's Court of Vice Admiralty from 1754 to 1775. This unique institution from Maryland's colonial period had so captured our interest that we made it the subject of a book titled Courts of Admiralty in Colonial America: The Maryland Experience, 1634-1776 (Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 1995). Students and scholars interested in how the Maryland Court of Admiralty came into existence and what role it played in the legal system of the colony are encouraged to consult this work.
In 1988, when we first began to work on this project, we realized how important the records of Maryland's Court of Vice Admiralty were to our research and arranged for them to be transcribed. Now that our book is published we thought others might benefit, as we did, from convenient access to these records. Students and scholars working in these records might be doing so for various reasons--legal history, social history, economic history, maritime history, geneology, etc. As an aid to these noble pursuits, we have prepared a brief introduction describing the nature of these records. Also included is a selected bibliography, which lists some of the best works by scholars on colonial admiralty law and history, and an index of names and subjects appearing in these records.
The Maryland Court of Vice Admiralty, established by Governor Francis Nicholson in 1694, (1) is known to have sat until 1775. Complete records of its proceedings, however, cover only the years 1754 through 1775. These records, preserved in one liber in the Maryland State Archives, contain the minutes of that court's proceedings beginning with the commissioning of Judge George Steuart on August 20, 1754. More specifically, this liber contains the minutes of 16 cases,(2) the commissions of several judges and other court officials, and various "file papers," such as libels, answers, petitions, orders and decrees. Compared with the fragmentary records that are available for the period 1694 to 1754, this liber is quite complete.
Like other scholars who had examined the vice admiralty in colonial America, we proceeded at first upon the assumption that the liber "Admiralty Court--Minutes (1754-1775)" recorded the establishment of Maryland's Vice Admiralty Court. The liber commenced with the issuance of a commission to a vice-admiralty judge without any reference to a predecessor. Further research, however, proved that there had been many judges duly commissioned during the preceding 60 years. In fact, we traced the Maryland Court of Vice Admiralty back to July 29, 1694, when it was established by Governor Nicholson to try a prize case.
There is no doubt that the Maryland Court of Vice Admiralty sat from 1694 to 1775 (3) and that records were kept from its inception. Unfortunately, all but the last liber have been lost or destroyed. Direct and circumstantial evidence point this out. Take, for example, the year 1699. We know that in that year three Navigation Acts cases were tried in the Maryland Court of Vice Admiralty because the records (or duplicates thereof) were found among the papers of the Board of Trade in London.(4) The records of the Maryland court's proceedings were sent to London, perhaps at the request of the Board of Trade in its effort to monitor compliance with the Navigation Acts.
There is also circumstantial evidence that records were kept for the initial years of the court (1694-1698) because of the known record-keeping ability of Henry Denton, the Court's first Register (a combination of clerk and assistant judge). A minute of the Council of July 27, 1694, the date of Governor Nicholson's inauguration, recites that Denton was "sworne Clerke of their Majestys' Honourable Councill."(5) He replaced the "former Clerke" who had been discharged for "Negligence...in keeping noe Record of any Council Proceedings."(6) In 1695, the Governor and Council, sitting in cases on appeal from the Provincial Court, became known as the Court of Appeals. The clerk of that newly constituted court was Denton, sworn in on May 17. On the same day Denton was also sworn as Register of the Court of Vice Admiralty,(7) and in each oath Denton swore to "make just and true Entry of all such Judgments, Orders, Decrees, Rules, Process or Proceedings that shall be adjudged, Ordered, decreed, Ruled, or Proceeded." Denton served as Register of the Vice Admiralty Court and Clerk of the Court of Appeals until his death in 1698. We know that he kept complete records of the latter court because they appear in Liber H.D. No. 1 in the Maryland State Archives. It is entirely logical that if he carried out his sworn duty for one court, he must have done so for the other as well.
References to cases tried in the early years of Maryland's Court of Vice Admiralty have been found in several places. For example, correspondences between the Board of Trade and the governors, catalogued in the Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and West Indies, 1661-1738, often mention trials of Navigation Acts cases and prize cases in the Maryland court. Photocopies in the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, of records from the Public Record Office (sent from Maryland to London and back to Washington) also contain references to Maryland's admiralty court. Thus, the work of Maryland's Court of Vice Admiralty before 1754 is not entirely unknown.
The Maryland Court of Vice Admiralty remained in existence, with properly commissioned judges and officers, from 1694 to 1776, but it is was not always a busy court. A minute of the Council in 1715, apparently responding to an inquiry by the new Lord Proprietor, reported that "since his Death [i.e., the death of Prince George, the Lord High Admiral, on October 8, 1708] that court has not met."(8) This seven-year hiatus lessens somewhat the 60 year gap in Maryland's vice admiralty history caused by missing records. The earliest records may have been destroyed in the Annapolis courthouse fires in 1699 and 1704. But the fate of the records from 1704 to 1708 and 1715 to 1754 may never be known.
The historical value of the extant records has been generally underestimated by scholars of the colonial vice admiralty. The statement by Judge Charles M. Hough, editor of the Reports of Cases in the Vice Admiralty of the Province of New York (1925), is fairly typical:
The statement is largely inaccurate and is unnecessarily demeaning of the records in question. Judge Hough and his successors, with the possible exception of Joseph H. Smith (10) and Justice (later Chief Justice) Harlan F. Stone, (11) have made little or no effort to identify the rather considerable "Vice Admiralty remains" in the archives of Maryland. In Courts of Vice Admiralty in Colonial America: The Maryland Experience, 1634- 1776 we have made extensive use of the remains of Maryland's court, scattered on both sides of the Atlantic. Our hope is that by providing convenient access to a transcribed copy of these records others will be encouraged to uncover the secrets of Maryland's rich maritime history.
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