Find Your Ancestors in Legislative Petitions

Did Your Ancestor Petition the Government?

They may not have had internet, or websites such as Change.org, but our ancestors signed petitions just the same. The right to petition is one of America's most basic civil rights, guaranteed by the First Amendment which prohibits Congress from restricting the rights of citizens to petition the government for a redress of grievances. In the early years of our country, limits imposed by primitive modes of transportation and communication meant that petitions were one of the most effective ways for residents to communicate needs to their legislators.

Petitions are basically a form of written request from state citizens to their legislature or General Assembly, requesting that the Assembly use its power to take action on a specific matter. Public improvements such as roads and mills, divorce requests, manumission of slaves, taxation, name changes, military claims, division of counties, and incorporation of towns, churches and businesses are just some of the matters addressed in legislative petitions. 

Petitions may include anywhere from a few to hundreds of signatures, making them a useful resource for genealogists dealing with multiple men of the same name in the same location. They may also help to identify an individual's neighbors, religion, marital status, financial status, or business concerns. A few states have either indexed or digitized images online, but for most you will need to search the catalog of the appropriate State Archive to learn what's available and how to access the records.

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A petition from a small group of Pitt County, NC, neighbors asking that their portion of Pitt County be annexed to Edgecombe County due to geography that made it extremely difficult for them to travel to the Pitt County courthouse. NC General Assembly Session Records, Nov.–Dec., 1787. North Carolina State Archives

 Search or browse the online catalog of the relevant state archive or library to learn what legislative petitions they may have in their possession, and how they are arranged. A few repositories have indexed their petitions online, but even these indexes rarely include the names of everyone who signed each petition.

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Petitions reported in The Maryland Gazette on 14 February 1839.
Petitions for divorce, a law to regulate fences, to prevent the sale of "intoxicating liquors" and others as reported in The Maryland Gazette on 14 February 1839. Newspapers.com

 If legislative petitions aren't online or otherwise easily searchable (e.g. indexed and/or categorized by location), historical newspapers offer another window into such actions through reports on either the petition, and/or the resulting legislative act. Use search terms such as "petition," "memorial," "legislature," "sundry citizens," the county name, etc.

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An act passed by the Georgia General Assembly in 1829 in response to the petition of Moses P. Crisp to legitimatize and change the name of his two daughters. Acts of the General Assembly of the State of Georgia, 1829, Google Books

Printed session laws, state statutes, and legislative acts (including private acts) generally document the petitions that were accepted by the legislative assembly. Look for these online through sites that publish digitized historical books, such as Google Books, HathiTrust and Internet Archive.

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The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Established in 1991, the Race and Slavery Petitions Project was designed to locate, collect, organize, and publish all extant legislative petitions relevant to slavery, and a selected group of county court petitions from the fifteen former slaveholding states and the District of Columbia, for the period from the American Revolution through the Civil War. The project now holds 2,975 legislative petitions and approximately 14,512 county court petitions—each searchable for names of both slaves and non-slaves, as well as by location, date, or keyword.

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Petition of inhabitants of Prince William's Parish, Beaufort District, South Carolina from the website of the SC Department of Archives and History
Undated petition of inhabitants of Prince William's Parish, Beaufort District, SC, asking for a road to be laid out and opened from Broxtons Ford on Salt Cathers (Salkehatchie) River to the Sisters Ferry on the Savannah River. SC Department of Archives and History

This entire collection from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History (SCDAH) is indexed and searchable in their On-line Records Index (select the "Record Group" Legislative Papers, 1782–1866). Many of the petitions are also available as digitized images. The entire series has been indexed at the item level for personal names, geographic locations, and topics. Names of individual signers were either not indexed (or limited to only the first few names) on petitions prior to 1831, so these are better searched and browsed by location. The first twenty legible names were indexed on petitions dated after 1831 and or with no date (N.D.) numbers higher than 2290.

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This searchable collection from the Library of Virginia contains nearly 25,000 legislative petitions dating from 1774 to 1865, as well as some petitions presented to the House of Burgesses and the Revolutionary Conventions.

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The Tennessee State Library and Archives offers an online index to personal names appearing in the Acts of Tennessee, 1796-1850. The indexes have been arranged by subject and by the names that appear on the petition text itself. It does not, however, include the hundreds of names of individuals who signed the petitions. If you find a petition of interest, the website also provides instructions on how to order a copy.