Twenty-thousand court cases, with more yet to come

by Jim Reed, Curator of Library & Archives

Joan Helms
Volunteer Joan Helms at the History San Jose Research Library
After seven and a half years, with seven different people having worked between four and twenty-five hours each week, archives volunteer Joan Helms recently indexed our 20,000th court case!

Back in April 2005, former archives volunteer Patsy Castro Ludwig urged me to “do something” about the extensive collection of case files from the Santa Clara County Courts that filled some 200 bankers boxes in our Collection Center. When I looked into it, I found that one of my predecessors had actually started a database to index these items, but hadn’t gotten very far into the project.

I did a random sampling of these boxes, and quickly learned that:

  • Many of the boxes were overly full;
  • Most of the case files were not separated from one another;
  • There was no apparent organization scheme from one box to the next;
  • There were approximately 25,000 cases, both civil and criminal, beginning in 1850 and running into the early 1940s, with the bulk of them from 1850 to 1915.

These files, as they become accessible, are a tremendous resource for historical researchers. While many of the cases involve mundane issues such as unpaid taxes, bankruptcies, or property disputes, others have related to incidents of livestock rustling, burglary, armed robbery, and abuse or abandonment of family members. We have found a lawsuit filed by John Sutter to collect a bad debt. There are a couple of cases involving ranchers attempting to enslave Native Americans. Surprisingly, given the popular stereotype of Victorian society’s rigid attitudes about marriage, more than 10% of the cases relate to divorce proceedings. There were surprisingly few cases relating to excessive drinking, although one case concerns a defendant who “stole hams but was too drunk to remember.”

In addition to Joan Helms and Patsy Ludwig Castro, five other volunteers have contributed to this massive effort: Nadine Nelson, Ed Linggi, Sally Stallard, Michael McCleary, and Gloria Moseley.

The index that we have created allows a researcher to search by plaintiff’s or defendant’s name, the case number or date of the court proceeding, details of the type of crime, and the final judgment of the court (when noted).

Anyone wishing to make an appointment to research these materials can email

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