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[WS6] Skip Navigation LinksHome > About Us > Historical Document Room Houston, TX | March 23, 2019
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Historical Document Room:

Civil Courthouse
201 Caroline, Room 200
Houston, TX 77002
Map of Downtown

Hours: Tues. & Thur., 12 - 4 p.m.
  Wed., 9 a.m. - 1 p.m.

Phone: 832-927-5729
Fax: 832-927-0145

Mailing Address:

Harris County District Clerk
P.O. Box 4651
Houston, Texas 77210

For additional information regarding Historical Documents, please see our Frequently Asked Questions, call 832-927-5860 or e-mail us.

Historical Documents

The Historical Document Room was opened to the public on October 24, 2006. The room is available for viewing historical documents from 1837—1925. These court records are not just paper, they are valuable sources of Texas' and Houston’s history. Some of the most badly deteriorated records have been restored and preserved by the Harris County District Clerk's Office. Those efforts have been honored with a 2004 Good Brick Award from the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance.

What Can I do to Help Save Harris County’s History?

The Harris County District Clerk’s Office has teamed with the Houston Bar Foundation to raise the funds needed to continue restoring and preserving Harris County’s past. The Houston Bar Foundation is accepting tax-deductible donations to preserve records. We do not suggest an amount for your donation as any amount is greatly helpful and appreciated.

Checks can be made payable to: Houston Bar Foundation Records Preservation and mailed to P.O. Box 4651, Houston, TX 77210. For a contribution form to include with your check, please click here.

In addition to preserving case files, bound volumes such as criminal case indexes, minute books, fee docket books and accounting books from as early as the Republic of Texas days are being saved. Costs for preserving these invaluable historical documents range from $10 for a file to as much as $2,500 for a civil index book. Donors who contribute an amount necessary to preserve one entire book may, if they wish, be recognized on the spine or outside cover of the book. Standard wording for such recognition will be, “In memory of _________,” “Graciously donated by ________,” etc. Other wording desired by the donor will be taken into consideration.

The process for preservation requires experts trained in handling historical documents, as the documents must be handled with extreme care. They are unfolded, pacified, then encapsulated in special Mylar plastic sheets to protect them from further damage caused by exposure to air and moisture. The process being used will preserve these records for up to 300 years and prevent further deterioration of our historical records.

Services Available in the Historical Document Room

  • Public viewing of original documents
  • Requested copies for $1.00 per page

Historical Documents Available Online

As a public service, the documents that are made available over the Web are provided at no charge. Please note, while the clarity of some of the documents is exceptional, the quality of others is poor. This is directly related to the quality of the original document as well as the penmanship of the scribe in some instances. Click below to begin viewing these priceless historical documents.
 

View Online

Historical Case Of The Month

The Honorable Judge Mark Davidson has been instrumental in the development of the Harris County District Court Historical Document Project. An avid legal history buff, Judge Davidson continues to write and serve as a special advisor to the ongoing Case Of the Month articles.

THE CASE OF THE BOGUS WARRANTY DEED

Documents offered into evidence at trial are not always kept in the records of the District Clerk. In modern times, the documents are kept by the court reporter to be sent to the higher courts in the event of an appeal. In the 19th Century, before transcription of evidence was common, documents sometimes found their way to the case file, where they have remained. The most shocking document I have found in the Harris County District Clerk files is a case styled Tilley v. Scranton, filed on May 19, 1855.

George W. Tilley was a farmer with a large plantation in Wharton County. He apparently travelled to Houston for supplies. Sadly, a needed “supply” for farmers in the antebellum South was laborers – usually slave laborers. Scranton went to the slave auction run by Scranton and Co., Slave Auctioneers. On July 6, 1853, he bid on and was awarded “title” to three slaves. The file contains the original “Warranty Deed” issued to Scranton by the auctioneers, reflecting that for the price of “Three thousand three hundred dollars” Tilley bought three human beings: a thirty-two year old named Sandy, a seventeen year old named Friday, and a fourteen year old child named Allen. The deed was specific that all were warranted to be “sound in body and slaves for life.”

After returning to Wharton, Tilley and his visitors noticed that Friday was having “epileptic fits and convulsions.” Three witnesses who testified at the trial through depositions testified that Friday was shaking. The doctor that Tilley summoned to treat Friday, Dr. M. S. Weems, testified that he had “a disease of the brain of long standing.” The treatment that Dr. Weems prescribed was the administration of a cathartic, or a strong laxative. Of course, laxatives were not effective in treating Friday’s epilepsy. Friday died on November 12, 1853.

Much like a purchaser might try to return a defective toaster today, Tilley attempted to return the corpse to Scranton, and get a replacement. Scranton apparently offered a new young slave, but never did so. His excuse, at least for a while, was that there was a yellow fever epidemic active in South Texas, and he preferred to stay in New Orleans until it subsided. Eighteen months after Friday’s death, Tilley filed suit against Scranton. His attorneys were the firm of Sabin and Henderson. An answer was filed for Scranton by the firm of Palmer and Jordan.

The case was tried in the 7th District Court , presided over by Judge Peter Gray. Gray was certainly not an abolitionist, but as a lawyer he had tried a case in which he proved to a jury that a woman of color was free over the claims by a landowner that she was his property. A jury was requested and the trial took place. The file contains the instructions by Gray to the jury, and states that it did not matter whether the auctioneer knew of the epilepsy because the warranty as to the good health of the slave was binding on him.

The Plaintiff apparently called a character witness named James W. Day who testified that Scranton “treated his slaves well and fed them very well.” The testimony may have been a mistake, since on cross-examination Day testified that Tilley had a slave who had escaped twice and was returned, after which the slave was whipped “pretty bad”. Day acknowledged that Tilley had been charged with slave abuse, and had paid a twenty-dollar fine.

The jury ruled for Tilley, and awarded him $1,100.00 for the value of the slave and an additional $700.00 for the medical bills and medicines that Friday had been given before his death. The slave auctioneer filed a motion for new trial, which was overruled by Judge Gray.

The case was appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. In an opinion by Chief Justice Hemphill, the Court ordered the verdict reversed as to the medical bills, but affirmed the $1,100.00 judgement as the price paid for Friday.

Slavery is the American version of the Holocaust. It was governmental dehumanization of a class of people based solely on their race. It is an evil that American history must deal with and that we, as a people, must acknowledge as a grievous error of our forefathers. The file of Tilley v. Scranton is proof of the evil of slavery and the mixed record of the treatment of the slaves. For those who wish to study the antebellum South, it is a document that should be examined. During Black History Month, it is a stark reminder of a horrific part of the African American experience in our county and state.

Click here to view the historic case documents for Tilley v. Scranton


Saving Texas History

Saving Texas History Image Read more about the preservation process of the Historical Documents.

Public Viewing Rules and Regulations

Public Viewing Rules and Regulations image View information regarding public access and the regulations that safe guard the Historical Documents.

Online Historical Documents

Online Historical Documents image These court records are valuable sources of Texas' and Houston's history. View these priceless historical documents.