Historical Documents

The Historical Document Room was opened to the public on October 24, 2006. The room is available for viewing historical documents from 1837—1925.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 Costs for preserving these invaluable historical documents range from $10 for a file to as much as $2,500 for a civil index book.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The process for preservation requires experts trained in handling historical documents, as the documents must be handled with extreme care.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Services Available in the Historical Document Room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Historical Documents Available Online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.

Case Of The Month: The Case of the Murdered Slave

State of Texas v. William R. Wilson

By Judge Mark Davidson

To start with, let us all acknowledge that the institution of slavery is abhorrent, especially in a nation that was founded on the written promise that all men were created equal. Those words, written this month 244 years ago are especially telling in July of 2020. Thinking back, slavery was the American equivalent of the Holocaust. Court records of the period before 1865 show numerous suits that reflect the cruelty of slavery, as well as the occasional case in which persons of color were treated with respect in our courts.

The most horrific case in the files is State of Texas v. William R. Wilson. The case was filed and tried during the Confederate era. Wilson was charged with the offense of murder of a slave and of a violation of the Slave Code of Texas. It was the only jury trial conducted in Harris County during the four year period, largely because Houston-based lawyers had asked for, and received, a continuance of all trials during the pendency of the Civil War. Judge James A. Baker was the judge of the 11th District Court. For reasons lost to history, he decided to make an exception in this case and put the case to trial, notwithstanding the shortage of male citizens in the community to serve as jurors.

The indictment states that Wilson whipped Nat, a slave he owned, over 600 times with a gutta percha branch until the slave died as a result. The gutta percha tree would later make electrical wire possible, since it emitted a rubber that was the first known insulation. In this case, that very rubber sealed in the infection and probably led to Nat’s death. The Slave Code prohibited “a chastisement by whipping or otherwise greatly disproportioned to the nature of the offense which provoked such chastisement.” The number of stripes on the deceased’s body was greatly in excess of the legal (and biblically authorized) thirty-nine lashes.

The jury heard the evidence on May 9, 1865 and resulted in a bizarre verdict. They found the defendant not guilty of murder but guilty of slave abuse, which was a misdemeanor. They assessed a punishment of a $1,000 fine. Limiting the criminal sanction to a fine for the taking of a human life is shocking to us today. Given the mindset of the male citizenry during the Confederacy, it is, however, a bit surprising that they found Wilson guilty of anything. But they did. Judge Baker upheld the verdict.

The defendant appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. Although the case was heard by the Reconstruction Texas Supreme Court that was ideologically inclined to protect the rights of the freedmen, they reversed the verdict, finding that since the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution had abolished slavery, the offense of slave abuse could no longer legally exist. Wilson got off without even having to pay a fine. Justice was not done to even a minimal extent.

Click here to view the historic case documents for The Case of the Murdered Slave