Texas Supreme Court advisory

Osler McCarthy, staff attorney for public information
512.463.1441 or click for email
Bill Kroger,  co-chair, Supreme Court Historical Records Task Force
713.229.1736 or bill.kroger@bakerbotts.com

For Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A comprehensive survey of historical court records across the state has confirmed that Texas courts contain a treasure trove of historical documents, many of them critical records of antebellum life and information about notable Texans such as Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin.

The survey was conducted by the Texas Supreme Court Historical Records Task Force. More than 400 forms were distributed to district and county clerks, with 278 responding to the request for information.

“For the first time, we have current information on what is in these archives and their condition,” said task force co-chairman Bill Kroger, a trial partner at Baker Botts law firm in Houston. “The survey responses also confirm that these records are of historical importance with many dating back at least to the Republic of Texas.”

Mark Lambert, deputy commissioner for archives and records with the General Land Office, is co-chair of the task force.

“The task force’s systematic approach and the yield from its survey proves why it is critical to preserve these records for the people of Texas,” Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson said. “This history, brought to life, should be available for all generations and not sentenced to decay.”

The list of documents reported to the task force from district and county clerks include:

¶ information about Houston, Austin, the Kiowa Chief Santanta, John Wesley Hardin, Charles Goodnight, Judge Roy Bean, and other famous Texans;
¶ historically important information about African-Americans;
¶ information about the first railroads, early banks, the first oil discoveries and wildcatters, the development of ports, ship channels and canals and the creation of the first hospital districts; and
¶ details about wars, epidemics and the booms and busts of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The survey responses also provided details on how many records are at risk of being lost, stolen or destroyed through time, the elements and pests.

“One clerk identified a case file concerning Billy the Kidd that somehow ended up in California,” Kroger said. “Other records are being eaten by rodents, are black with mold, and are literally crumbling to dust.”

The Galveston County archives are a special case, Kroger noted. Because Galveston was the largest Texas city in the 19th century, Galveston County has one of the largest archives.
“Because of its location, its records reflect the unique maritime and trading history of the city,” Kroger said. “Because it also was an immigration center, the archives there contain decades of information -- including photographs -- about immigrants to Texas from the 19th and early 20th centuries. It also contains the original blueprints for the Galveston Seawall.”

The survey results point out a number of concerns for the task force, Kroger said.

“We need help,” he said. “The survey clearly shows that our district and county clerks are conscientious and concerned that we need to do more to protect our state’s historical records. What we are trying to do is to develop a team of qualified, trained historians, document preservationists and attorneys who are willing to do additional field work on some of the archives with the most important collections and in need of the greatest help.”

The task force also needs assistance from people with training and experience in identifying grants and other funding sources.