Legislative Branch

Guide to Senate Records: Chapter 6

Records of the Committee on Claims and Other Claims Committees

Committee records discussed in this chapter:

History and Jurisdiction

refer to caption

Petition of Daniel Boone requesting a grant of land within the territory of Louisiana, dated January 2, 1810. RG 46, Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives.

6.1 This chapter describes records of three standing committees—the Committee on Claims, the Committee on Private Land Claims, and the Committee on Revolutionary Claims—each of which had responsibility for considering legislative remedies for claims against or requiring some action by the Government. These three committees were independent of each other and there was no relationship among them. However, they shared several common characteristics. Each was a standing committee involved with claims. Each had "claims" as part of its name. Most legislative matters referred to these committees concerned enactment of private laws and many of the records are arranged alphabetically by name of claimant. With the development of administrative procedures in the executive or judicial branches, these committees became less important by the 20th century. The last two of the committees named above expired in 1921, and the Committee on Claims was absorbed by the Judiciary Committee in 1946. Since the passage of the Federal Tort Claims Act (Title IV of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946), which improved upon administrative mechanisms for dealing with many of the common problems resulting in claims, the only claims matters referred to the Committee on the Judiciary are those falling under one of the act's exempted categories.

6.2 Bills relating to claims against the Government are one category of legislation leading to the enactment of private laws. The distinction between private and public laws has been disputed and has changed over time, but the key element is that private laws are for the relief of individuals, small groups of specific persons, corporations, and institutions. Even this point has been disputed, particularly as it relates to Senate Rule XVI, which limits the addition of private claim amendments to general appropriation bills. The use of private laws became so widespread by the first decade of the 20th century, that 6,249 private laws were enacted in the 59th Congress (1905-07), 89 percent of the total legislation passed by Congress in the term. Since then, the proportion of private to public laws has decreased to less than 10 percent of total legislation.

6.3 A valuable reference tool to records of the Committee on Claims and records of other committees that also reported on private claims is the Alphabetical List of Private Claims Brought Before the Senate of the United States, 1816-1909, which has been printed as several Senate documents in the Congressional Serial Set as listed below: 14th-30th Congresses (1815-1849): S. Misc. Doc. 67, 30th Cong., 2d sess. (Vol. 1); 47th-51st Congresses (1881-91): S. Misc. Doc. 266, 53rd Cong., 2d sess., Serial 3175 (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, and Vol. 3); 52nd-55th Congresses (1891-99): S. Doc. 449, 56th Cong., 1st sess., Serial 3881 (2 vols.); 56th-57th Congresses (1899-1903): S. Doc. 221, 57th Cong., 3d sess., Serial 4433 (1 vol.); 58th Cong. (1903-05): S. Doc. 3, 59th Cong., 1st sess., Serial 4917 (Vol. 1); 59th-60th Congresses (1905-09): S. Doc. 646, 62nd Cong., 2d sess., Serial 6165 (1 vol.). These volumes list in alphabetical order by name of claimant the names of persons, ships, businesses, and organizations with the following additional information: The nature or object of each claim; the session and manner in which it was brought before the Senate; the committee to which it was referred; the report number and date (if printed); the bill number; its disposition by the Senate; and, if passed by both Houses, the date enacted. Private relief bills, many of which are based on private claims, are also indexed in the "Finding List" volumes of the Congressional Information Service (CIS) U.S. Congressional Serial Set Index under the heading "Private Relief and Related Actions Index of Names of Individuals and Organizations."

Back to Top

Records of the Committee on Claims, 14th-79th Congresses (1816-1946)

6.4 The Committee on Claims was one of the original standing committees of the Senate, established by a resolution introduced by James Barbour of Virginia and approved December 10, 1816. Prior to its approval, bills, petitions, and memorials pertaining to claims were referred to select committees. These early claims records can be found in the records of the 1st-13th Congresses under various committee reports and petitions and memorials, and many documents for the 1st-17th Congresses (1789-1823) have also been published in the American State Papers, Serial 036. The Committee on Claims was one of several standing committees to which claims-related legislative matters were referred. Claims were also referred at various times to the Committees on Finance, Appropriations, Pensions, Revolutionary Claims, Private Land Claims, Military Affairs, Naval Affairs, and so forth, and sometimes claims were referred subsequently to the Claims Committee after review elsewhere. However, from the outset, the Committee on Claims was one of the more active committees of the Senate, receiving many petitions, memorials, and private bills, and it remained so until the 1880's when the Bowman (1883) and Tucker (1887) Acts provided improved administrative and judicial remedies for individuals seeking relief. By 1946, the importance of the committee had waned and with passage of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 (Public Law 79-601), the Committee on Claims was abolished and its jurisdiction transferred to the Committee on the Judiciary.

6.5 The records of the committee (70 ft.) chiefly concern legislative matters referred to it before 1887, although there are records of the committee through 1946. There are three series of records: Committee reports and papers, 1816-47 (4 ft.), consisting of original and printed committee reports and supporting papers, arranged chronologically for each Congress; committee papers, 1847-1946 (35 ft.), consisting of legislative cases files that for some Congresses are arranged alphabetically by name of claimant and for others are arranged by bill number; and petitions and memorials referred to the committee, 1816-1938 (31 ft.), which are arranged alphabetically by name of claimant for each Congress through the 49th Congress (1885-87) and thereafter chronologically by date of referral.

6.6 Legislative case files on bills relating to individuals for the 50th-79th Congresses (1887-1946) are located in the series of papers supporting specific bills and resolutions, where they are arranged alphabetically by name of claimant or subject for the 50th-56th Congresses (1887-1901) and by type of bill or resolution and thereunder by number for the 57th-79th Congresses (1901-46). This series includes private claims bills referred to all committees, including the Committee on Claims. Legislative case files concerning a State, class of individuals, or general claims legislation, such as the Bowman Act, continue to appear in the committee papers of the Claims Committee until 1901.

6.7 It is difficult to generalize meaningfully about the subject matter of the records referred to the Committee on Claims. In the absence of a formal jurisdictional statement, private claims might be referred to the Claims Committee or one of the other standing committees on the basis of subject matter. For example, many claims arising from activities of the Army were referred to the Committee on Military Affairs, yet the records of the Committee on Claims have numerous files relating to claims based on events of the War of 1812, various Indian wars, the Mexican War, and especially the Civil War. An examination of the Alphabetical List of Private Claims, cited above, demonstrates that bills, petitions, and memorials were referred to a number of standing committees, not just the Committee on Claims. In general terms, the types of legislative matters referred to the Claims Committee were those concerning compensation for services provided the Government, damages to personal or real property as the result of Government action, settlement of Government contracts, and relief from financial responsibility for money or property lost while entrusted to a Government agent.

Records of the Committee on Claims, 14th-36th Congresses (1816-1861)

6.8 Pre-Civil War claims often concern events during the Revolution (numerous files); the Barbary pirate conflict (claim of John Leander Cathcart) (24A-G1, 29A-G2); the undeclared war with France and French spoliations (15A-D1); the War of 1812 (numerous files); and the Seminole wars (30A-H2). There are also papers relating to the petitions and claims of Matthew Lyon of Eddyville, KY, who was prosecuted under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 (16A-G1); Peter (Pierre) Charles L'Enfant for his services in furnishing a plan for the city of Washington (18A-G1); steamboat inventor Robert Fulton (26A-D1); and Margaret Blennerhassett, widow of Aaron Burr's alleged co-conspirator Harman B. Blennerhassett (27A-D2, 28A-G1). Beginning with the 35th Congress (1857-59), the records document contact with the newly established Court of Claims.

Records of the Committee on Claims, 37th-49th Congresses (1861-1887)

6.9 Some claims were nearly 60 years old, such as the claim of the widow of Commodore Stephen Decatur, who was still trying in the early 1860's to obtain remuneration for her husband's recapture of the frigate Philadelphia in 1804 (37A-E1). There are papers relating to claims that are tied to larger historical events; for example, the petition of Marshall O. Roberts for compensation for the loss of his steamship Star of the West, the vessel sent to resupply the garrison at Ft. Sumter during the 1861 secession crisis (37A-H1). However, most of the Civil War claims petitions and legislative claims files concern individuals or groups of citizens who are not in and of themselves significant historically but whose experiences, as documented by their petitions and supporting documentation, provide information of value for State or local history. For example, the records contain substantial information on 25 claims of citizens of Washington, DC, relating to damages from the July 1864 Confederate raid (44A-E3) and S. 382, relating to claims of various citizens of Glasgow, MO, whose property was destroyed in 1864 by Union troops (48A-E4). Petitions of the period in particular describe individual acts during the war that give a personal view of the conflict. Petitions and memorials for the 40th Congress (1867-69) include, for example, the petition of "colored citizens of Detroit" seeking payment of $1,000 for Greenburg Hodge, who, according to the petition, organized a company of colored troops in Michigan and provided them with subsistence during their training period. From Tennessee came a petition from a widow, Mary Mannin, seeking payment for services rendered guiding Union men through the mountains to the safety of Federal troops (40A-H3).

Records of the Committee on Claims, 50th-79th Congresses (1887-1946)

6.10 After passage of the Tucker Act, there is a marked change in both the volume and content of the records referred to the committee. Most petitions did not seek relief directly from the committee but rather petitioned to have their claims referred to the Court of Claims. Exceptions to this trend include petitions dating from the late 1880's from alleged victims of Indian depredations urging Congress to force the Bureau of Indian Affairs to pay their claims (50A-J7); memorials from sugar producers seeking payment of a bounty for losses resulting from the repeal of the McKinley tariff in 1894 (53A-J4); and memorials seeking passage of H.R. 2799 to compensate the victims of the General Slocum, a steamer that burned in New York harbor at a loss of more than 1,000 lives (59A-J8). There are also several documents relating to the claim of former Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani for $250,000, because of the role of John L. Stevens, the U.S. minister at Honolulu, in her overthrow in 1893 (59A-F4, 59A-J10, 60A-J14). There are very few petitions and memorials referred to the Claims Committee in the 20th century, and most of the committee papers consist of a small number of legislative case files, 1887-1901; findings of the Court of Claims in the French spoliation cases, 1899-1917, which were printed as House documents; delinquency reports from the Comptroller General relating to accounts of Government officials, 1935-46; and miscellaneous executive communications.

6.11 Closely related to the records of the Committee on Claims are the Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury (Record Group 217), formerly known as Records of the General Accounting Office, which settled claims, and the Records of the Court of Claims (Record Group 123), which originally investigated and later rendered judgments in claims cases involving the Government. Under the Bowman Act and the Tucker Act, claims that had been barred or disallowed previously could be referred by Congress to the Court of Claims for its review and recommendation. Consequently there is an interrelationship among the records of the congressional committees, the Department of the Treasury, and the Court of Claims. While many of the claims considered by the committee relate to the confiscation, use, or destruction of property of southern citizens during the Civil War, the barred and disallowed case files of the Southern Claims Commission, which adjudicated claims of those southerners who maintained their loyalty during the war, are located among the Records of the United States House of Representatives (Record Group 233).

Back to Top

Records of the Committee on the Private Land Claims, 19th-67th Congresses (1826-1921)

6.12 The Committee on Private Land Claims was established on December 26, 1826 with the Senate's approval of a motion by David Barton of Missouri. Private land claims are claims of ownership of land usually based on a grant of another government issued before the U.S. Government established a system for surveying and administering the public domain. It is not surprising that a Senator from Missouri would offer such a resolution because Missouri was one of the States most affected by land grants and titles issued before the land was possessed by the United States. The largest area of land falling into this category was the Louisiana Purchase, acquired in 1803 from the French, but several other areas also required clarification of land titles. Prior to the Civil War, most of the bills, petitions, and memorials relating to individual private land claims concerned the confirmation of land patents, titles, and grants issued by the French and Spanish Governments (or in the case of West Florida by the British Government), particularly in what are now the States of Louisiana, Missouri, Florida, Mississippi, Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan, with a small number of claims appearing in other States. After a period of inactivity during the Civil War, claims concerning former Mexican lands from the New Mexico Territory to California occupied the committee. Beginning in the late 1880's, legislation proposing establishment of a Federal land court to adjudicate disputes over private land was introduced and referred to the committee. In 1891, the court was established (26 Stat. 854) and given jurisdiction to settle claims over land formerly granted by the Spanish or Mexican Governments in lands acquired from Mexico (Territories of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, States of Nevada, Colorado, and Wyoming). The legislative activity of the committee gradually diminished after the establishment of the land court and in 1921, the committee was terminated during the reform of the Senate committee system under S. Res. 43, 67th Cong.

refer to caption

Map of disputed land drawn by Luis Mesa in 1841. The U.S. Surveyor General's office in California sent a traced copy of a map of the land. RG 46, Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives.

6.13 The records of the committee (15 ft.) include committee reports and papers, 1826-47 (1 ft.), consisting largely of original and printed committee reports on bills, with related petitions, memorials, and other supporting papers; committee papers, 1847-1907 (8 ft.), consisting of legislative case files (through 1899), and communications from or transmitted by the General Land Office; petitions and memorials referred to the committee, 1826-97 (6 ft.), which for some Congresses are arranged alphabetically by name of petitioner or subject and, for others, chronologically by date of referral, and supporting papers; and legislative dockets, 1873-1903 with gaps (3 vols., 3 in.).

6.14 Prior to the Civil War, the records focus most heavily on attempts by petitioners to confirm land titles in Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa—areas that were formerly French and/or Spanish—and Florida, which included lands under either Spanish or British grants. A few records concern Virginia military bounty lands in Ohio (19A-G14). Many of the files in all series (except the legislative dockets) contain maps and plats of the land in question in addition to the original or copies of the land grant document. Among the more fully documented are the claims of John Edgar, a merchant and land speculator in the Kaskaskia area of Illinois, who submitted documents dating from 1774, and an 1802 letter from Northwest Territorial Governor Arthur St. Clair to support his claim (21A-D14); James and Robert Moore of Mississippi, for land near Natchez, MS, who supported their claim with many documents from the 1801-05 period and land plats from 1795 (22A-D13); heirs of Major Robert Rodgers, whose claim was based on land purchased from the Chippewa Indians in northern Michigan (27A-D15); and Hiram Barney, Pierre Choteau, and Julian Dubuque, relating to their claims in Iowa (28A-D12, 28A-G15, 29A-D14). Numerous papers, under the names of various claimants, relating to the huge land grant of the Baron De Bastrop in Louisiana are also included in the records of this committee (33A-H18, 34A-H18, 35A-E11A, 35A-H15, 36A-H15).

6.15 After the Civil War, the focus of the records is on California, New Mexico, and Arizona, although there are a few claims relating to land in Missouri, Louisiana, and Florida. Western lands requiring confirmation of titles were those that had been granted by the Spanish or Mexican Governments prior to their acquisition by the United States. The committee papers consist of legislative case files, arranged by bill number, and communications from the General Land Office, which transmitted reports it had received, particularly from the Surveyor General of New Mexico, to the Senate, and a few papers arranged by subject. In addition to bills to confirm specific land titles, the committee papers include legislative case files on bills to create a land court to adjudicate private land claims and later proposed amendments (52A-F22, 54A-F25, 55A-F24) and the 1893 annual report of the court (53A-F26). Among the subject files are papers relating to a claim pursued by the heirs of Augustin DeYturbide over a large land grant in California, including printed legal briefs, a map, and various executive agency reports (49A-E22). Committee papers after 1900 consist solely of executive communications that were printed as House documents, although there may also be legislative case files in the papers accompanying specific bills and resolutions. There are few petitions and memorials dated after 1875.

6.16 For executive agency records at the National Archives relating to private land claims, see Record Group 49, Records of the General Land Office.

Back to Top

Records of the Committee on Revolutionary Claims, 22nd-67th Congresses (1832-1921)

6.17 The Committee on Revolutionary Claims was established on December 28, 1832, by Senate resolution. Little is known of the circumstances surrounding the decision to create the committee; however, between 1818 and 1828, laws authorizing payment of pensions to surviving veterans of the Revolutionary War were enacted. Prior to the establishment of the committee, bills, petitions, and memorials relating to claims for Revolutionary War pensions were normally referred to the Committee on Pensions. In June 1832, coverage of such pensions was expanded to include the widows and children of such veterans by amendment of an 1828 act for relief of certain surviving officers and soldiers of the Revolution (4 Stat. 529), and thereafter, most Revolutionary pension bills, and other Revolutionary War-related claims were referred to the Committee on Revolutionary Claims. Perhaps the impetus for creating the committee was the anticipated increase in claims under the 1832 act since this law opened up significantly the numbers of people potentially eligible for benefits. Although there are no records of the committee among these series after 1897, the Committee on Revolutionary Claims survived until 1921, when it was terminated by S. Res. 43, 67th Cong., which eliminated many obsolete standing and select committees.

6.18 The records of the Committee on Revolutionary Claims (8 ft.) include three series: Committee reports and papers, 1832-47 (1 ft.), consisting largely of original and printed committee reports on bills, petitions, and memorials referred to the committee, but also containing some documents supporting claims; committee papers, 1853-97 with gaps (1 ft.), consisting of a small number of legislative case files from fewer than one-third of the Congresses between 1853 and 1897 and arranged either alphabetically by name of claimant or numerically by bill number; and petitions and memorials referred to the committee, 1832-97 (6 ft.), arranged for most Congresses alphabetically by name of claimant and including much of the supporting documentation. Sometimes papers relating to a claim are filed under the name of the soldier with the claimant described as the heir or legal representative of the soldier; in other instances, the papers are filed under the name of the actual claimant. This may be an obstacle to genealogical research in these records, but it is not insurmountable because the volume of records is small.

6.19 The supporting documentation includes a number of documents dating from the Revolutionary War period, 1774-1781, and other evidentiary documents that predate by dozens of years the petition or bill concerning the claim. The Revolutionary War documents include such military records as muster rolls, commission certificates, letters from superior or fellow officers supporting claims by verifying service, and more personal documents such as letters from family members and, in at least one instance, a will. A few claims concern prominent military and political figures, either directly and indirectly. For example, claims of the widows or other legal heirs of John Laurens (23A-G16), Alexander Hamilton (25A-D17), Silas Deane (26A-D16), Baron Johann deKalb (26A-G18), Nathaniel Greene (33A-H21), and Ethan Allen (34A-H21) are documented, at least in part, by these records. Among the records of claims of lesser figures are documents written by Revolutionary leaders. For example, the claim of the heirs of Major Tarlton Woodson (25A-D17) for commutation pay includes items signed by Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens, and John Randolph. A sampling of memorials and their accompanying Revolutionary War-era documents found in the records of the committee reveals the memorial of representatives of John Brooks, a captain in the Continental Army, which is accompanied by the letter from General Horatio Gates appointing Brooks "town major" of York, PA (29A-G21); the memorial of Burnett W. Dole, son of Enoch Dole, an Army surgeon from Massachusetts, accompanied by papers dated 1776 (36A-H17); and the memorial of the heirs of John Arndt of Northampton County, PA, which includes his officer's commission and original receipts for money advanced to his men (43A-H25).

6.20 In addition to pensions and commutation pay, some claimants sought compensation for nonmilitary services provided during the Revolution, and for damages to property as a result of military action. Claims for damages did not usually receive sympathetic hearing by the committee, but in the case of the claims for nonmilitary services, bills were sometimes reported favorably. The best documented of these claims was that of the heirs of Haym M. Salomon. Salomon served as paymaster to the French and handled the subsidies provided by the French and Dutch. The records supporting his claim include "statements of financial affairs of the United States, February 1781-September 1789," numerous letters and other accounts, and several printed items (38A-E13, 41A-H23). Claims of Anna C. DeNeufville Evans, granddaughter of Amsterdam merchant and war financier John (Jean) DeNeufville (32A-H21) and legal representative of James Bell of Canada (36A-H17) also concern financing the war.

6.21 For information on other records in the National Archives concerning Revolutionary claims, see Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives (Washington, DC: 1982).

Back to Top

Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States Senate at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-42). By Robert W. Coren, Mary Rephlo, David Kepley, and Charles South. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.

This Web version is updated from time to time to include records processed since 1989.

Return to the Table of Contents for the Guide to the Records of the U.S. Senate