Prologue Magazine

Untapped Resources

Private Claims and Private Legislation in the Records of the U.S. Congress

Spring 1995, Vol. 27, No. 1

By Charles E. Schamel

© 1995 Charles E. Schamel

The incident began just after dawn on a spring morning in 1814 in New York State, about a mile upriver from Oswego. Its aftermath ended over twenty years later in Washington, D.C., in the committee rooms of the U.S. House of Representatives. William Baker owned a mercantile business in Sacketts Harbor with his partner, Gersham Tuttle. Being businessmen, and having a good quantity of butter, cheese, dried beef, and ham on hand that year, they hired a boat to carry some of their goods to Oswego, where they thought they would fetch a better price. They sent the store clerk, Dennis Tuttle, along to oversee the cargo.

The boat arrived at Oswego late in the evening, and the early light of the next morning revealed British enemy ships in the harbor. Dennis Tuttle and the boat's captain, fearful of the enemy, attempted to move the boat up the rapids, away from the danger at the mouth of the river.

As they moved into the rapids, Baker later claimed, the boat was stopped by a file of soldiers commanded by an American officer who commandeered the boat and ordered its contents unloaded onto the riverbank. The officer needed the boat to move his troops across the river should they need to retreat, and Dennis Tuttle's concern for the safety of the goods fell on deaf ears.

After securing the goods on the beach, Tuttle returned to Oswego and volunteered to fight in its defense. That day the British took possession of the village, and Dennis was taken prisoner and held captive on one of their ships. While he was held a prisoner of war, British troops confiscated the goods he had left on the shore and loaded them onto the ship. The British jeered Tuttle when he protested that the goods were private property, and that was the last the goods were seen. Gersham Tuttle died later in the year, and William Baker wrote the loss off to the cost of the war.

The occurrence outlined above could have been part of a Washington Irving story, but the plot is not fiction. The events, as they were recounted by witnesses, are preserved in the committee papers and the petition and memorial files of the U.S. House of Representatives at the National Archives.

William Baker's story is part of the records of the U.S. House of Representatives because nineteen years after the taking of Oswego, he learned that citizens could petition Congress for damages suffered due to government actions. He wrote a petition to Congress and attached sworn depositions from witnesses to support his claim petition. The original petition, depositions, and committee report are part of the petition and memorial files of the House Committee on Claims from the Twenty-third Congress.

William Baker's petition was supported by depositions from Dennis Tuttle, who swore to his actions on that day, and Peter Huginnin and Matthew McNair, who testified that American officers had pressed several small boats into service that spring in case they were obliged to retreat. But when the Claims Committee met to consider its merits, they found the claim lacking.

The Claims Committee reported that the claim did not demonstrate that the loss was directly due to the American soldiers' actions and, the report continued, "the committee would require the statement to be proven with more certainty than it is by this deposition. The deponent does not mention the day nor the time when the boat was taken by the United States officer, nor what exertions he used to secure the goods after the boat was taken, nor on what his belief is founded that the goods would have been saved if the boat had not been taken, nor the deposition, that he was not in possession of the goods when they were captured."1

Furthermore, one member of the committee, Rufus McIntire, thought that the claimant and the deponents had remembered the incidents erroneously, and he added his comments to the committee report. McIntire was a powerful and respected man. He had been a young American army officer serving in the area on the day Oswego was taken. He had graduated from Dartmouth College with a law degree before the war, and after the war he served as a member of the Maine State House of Representatives. He was elected on the Jacksonian ticket to the United States House of Representatives and was a member of that body from 1827 to 1835.

He had been in command of the troops stationed at the ferry that day, and neither he nor any officer, to his knowledge, took possession of a boat for the purpose of crossing the river. They needed no boats for retreat because retreat would have been up the river and not across the river.

Although this claim was rejected, William Baker's claim for damages to a building during the war, which is discussed below, was granted.

The records of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives contain a vast and relatively unused wealth of family history and local history information. Most of the documentation is contained in the archival records of the House and Senate at the National Archives, but a substantial amount is contained in the published records of the House and Senate in the Congressional Serial Set and the Congressional Record and its predecessors.

The records of Congress are not a familiar source of documentation for local history researchers and genealogists.2 Congress is generally associated with important public policy matters, budgets, tax legislation, and treaties, not with the small amount of private legislation that is brought before Congress today. And yet the eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and early twentieth-century records of Congress contain detailed descriptions of the lives, families, activities, living conditions, possessions, and thoughts of hundreds of thousands of private individuals. Indeed, the records of Congress may be the most underutilized genealogical resource in the National Archives.

Private claims records make up a significant portion of the total documentation of Congress from 1789 to World War 11. They account for over one-sixth of all the unpublished records of the House of Representatives of the first seventy-nine Congresses.3 More than 500,000 private claims were brought before Congress between 1789 and 1909 (First through Sixtieth Congresses), and many thousands more since that date. The records of the House and Senate from 1789 to 1946 include over 1,600 cubic feet of private bill files (roughly 1,500 feet from the House claims committees and 100 feet from Senate claims committees).

Between 1909 and 1946 (Sixty-first through Seventy-ninth Congresses) the four House claims committees created more than 890 feet of private claims records.

After 1946 the Legislative Reorganization Act eliminated the private claims committees and directed all private legislation to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. From 1946 to 1970 (Eightieth through Ninety-first Congresses) the records of the House Judiciary Committee contain more than 870 linear feet of private legislative records consisting of files on over 55,000 private bills.4

But these records are largely unused. Only one small collection of House records, the barred and disallowed claims of the Southern Claims Commission (accounting for 180 feet, less than 8 percent of the private claim records) are regularly researched by genealogists.

This article is intended to alert historians to the wealth of local and family documentation that exists in the records of Congress. The United States Congress is the most thoroughly documented organization of its type in the world, and knowledge of the complex relationships among the various record types is a prerequisite to efficient research using its resources.

This article will discuss the history of private legislation in Congress, describe some of the structures and procedures that have been used to process private legislation, and give examples of some of the types of genealogical information that can be found in legislative records.

The Nature of Private Claims and Petitions to Congress

The right to petition the government for redress of grievances is among the most fundamental individual rights guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution.5 Grievances arise when conflicts exist between the interests of individuals and the policies and actions of the government. It has been one of the principal tasks of the legislature to decide between the demands of the public interest and the interests and rights of private individuals or local groups.

From the earliest days, Americans have freely used the right to petition Congress, and its use is well documented in the petition and memorial files preserved in the records of the Senate and House of Representatives at the National Archives. Petitions and memorials account for over half the total volume of the unpublished records of Congress before 1900.

The right to petition allows individuals to present opinions or requests to the government on any issue, public or private. A large part of the petitions and memorials to Congress have always dealt with public policy issues.6 Issues such as slavery, tariffs, immigration, veterans benefits, and taxes have generated massive petition drives.

All petitions and memorials contain the names of individuals. Some contain many thousands of signatures; others contain only the signatures of one or more officials representing an organization; and many contain the signature of a single individual. They document the desires or opinions of towns, states, fraternal organizations, churches, unions, fellowships, and many other types of groups, and of individuals.

Petitions for private claims are a valuable source of family and local history. When Congress accepts private claims, it serves as a court of last resort where persons injured by the actions of government can seek redress after all the administrative and judicial procedures have been exhausted.

The courts and agencies are bound to act under authority of public laws. Public laws must be applied universally and do not make exceptions for circumstances under which their application causes hardship to individuals. A large part of the private laws passed by Congress provide compensation to individuals or small groups that have been unfairly damaged by the actions of government applying policies or laws.

Private claims generally fall into three categories: refund cases, waiver cases, and tort claims. Refund cases wipe out an individual's obligations to repay money that the government has paid them in error, such as when an agency pays a bill that it is not authorized to pay. Waiver cases set aside statutory provisions that restrict benefits or impose other limitations, such as restrictions on immigration. Tort claims involve payment for injury or damages done through wrongful acts.

William Baker's second private claim illustrates a situation in which the government recognized that it owed money to a citizen, but no law existed authorizing the government to pay the particular type of debt. Since no legal way existed to pay Baker, the executive agencies and the courts were powerless to help, and appeal to Congress was the last resort.

Mr. Baker owned a house in Sacketts Harbor, New York, and in February of 1813 American troops took possession of the house and used it as a barracks for four militia companies. The army occupied the house for over two months, and after their departure, a committee of two commissioned officers and one local man evaluated the condition of William Baker's house. They agreed that $252.32 damages had been done to the property.

Baker billed the commanding officer for payment of rent and damages but was informed by the War Department that no existing law authorized payment for such damages. Unaware that appeal to Congress offered another avenue to recover his losses, Baker wrote these losses off to the costs of war.

Nineteen years later, when he learned that he could petition the federal Congress for damages, he prepared a petition asking for passage of a private law to repay his damages.

Mr. Baker submitted the petition to Representative Joel Turrill, the congressman representing the Oswego district of New York, who introduced it on the floor of the House of Representatives. In the House the petition was referred to the Committee on Claims. The committee reported that the bill to pay Baker's claim should pass, and in accordance with their recommendation, it passed the House and the Senate and was signed into law on February 17, 1836. The committee report explained the reasoning behind its recommendation and discussed the steps taken in fact-finding:

Your committee also addressed a note to the Third Auditor for information relative to this claim and to inform them what were the reasons assigned for not paying the damages assessed to Baker, when presented to the War Department, and his answer has been received and is referred to and made a part of this report. The only reason which he alleges why this demand was not paid, is, that the Department did not suppose they were authorized by any existing law to pay for damages done to the house, for the use thereof, separate, they would have paid. Your committee cannot conceive why the use or rent of the house should have been allowed and the damages rejected for they consider the one as legitimate and just a claim as the other, for the damages were done to the house by the United States troops, at the time they had the entire possession of the property, and when the owner could have no control over the same, and therefore in the opinion of your Committee, the government is bound in good faith, as well as by the principles of common law, not only to pay what was right for the rent of the property, but to return it in as good condition as it was when they entered into possession. Your Committee therefore, consider this claim equitable and that it ought to be paid, and report the bill accordingly.7

H.R. 450, the Twenty-third Congress bill providing for Baker's claim, did not pass the House, but when he resubmitted the petition two years later, both houses of the Twenty-fourth Congress passed H.R. 12, and it was signed into law.

Private Legislation in History

Today Congress spends only a small part of its time on private matters. During the 101st Congress (1989-1991) less than 3 percent of the legislative activity involved private matters: ninety-six private bills were introduced in the House, and only sixteen were enacted to become private laws, while 5,881 public bills were introduced, and 650 became law.8 During earlier periods, private legislation accounted for a much larger proportion of Congress's business, and at times it dominated the legislature's work schedule.

From 1789 to 1813, private legislation accounted for 24 percent of the laws enacted by Congress. During the next 158 years, its role increased, accounting for over 35 percent of all legislation enacted in seventy-four of the seventy-nine Congresses between 1814 and 1971. In ten Congresses, private legislation accounted for over 75 percent of all legislation passed.9 During the Fifty-ninth Congress (1905-1907) private legislation reached a high-water mark with the passage of 6,249 private acts, accounting for 90 percent of the total legislation enacted, while only 692 public acts were passed.10

During the Fiftieth Congress (1887- 1889), when 1,254 private laws were enacted compared to 570 public laws, Congressman James P. Walker (D-Missouri) observed that 40 percent of all the bills brought before the House were referred to a single committee— the Committee on Invalid Pensions.11 The proportion of private bills to public bills was substantially higher than 40 percent because, in addition to the Committee on Invalid Pensions, five other House committees existed primarily to handle private legislation, and another ten committees handled private legislation that fell within their larger jurisdictions.

But even while it accounted for a major part of the work of Congress, the appropriateness of private legislation in Congress remained a disputable subject. The principal purpose of private legislation was to create special exceptions to the general public laws that had been passed by Congress. This situation gave rise to substantial controversy. John Quincy Adams (W-Mass.) was one legislator who found private legislation to be inappropriate, arbitrary, and wasteful of the legislator's time. When a resolution to reduce the days reserved for private legislation failed. Adams voiced his opinion on private legislation:

There ought to be no private business before Congress. There is a great defect in our institutions by the want of a Court of Exchequer or Chamber of Accounts. It is a judicial business, and legislative assemblies ought to have nothing to do with it. One-half of the time of Congress is consumed by it, and there is no common rule of justice for any two of the cases to be decided. . . . A deliberative assembly is the worst of all tribunals for the administration of justice.12

But while the appropriateness of private legislation, and the strain it put on the congressional workload, made it a point of controversy, members of Congress never seriously considered relinquishing the power to grant dispensations to private and local interests. The good will that could be generated by bestowing private favors was far too attractive to give up. Instead, myriad procedures and organizational structures were created to manage the private legislative workload as it increased over the years.

Lauros McConachie, the nineteenth-century historian of Congress, described the machinations of the members of the House and Senate to deal with the burgeoning private workload:

By every device, by iron laws for speedy legislative action, by a continual multiplication of committees, by enlisting the services of the executive departments, and by establishing a Court of Claims and a Pension Bureau, Congress has sought to meet its obligation without relinquishing the power of finally deciding on each case.13

Claims Committees

Since 1789 Congress has made use of committees to conduct business. In the earliest years, both houses referred legislative business to various select committees, which were created to consider a single subject and then dissolved. The process of creating a select committee for each bill, petition, claim, or message from the President soon proved unwieldy, and permanent or standing committees were created with well-defined areas of jurisdiction.

The use of committees provided a forum for the full consideration of documents by a small group of members, thereby relieving pressure on scarce time on the floor. The use of standing committees allowed their members to become expert in the subject area in the jurisdiction. In all, more than two hundred standing committees and thousands of temporary, special, and select committees were created in the House and Senate.

Many of the committees handled private legislation in addition to a busy workload of public business. The committees on the judiciary, military affairs, naval affairs, patents, immigration and naturalization, public lands, and veterans affairs dealt largely with public legislative subjects but also received substantial numbers of petitions from private claimants.

But the workload created by private legislation made it an area worthy of specialization and pointed to the need for committees devoted primarily to processing private claims. In both the House and Senate, the claims committees were among the first standing committees to be established. In 1794 the Committee on Claims became the third standing committee created in the House of Representatives, and the Senate Claims Committee, established in 1816, was preceded by only three older standing committees.

Over the next 150 years the volume of private legislation led to a multiplication and specialization of the private claims committees. By 1813 the number of petitions requesting settlement of military pensions and other war-related claims became so great that the House divided the jurisdiction of the Claims Committee, giving jurisdiction over the types of claims named in its title to the new Committee on Pensions and Revolutionary War Claims. By 1825 the workload of the new committee grew enough to justify further dividing the jurisdiction between two newer committees, the Committee on Military Pensions and the Committee on Revolutionary Claims. In 1831 the jurisdiction of the Committee on Military Pensions was divided again, and a Committee on Invalid Pensions and a Committee on Revolutionary Pensions were created.

In all, ten private claims committees were created in the House of Representatives. The Senate created three private claims committees. Their principal mission was to receive and examine petitions from private claimants and draft and report private legislation to provide relief for the claims.

The House and Senate committees that were created primarily to process private legislation are listed below, along with the dates of their existence. Between 1880 and 1911 the number of claims committees concurrently in existence peaked with five claims committee in the House and three in the Senate. In 1946 Congress passed the Legislative Reorganization Act to promote efficiency in government. Under the act, the number of committees in each house was reduced drastically, and all the claims and pensions committees were eliminated, their jurisdictions being transferred to the House and Senate judiciary committees.

Private Claims Committees in the House of Representatives
Committee Name Dates of Existence
Claims 1794-1946
Pensions and Revolutionary Claims 1813-1825
Private Land Claims 1813-1911
Revolutionary Claims 1825-1825
Military Pensions 1825-1831
Invalid Pensions 1831-1846
Revolutionary Pensions 1813-1880
Revolutionary Claims 1825-1873
War Claims 1873-1946
Pensions 1880-1946
Private Claims Committees in the Senate
Claims 1816-1946
Private Land Claims 1826-1921
Revolutionary Claims 1832-1921

While the private claims committees played an important role in processing private legislation in both the House and Senate, they did not eliminate the responsibilities of the regular legislative committees to handle private legislation in their specialized areas of jurisdiction. For example, during the Thirty-third Congress (1853-1855) the records related to private claims from the five claims committees total seventy-three inches, while the private claims records from fourteen regular legislative committees total fifty-eight inches.14

Private Calendar and Private Bill Days

Specialized legislative committees were not enough to alleviate the deluge of petitions for private legislation. Special rules were instituted, mainly in the House, to control the flow of legislation on the floor. As early as 1820 a system of calendars came into use in the House and Senate to organize and expedite the business on the floor of each chamber.

In the House all bills and resolutions are placed on one of three calendars: the Union Calendar, the House Calendar, or the Private Calendar, and the calendars themselves are brought on the floor in a formally prescribed order of business.15 In the Senate all business is scheduled on one of two calendars: treaties and nominations on the Executive Calendar, and all legislation on the Calendar of Business.

Beginning as early as 1810, Fridays were set aside for the consideration of private legislation, and for some periods both Fridays and Saturdays were reserved for that purpose.16 By 1839 the House facilitated the consideration of private legislation by a rule referring to a calendar of private bills and by providing for special private bill days.17 After the Civil War the deluge of petitions for military pensions and for removal of political disabilities became so great that evening sessions were sometimes called to process the private legislation.18 Today the House of Representatives reserves the first and third Tuesdays of each month for the Private Calendar.19 The Senate considers private bills on any day.

The days set aside for the Private Calendar were seedbeds for the controversy that surrounded the very issue of private legislation. McConachie described the House sessions set aside for private legislation in negative terms:

It is a remarkable sight, a dozen or more men of both parties gathered in front of the Speaker's chair, with papers held high over their heads, each silently pleading for recognition. They are grotesque witnesses to the travesty and futility of trying such matters before so immense a court of interested and uninterested judges. By special order the House, on May 5, 1896, cleared the private calendar of seventy out of four hundred pending pension measures, devoting ten minutes to each bill. A history of the frauds upon the treasury which have probably succeeded through a system which has thus specially tempted men to buy consideration of their schemes, of the days and weeks which Congress has spent in wrangling over petty money bills involving but a small fraction of its running expenses while considering them, of the long succession of martyrs, worthy claimants to whom reparation has been delayed and denied until death has put them beyond its possibility— such a history would intermingle the most pathetic and the most reprehensible phases of human life. 20

Overwhelmed legislators saw a siege of claimants upon Congress, and to Alexander Duncan, a representative from Ohio, the needed action was clear:

"Vigilance, sleepless vigilance, is necessary on our part. We are beset at every corner and in every street and alley with loafers, agents, and separate county court lawyers. Every applicant for relief who attends the Capital has his ten agents to importune you, and every agent has his ten claims to present. And every claim amounts to from ten thousand dollars to one hundred thousand dollars. Every sympathetic feeling is aroused with the tale of woe and poverty; every applicant has a wife and nine small children and one at the breast, and over and above John Roger's number, an aged and tottering father and mother to support, and some cousins. Sir, look at our desks every morning, piled high with fresh claims dripping from the press, while we are swamped knee-deep with those that preceded them the day before, all reported by the Committee on Claims."21

But for every member who bemoaned the time and resources spent on private claims, there were others who spoke with compassion for the wrongs done to the private citizen that could be corrected only by private legislation:

Claimants come to us and their heirs and descendants for all the years from the beginning of the Government to the present time. And do they get their pay? Not one out of ten. The cases serve as footballs between the two Houses of Congress. In one Congress the case goes through the Senate; in the next Congress it goes through the House; in the next Congress, through the Senate; and in the next Congress, through the House; and so for generations cases act as footballs and are kicked back and forth between the two branches.22

Congressman Selwyn Z. Bowman of Massachusetts deeply felt the plight of the injured claimant and wrote legislation to improve the private claims process.23 His emotional speech on their behalf in the House is in the April 21, 1882, Congressional Record:

"Look at this book, [holding it up in his hand] the Calendar of the House, a veritable tomb of the Capulets, a grave of dead hopes. There are more tragedies bound up within the covers of this book than in any novel or set of novels ever written. This book represents money due to poor widows and children, and heirs of Revolutionary soldiers, or other worthy and suffering claimants. It represents hopes that have been abandoned. It represents claimants who have come here, year after year, praying the United States to pay its honest debts; and it represents the disgrace of the United States in not paying its just dues to honest men, women, and children, and to soldiers and sailors, and to many a one who deserved better treatment at his country's hands."24

Regardless of how one felt about private legislation, the sheer number of claims for private relief was overwhelming the national legislature. Special committees and special days for private legislation were not enough to solve the problem.

Administrative and Judicial Referrals

One of the tools Congress used to reduce its workload was the executive agencies. From the earliest years, the agencies were expected to examine and report on legislation referred to them by Congress. Consideration of claims against the government was made possible when the Treasury Department was established in 1789, and later acts of Congress provided for settlement of claims by that department.

If the Treasury Department rejected a claim, the claimant's only recourse was to appeal directly to Congress. By the middle of the nineteenth century the petitions to Congress were so numerous that it became impossible for House or Senate committee members to make the necessary and proper investigations for informed action on the claims.

In 1855 Congress created the Court of Claims to alleviate the pressure. The court provided a means by which claims could be enforced by suit. It was authorized to investigate contractual and other legal claims against the government and to report on them to Congress. But its authority extended only to reporting findings to Congress and preparing bills for Congress. It had no power to award a judgment in its own right.

Over the next century, numerous acts of Congress enlarged the jurisdiction of the court and gave it authority to render a wide range of judgments. The jurisdiction of the court was broadened in 1863, and it was authorized to render final judgments, but even with the enlarged jurisdiction, there were still numerous claims pending before Congress. Through the Bowman Act of 1883 and the Tucker Act of 1887, Congress expanded the jurisdiction of the court to include all claims founded upon the Constitution. By 1925, however, the workload of the court had increased so much that the five judges of the court were overwhelmed, and a new law provided for seven commissioners to hear evidence and report findings to the judges.

The jurisdiction of the court allows it to render judgment upon any claim against the United States founded upon the Constitution, upon any act of Congress, upon any regulation of an executive department, and upon any express or implied contract with the United States. It includes damages for patent infringements, unlawful imprisonment, and damages incurred by Indian tribes and other special jurisdictions.

In addition to the cases that normally fall within the court's jurisdiction, there are two special groups of cases that the court hears, and can report on, but cannot make judgments on. These are the "congressional jurisdiction cases" and "departmental jurisdiction cases," cases referred to the court by Congress or an executive department.

When Congress referred cases to the Court of Claims, the case files were sent to the court, where they were usually retained and not returned to Congress. Consequently, the court's congressional jurisdiction files contain many original petitions and other papers that had once been part of the records of Congress. The private claims files in the House and Senate records contain charge-out cards that indicate that the papers related to the claim are still among the records of the Court of Claims.25

There are 17,845 case files in the Court of Claims Congressional Jurisdiction Case Records at the National Archives. The records cover the years 1884-1943 and total 2,037 linear feet. The Preliminary Inventory for Record Group 123 describes the case files as follows:

Each case file may contain some or all of the following: letters of reference from congressional committees to the Court of Claims transmitting petitions for investigation and determination of facts, with accompanying copies of congressional bills and resolutions, memorials, and other pertinent papers; orders referring claims to the commissioners; and petitions, answers, and other pleadings, motions, briefs (a great many on loyalty), depositions, affidavits, interrogatories, orders (including those remanding cases), findings on loyalty, findings of facts and opinions of the court, and summary reports of commissioners. Some of the court papers filed in these cases extend through 1946. There are also evidentiary materials, many of which were furnished by Government departments to both claimant and defendant, including correspondence, contracts, muster rolls, certificates of burial, oaths of allegiance, military service records, records of proceedings under courts martial, records of Confederate archives relating to questions of loyalty and disloyalty, and offers to furnish stores to assist in defense work. Some of the evidentiary documents predate the filing of the petitions by several decades.26

In 1871 Congress established the Southern Claims Commission to settle the claims of Southerners who remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War.27 This special board of commissioners examined 22,298 claims for over $60 million in damages. They were empowered to receive, examine, and consider the justice and validity of claims of loyal citizens for property losses during the Civil War, but they had no final jurisdiction in the claims they considered. The commission was required to report its decisions to Congress for appropriate action.

The commissioners examined claims between 1871 and 1880 and, barring 5,250 of the claims, authorized payment of $4,636,229.75 in claims and disallowed over $55 million. The claims submitted to the Southern Claims Commission are listed in alphabetical order by name of claimant in the Consolidated Index of Claims Reported by the Commissioners of Claims to the House of Representatives from 1871 to 1880.

The case files of the allowed claims are among the records of the U.S. General Accounting Office (Record Group 217), and the case files of the barred and disallowed claims are among the records of the House of Representatives.

The case files contain valuable genealogical information. A typical case file contains the following types of records: a form petition; an application to have testimony taken by a special commissioner; a deposition or testimony of the claimant and by at least one witness; a summary report of the commissioners of claims; and miscellaneous other papers such as oaths, memorandums, and evidential documents that give information regarding the claimant, circumstances of the purchase or seizure of goods, and the value of each item. 28

While the Court of Claims and the Southern Claims Commission relieved Congress of part of the private claim workload, they were far from a solution to the overload. Over time, new types of claims emerged as historical circumstances created new needs for Americans. In the late nineteenth century, in response to growing numbers of petitions for exemptions from proliferating immigration restrictions, Congress empowered the attorney general to suspend the deportation of certain classes of aliens. In 1923 Congress enacted the Meritorious Claims Act, which authorized the comptroller general to direct Congress's attention to cases where citizens, business concerns, or institutions merited relief not authorized by existing law.

Since the Second World War, Congress has passed several important acts that have drastically reduced the private workload. The 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act provided for settlement of two types of private matters without legislative action: Title IV, the Federal Tort Claims Act, permitted settlement of certain tort claims, and Section 207 permitted correction of military records by civilian review boards. In 1951 Representative Carl Vinson said that Section 207 alone had relieved Congress of considering fifteen thousand private claims bills.29

The legislation described above has reduced the private claims in Congress to a trickle— only sixteen private laws were enacted by the 101st Congress (1989-1991).

Omnibus Private Pensions and Claims Bills

No matter how many organizational arrangements were used or how the order of business was controlled, the petitions for claims and other private legislation required much more time than was available. McConachie cites an example of the time consumed by private legislation: "By special order the House, on May 5, 1896, cleared the private calendar of seventy out of four hundred pending pension measures, devoting ten minutes to each bill"30— a rate that would have required twelve hours for the seventy-two claims, or over sixty hours to process all four hundred claims.

Another technique that was developed to process the large numbers of private bills, but minimized the use of precious floor time, was the omnibus claims and pensions bill. Omnibus claims bills combined into a single bill large numbers of claims that had been referred to one committee.31 The claims thus combined into the omnibus bill had often been introduced earlier as single bills but had not been considered on the floor because of lack of time.

Omnibus bills for private claims had been in use since the earliest days of Congress. The act of August 11, 1790, "An Act for the relief of disabled soldiers and seamen lately in the service of the United States, and of certain other persons," combined the claims of thirty-six persons including pensions of disabled soldiers and officers; back pay for soldiers held captive by the Indians; and payment for certain medical expenses for an officer injured in military service.32

An omnibus pensions bill passed in the Sixty-ninth Congress (1925-1927), H.R. 8815, illustrates some of the reasons this type of bill became a popular technique for processing legislation. The House Committee on Invalid Pensions' report on the omnibus bill describes the plight of claimants during this period and the consequences of the heavy workload on Congress. House Report 183, Sixty-ninth Congress, first session, begins:

As a matter of information the Committee on Invalid Pensions wishes to state that only private bills which have passed the House during the Sixty-eighth Congress are included in this omnibus bill and report accompanying it. Further, most of these claims were favorably reported by the Senate Committee on Pensions, but because of the congestion of bills on the Senate calendar no action was taken by the Senate last Congress.33

House Report 1418, Sixty-ninth Congress, first session, the report of the conference committee on H.R. 8815 tells more of the story:

The managers on the part of the House on HR 8815 state that the House bills included in HR 8815 have been pending for nearly two years. The committee on conference carefully examined the merits of each individual case, over which any difference of opinion existed, and mutually agreed to restore all bills of a meritorious character. As agreed upon by the committee on conference HR 8815 contains 892 House bills and 220 Senate bills. Since the bill passed the House February 26, 1926, 20 of the proposed beneficiaries have died.34

The claim of Mary F. Randall, the widow of a Civil War veteran, is typical of the claims included in the omnibus bill. In the fall of 1924, Mary F. Randall of Rhode Island submitted her pension claim to Richard S. Aldrich, the representative in her district. Aldrich introduced a bill, H.R. 9829, Sixty-eighth Congress, to grant a pension to Mrs. Randall. The bill was referred to the Committee on Invalid Pensions, which examined and requested additional evidence. To promote efficiency, the committee drafted an omnibus pensions bill, H.R. 11354, to substitute for H.R. 9829 and almost seven hundred other pensions bills that were in its jurisdiction. The committee favorably reported the omnibus bill, H.R. 11354, and the bill passed the House. The bill, however, did not come to a vote in the Senate and therefore did not become law.

In the Sixty-ninth Congress, Mary Randall's claim was introduced again, this time as H.R. 504, Sixty-ninth Congress (a bill worded exactly the same as the Sixty-eighth Congress bill H.R. 9829), again in the Invalid Pensions Committee. The committee combined H.R. 504 with 892 other similar bills that had also been referred to the committee to form the Omnibus Pensions Bill, H.R. 8815, Sixty-ninth Congress.

The House passed the omnibus bill, and the Senate amended it to include 220 additional private bills before it passed that body. When the amended version was returned to the House, the chairman of the Invalid Pensions Committee, Charles Fuller of Illinois, encouraged his committee to agree to the Senate amendments because he "believed there would be a danger of losing the entire bill for this session if the bill should go to conference. He encouraged fellow members to pass the bill as amended and then reintroduce their rejected bills for inclusion in the next Omnibus bill."35 When the conference committee met, the House members agreed to the Senate form of H.R. 8815, which contained a total of 1,112 pension cases. The 357-page report contains a description of each of the 1,112 pension cases included in it. The entry for Mary F. Randall is printed on page 54.36

The documentation of Mary Randall's claim includes four House bills (H. R. 9829 and H.R. 11354 from the Sixty-eighth Congress and H.R. 504 and H.R. 8815 from the Sixty-ninth Congress), committee reports on the bills, and the original documents submitted with Mary Randall's claim, including a letter from the Adjutant General's Office reporting Nathan Randall's military record; a widow's affidavit; a physician's affidavit, and witness affidavits.

Stalking the Elusive Claim File

Documentation related to Mary Randall's pension claim exists at many locations in the records of Congress. Tracking the documentation requires knowledge of the processes and records of Congress and the finding aids that provide access to them.

The sources searched to locate the pension claim papers of Mary F. Randall illustrate some of the types of documents and finding aids common to most legislative research. A large part of the research can be conducted at depository libraries or other research libraries at many locations throughout the country, while other parts of the search can only be conducted in the unpublished records of Congress at the National Archives. Listed below are some of the steps in the search path; those that can be conducted at a depository library are marked by "Library" and steps that must be done at the National Archives are marked by "NARA"

Much of the research that could be conducted at research libraries when this article was originally written can now be conducted on the Internet.

Library 1. Search the subject indexes in the appropriate volumes of the Congressional Record, the Journal of the House of Representatives, and the Journal of the U.S. Senate for Mary F. Randall. The index entry indicates page numbers when the name appears and bill numbers for associated legislation.

Library 2. Search the legislative bill indexes in the Congressional Record or the Journals of the House and Senate to determine the legislative history of the bills cited in the subject index. This record tells to which committee the bill was referred as well as reporting numbers and when floor discussion occurred.

Library 3. Consult the CIS Index to the Congressional Serial Set to determine the serial set volume that contains the committee reports.

Library 4. Examine the House Reports and Senate Reports on the legislation. They are published in the Congressional Serial Set.

Library 5. Consult the CIS Index to Published Congressional Committee Hearings to determine if a hearing on the claim of Mary F. Randall was published. Published hearings are available at many depository libraries.

NARA 6. Consult the "Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the U.S. House of Representatives at the National Archives" and the "Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the U.S. Senate" to determine the location of the unpublished committee records at the National Archives, which should contain documentation on the claim.

NARA 7. Search bill files for each bill that was introduced for Mary F. Randall.

NARA 8. Examine the minute and docket books of the committee if necessary to obtain additional information.

Library 9. Locate the private law entry for Mary F. Randall in U.S. Statutes at Large. Mary F. Randall is listed on page 1510 of the Statutes at Large for the Sixty-ninth Congress.

The researcher who is familiar with the congressional records and finding aids will find a large field of family and local history at his or her fingertips.

Other related information:

Charles E. Schamel is an archivist at the Center for Legislative Archives of the National Archives, where he has worked with the records of Congress since 1979. He is the principle author of the Guide to the Records of the United States House of Representatives at the National Archives, 1789-1989, and more recently Reference Information Paper 90, Records Relating to American Prisoners of War and Missing in Action from the Vietnam War Era, 1960-1994.


1. House Rept. 224, 23d Cong., 2d sess., p. 1. The circumstances in this story are found in two series of records at the Center for Legislative Archives: the Committee Papers (H.R. 24A-D2.1) and the Petition and Memorials (H.R. 24A-G2.1) referred to the House Committee on Claims, 24th Congress. The original petitions, depositions, and committee reports are preserved in these archival records.  Published versions of the committee reports can also be found in the Congressional Serial Set, which is available At many research libraries throughout the United States.  The biographical data on Rufus McIntire is from the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-1989, which is printed in the serial set as Senate Document 100-34, 100th Cong., 2d sess.

2.The archival records of Congress at the National Archives are contained in three record groups: Record Group 46, Records of the U.S. Senate; Record Group 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives; and Record Group 128, Records of the joint Committees of Congress. The published records of Congress may be found in National Archives Record Group 287, Publications of the U.S. Government, and at certain government depository libraries.

3.There are a total of 9,100 feet of House records before 1946, and of these about 1,460 feet are records of the ten claims and pensions committees whose entire purpose for existing was to process private legislation. In addition, a great number of private claims and grievances were referred to committees such as the Judiciary, Military Affairs, Naval Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Patents, Immigration, and other committees that had broader jurisdictions within which a certain type of claim fell.

4.There are 261 feet of private claims and 610 feet of immigration and naturalization bills.

5.Constitution of the United States, Amendment 1, "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom ... to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

6. A petition is a written request to either house of Congress asking that something be done. The petition contains a prayer that the requested action be taken. A memorial contains no prayer and is generally a document in the form of a petition that opposes a contemplated or proposed action. Some petitions, especially those of state legislatures, take the form of resolutions.

7. Original Committee Report on the Claim of William Baker, Committee on Claims, H.R. 23A-D3. 1, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives, Washington, DC (hereinafter cited as RG 233, NA). The report is published as House Report 224, 23d Congress, 1st session, in volume 261 of the Congressional Serial Set.

8. Sources include Jeffrey S. Hill and Kenneth C. Williams, "Resource Allocation in the U.S. Congress: The Decline of Private Bills," an unpublished manuscript prepared April 24, 1992; Congressional Quarterly's Guide to Congress, 4th ed. (1993), p. 360; and Journal of the United States House of Representatives, 101st Congress (1989-1991) (1992).

9. George Galloway (revised by Sidney Wise), History of the House of Representatives (1976), pp. 374-376. Statistics compiled by Christine Desan-Hussan. The statistics in this report understate the actual number and importance of private legislation because "omnibus" claims and pensions legislation combined the private claims of hundreds or thousands of petitioners into one bill, thereby greatly reducing the number of actual private laws required to satisfy the demand for settlement.

10. Congressional Quarterly's Guide to Congress, p. 360.

11. Lauros C. McConachie, Congressional Committees: A Study of The Origins and Development of Our National and Local Legislative Methods (1898, reprinted 1973), p. 73. Comment by Congressman Walker is from the Congressional Record, Jan. 23, 1888.

12. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams: Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1795 to 1848, Vol. 7 (1874-1879, reprinted 1969), p. 480. This was during the 23d Congress, and at that time, more than two-thirds of the 390 pieces of legislation enacted into law were private.

13. McConachie, Congressional Committees, p. 73.

14. The specialized claims committees were Claims, Invalid Claims, Private Land Claims, Revolutionary Claims, and Revolutionary Pensions. The regular legislative committees that had private claims files were Commerce, District of Columbia, Expenditures in Public Buildings, Foreign Affairs, Indian Affairs, Judiciary, Manufactures, Military Affairs, Naval Affairs, Patents, Post Office and Post Roads, Public Lands, Territories, and the Select Committee on the Colt Patent.

15. Floyd M. Riddick, The United States Congress: Organization and Procedure (1949), pp. 205-207. There are two additional House calendars: the Consent Calendar and the Discharge Calendar, which provide techniques to expedite bringing legislation to the floor.

16. McConachie, Congressional Committees, p. 76. See also House Rule 19 in the Journal of the House of Representatives, 22d Cong., 2d sess., or 19th Cong., 2d sess.

17. Asher C. Hinds, Hinds' Precedents of the House of Representatives of the United States, Vol. 4 (1907), p. 172. Note that Hinds' Precedents is printed in the Congressional Serial Set as House Document 355, 59th Cong., 2d sess.

18. McConachie, Congressional Committees, P. 75; and Riddick, United States Congress, pp. 231-234.

19. U.S. House of Representatives, Constitution, Jefferson's Manual and Rules of the House of Representatives of the United States, One Hundred First Congress (1988), p. 654, para. 893. See also Riddick, United States Congress, p. 204.

20. McConachie, Congressional Committees, P. 75.

21. Speech of Alexander Duncan of Ohio, Mar. 30, 1838, Congressional Globe, 25th Cong., 2d sess., appendix, pp. 241-242. See also McConachie, Congressional Committees, pp. 76-77.

22. Congressional Record, 47th Cong., 1st sess., 1882, 13, pt. 4: 3153, speech of Representative Selwyn Z. Bowman. See also McConachie, Congressional Committees, p. 77.

23. Congressman Bowman authored the Bowman Act of March 3, 1883 (22 Stat. L. 485), which increased the effectiveness of the Court of Claims to deal with its workload and provided for further adjudication for some of the disallowed cases before the Court of Claims.

24. Congressional Record, 47th Cong., 1st sess., 1882, 13, pt. 4: 3153, speech of Representative Selwyn Z. Bowman of Massachusetts.

25. Gaiselle Kerner, Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the United States Court of Claims (1953), pp. 1-3.

26. Ibid., pp. 16-17.

27. Frank W. Klingberg, The Southern Claims Commission (1951).

28. Charles E. Schamel, et at., Guide to the Records of the United States House of Representatives at the National Archives: 1789-1989, House Document 100-245, 100th Cong., 2d sess., p. 88.

29. Hill and Williams, "Resource Allocation in the U.S. Congress: The Decline of Private Bills," p. 5; and Congressional Quarterly's Guide to Congress, 3d ed. (1982), p. 359.

30. McConachie, Congressional Committees, pp. 75--76.

31. Hinds, Hinds' Precedents, Vol. 4, pp. 1023-1025, para. 4784.

32. Statutes at Large, Vol. 6, Private Acts 1789-1845 (1st-28th Congresses). The individual names do not appear in the index to volume 6.

33. H. Rept. 183, 69th Cong., 1st sess., serial 8538, p. 1.

34. H. Rept 1418, 69th Cong., 1st sess., serial 8538, p. 8.

35. U.S. House of Representatives, Minute Book of the Committee on Invalid Pensions, 68th-69th Congresses (H.R. 68A-F23), RG 233, NA.

36. H. Rept. 183, 69th Cong., 1st sess., serial 8538, p. 8.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.