National Archives at Seattle

Records of District Courts of the United States at the National Archives at Seattle

The National Archives at Seattle has records from Federal courts in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.  We also have some early Federal court records from Montana.  

Brief Overview

Records of The District Courts of the United States are contained within Record Group 021.

U.S. district courts serve as the trial courts of general federal jurisdiction in each state.  District courts handle civil and criminal cases.  There is also a bankruptcy court associated with each district. 

  • U.S. district courts were established by the Judiciary Act of 1789 (1 Stat. 76).
  • Each state is considered a district.  The organization of the divisions within the individual districts varies depending upon the state.
  • Until 1991, U.S. district courts also handled naturalization cases.

Record Group 021 also includes records of some U.S. territorial courts and U.S. circuit courts. 

U.S. territorial courts handled cases of federal jurisdiction within organized incorporated territories of the United States.  Once the organized territories became states, the territorial court was replaced by a district court. Some territorial court records can be found in state archives.

U.S. circuit courts (1789-1912) were also established by the Judiciary Act of 1789.

  • Circuit courts had original jurisdiction over suits involving an alien, suits between citizens of different states, and suits in common law and equity where the disputed amount exceeded $500. 
  • It is important to note that the U.S. circuit courts and the U.S. circuit courts of appeals (RG 276) are different.  In 1891, Congress created the U.S. courts of appeals (Evarts Act) to hear appeals from both the district courts and the circuit courts, which meant the circuit courts no longer had appellate jurisdiction over the district courts.  Each court of appeals serves a specific circuit (region), and they were called circuit courts of appeals until 1948.
  • The presiding judges in each circuit traveled to each of the districts to hear cases.  Thus, records of the U.S. circuit courts were organized based on the district where the cases originated, as opposed to the circuit. 
  • In 1812, circuit courts were granted the authorization to appoint U.S. commissioners to assist in taking of bail and affidavits. Commissioners' functions were expanded by subsequent legislation and court rules.  Their powers have included the authority to issue arrest warrants, examine persons charged with offenses against Federal laws, initiate actions in admiralty matters, and institute proceedings for violation of civil rights legislation.  The authorization to appoint commissioners was transferred to the district courts in 1896. 
  • The U.S. circuit courts were abolished by the Judicial Code of 1911, and their trial jurisdiction was transferred to the U.S. district courts.

What Can I Find in Federal Court Records? 

The records document the actions of Federal district, circuit, and some territorial courts.  These courts have jurisdiction over naturalization, bankruptcy, civil (law, equity, and admiralty), and criminal cases.

  • Some of the general subjects documented in these records are civil rights, commerce and corporate history, demographics, genealogy, immigration and ethnic groups, the impact of Federal regulatory programs, judicial administration, labor relations and union activity, maritime history, and State and local political activity.
  • Specific topics documented include collection of debts, enforcement of contracts, claims for damages; counterfeiting, and smuggling or violations of customs regulations; European immigration and the exclusion and deportation of Chinese; evasion of import duties; the illegal sale or manufacturing of alcoholic beverages; infringement of patent or copyright; interstate transfer of stolen property; mutiny or murder on the high seas; prize condemnations; theft, assault, or murder on Federal property; and violations of Federal election laws and civil rights legislation, international agreements (such as the Migratory Bird Act); Selective Service regulations, and slave importation laws.
  • Court records can be useful for biographical research, but they should generally not be the starting point. 

What Types of Federal Court Records Can I Find at the National Archives at Seattle?

It is important to note that, historically, each district court has managed their records differently.  Thus, we may have some records for one district court that we do not have for another.

Case files

  • Case files have documents created for a specific case.  These documents have been filed by attorneys or issued by the court.  They can include affidavits, complaints, depositions, indictments, judgments or final decrees, motions, petitions, subpoenas, and writs.
  • Case files are usually arranged numerically by the docket number assigned when the case was filed.
  • Exhibits submitted as part of court proceedings usually were returned to the parties involved, but they are sometimes included in the case file.
  • Transcripts are seldom part of the file.
  • Bankruptcy case files also contain petitions of creditors and schedules of assets and liabilities.

Docket books

  • Docket books have lists of each of the documents filed in an individual case. 
  • They can be considered a summary of proceedings in each case.
  • Docket books may have a record of the fees collected and a statement of the disposition of the case.  They will always give the reason for the case.

Minute books or journals

  • These volumes have daily chronological record of court proceedings.
  • They can include information about financial accounts and the collection of fees, lists of jury members, names of attorneys admitted to practice, and the text of orders appointing court officials.

Order or judgment books

  • These volumes have the text of orders and judgments and records of the amounts of monetary judgments.

Records of proceedings (only for U.S. commissioners)

  • These are printed forms that give the names of defendants, summaries of the nature of the charges, the actions taken, and the disposition of the cases.  These are often the only record of commissioner cases.

Naturalization records

  • These records include declarations of intention, petitions for naturalization, depositions, and certificates of naturalization

Some cases include maps and photographs.

Finding Aids

Case numbers can sometimes be determined from indexes in minute, docket, or order books, but these are not available for all courts. Card indexes of defendants and plaintiffs exist for some of the courts. Records for a case can usually be located by case number and name of the court. Additional information may be available from the clerk of the court involved.

Please contact us for more information on finding aids we have may have available for this record group.

Related Microfilm Publications

M1208Indexes to Registers and Registers of Declarations of Intention and Petitions for Naturalization of the U.S. District and Circuit Courts for the Western District of Pennsylvania, 1820-1906
M1232Indexes to Naturalization Records of the U.S. District Court for Western Washington, Northern Division (Seattle), 1890-1952
M1233Indexes to Naturalization Records of the King County Territorial and Superior Courts, 1864-1889 and 1906-1928
M1234Indexes to Naturalization Records of the Thurston County Territorial and Superior Courts, 1850-1974
M1235, Indexes to Naturalization Records of the Snohomish County Territorial and Superior Courts, 1876-1974
M1236Indexes to Naturalization Records of the Montana Territorial and Federal Courts, 1868-1929
M1237Indexes to Naturalization Records of the U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington, Southern Division (Tacoma), 1890-1953
M1238Indexes to Naturalization Records of the Pierce County Territorial and Superior Courts, 1853-1923
M1242Index to the Naturalization Records of the U.S. District Court for Oregon, 1859-1956
M1538Naturalization Records of the U.S. District Courts for the State of Montana, 1891-1929
M1539Naturalization Records of the U.S. District Courts for the State of District of Alaska, 1900-1924