A Closer Look at Nauvoo Mayor’s Court and Municipal Court Records

By Sharalyn D. Howcroft

The Joseph Smith Papers website recently began posting records from the Nauvoo mayor’s court and Nauvoo Municipal Court. These records are crucial for understanding Nauvoo’s early legal system. While they have been little used by past scholars, their availability on the website should encourage researchers to reconstruct the interactions of Joseph Smith and other Latter-day Saints with the legal system. Nevertheless, users will notice several deficiencies in the corpus of records as they delve into these documents.

When the Nauvoo city charter was approved in December 1840, it allowed the mayor and city aldermen to act as justices of the peace with jurisdiction over cases involving city ordinances. The charter took effect in February 1841; however, extant records for the mayor’s court start in October 1841, leaving an eight-month gap in the records produced during John C. Bennett’s tenure as mayor and justice of the peace. In May 1842, JS replaced Bennett as mayor and justice and James Sloan began recording the mayor’s court proceedings. Sloan’s docket abruptly terminates in February 1843, when William W. Phelps was elected mayor’s clerk. A handful of loose documents created after this period and references in JS’s journal to mayor’s court cases indicate the court continued to operate after February 1843. These clues suggest that Phelps likely continued the docket in another record book that is not extant.

The Nauvoo charter additionally permitted the mayor to serve as chief justice and the city aldermen to act as associate justices of the Nauvoo Municipal Court. James Sloan served as the first municipal court clerk, and the Nauvoo Municipal Court docket began in March 1842—a little over a year after the charter went into effect. Given Sloan’s penchant for prolific and careful record keeping, he likely kept a docket spanning approximately a year of municipal court proceedings that preceded the extant docket. Intermittent gaps in the loose documents and docket entries from 1843 and 1844 suggest another docket or other records were likely kept by Willard Richards when he was elected municipal court clerk in August 1843.

Gaps in the loose records can be partially explained by the record-keeping practices of Phelps and Sloan. When cases originating in the mayor’s court were appealed to the Hancock County Circuit Court, Phelps simply forwarded the loose records instead of creating certified copies. Sloan occasionally did the same for cases heard before the Nauvoo Municipal Court. This practice of forwarding documents decreased the scribal load for the two clerks but scattered the records. In instances where original records were forwarded to appellate courts, our website has grouped these documents with the court for which the records were originally inscribed. Certified copies of documents forwarded to appellate courts are featured with the appellate case documents to reflect the scribal intention for the versions that appear on www.josephsmithpapers.org.