Source Information

Ancestry.com. Washington D.C., Habeas Corpus Case Records, 1820-1863 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013.
Original data:

Habeas Corpus Case Records, 1820–1863, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Microfilm publication M434, 2 rolls. Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21. The National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

About Washington D.C., Habeas Corpus Case Records, 1820-1863

Translated literally, habeas corpus means “that you have the body,” and as a legal concept its roots date back to English common law. A writ of habeas corpus was a court order to a jailer (or some other person who was detaining another individual) to have the detained person brought into court to determine whether the prisoner was being held by due process.

This database includes writs of habeas corpus from the U.S. Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, dating from 1820 through 1863. The records include criminal matters, financial disputes and bankruptcy, apprenticeships, family matters, and military cases. Records may include the following details:

  • names and aliases
  • ages
  • places of residence
  • names of family members and witnesses
  • occupations
  • reason for confinement
  • outcome

African Americans in the Records
This collection can be helpful in African American research because it includes writs of habeas corpus for individuals who were detained as runaway servants or slaves. In some cases, you’ll find the names of witnesses attesting to a detainee’s free or slave status.