A Lesson in Assumptions: Introducing Historic Nebraska Law

I didn’t have ancestors in Nebraska. Two distant sidelines settled there. It was not an online law library priority, not in the way that previous states were added. I had research interest in most state pages already built. But Nebraska?

You can guess where this is going.

The U.S. Census Bureau considers Nebraska a Midwest region state. It was the only such state missing from my law library, so it was hard to ignore. Breaking a large project down into smaller chunks makes it feel like something is finished. It was time to finish the Midwest.[1]

I peek at books while building law library pages. I clarify publication dates, familiarize myself with unfamiliar items, and seek items of general interest. I look for my people.

But Nebraska?

I built a Historic Nebraska Statutory Law page, and pages for Historic Nebraska Case Law Digests and Historic Nebraska Legal Periodicals. The page drafts awaited publication. I lacked a blog post theme, a point of interest to introduce the collection. I turned to the books.

It is a simple exercise to look up a family surname in a case digest’s Table of Cases, even when there is no expectation of finding said family there. Something always catches the eye. I went to Page’s Nebraska Digest: A Digest of the Decisions of the Supreme Court of Nebraska and searched for “table of cases.” The table begins on page 2261 of Volume 2.

We all have a family surname or two that we use to test out a database or new resource. I scanned the case table for one of my go-to surnames, Penfield. Just one Penfield entry appears on page 2332, Penfield v. Dawson, etc. Co., 57 Neb. 231.—510.[2]

The table entry and citation tell two things. The 510, set off from the case citation by that period, is the digest page where the case is mentioned; this is in the book set I was using. The case (court opinion) was published in a case reporter, Volume 57 of Nebraska Reports, starting on page 231. I had to find the right volume of Nebraska Reports to read the case. Penfield is common enough. I had no expectations of finding a familiar person. I just hoped for a theme.

Google Books hosts Volume 57 of Nebraska Reports. I opened the book and headed to page 231. Not expecting much comes with its rewards when much is (surprisingly) offered.

I was amazed when I saw the full case name, J. W. Penfield et al., Appellees, v. Dawson Town & Gas Company et al., Appellants. James W. Penfield is my great-great-grandfather. He often appears in records as J. W. Penfield. His business went by variations of the same name. There were conflicts. J. W. Penfield lived in Willoughby, Ohio, and he died in 1897. The Nebraska case was heard in 1898.[3]

I browsed the case, which was about stockholder liability. Land in the Dawson, Iowa, area was mentioned; its “enhanced” value was exchanged for stock. The land produced clay for paving bricks, a hint that I was on the right track. J. W. Penfield and Son manufactured clay works, including bricks, pipes, and drain tile. James was dead in 1898, but his company was not.[4]

A court case provides evidence, but more was required to tie this case to my James. Was I on to something new, or just combining two men (or companies) with the same name?

Newspapers love to publish controversy. I turned to them for insight.

The Omaha Daily Bee carried a story about the case on 22 June 1895. In part:

“J. W. Penfield & Son have recovered a judgment for $1,932 of the Dawson Town and Gas company.” [5]

A business with the name of my ancestor’s company recovered funds from Dawson. But was it the Ohio company? Newspaper evidence suggests yes.

A short item in the 29 April 1890 issue of the Beatrice Daily Express put J. W. Penfield, my great-great-grandfather, smack dab in Nebraska, where I thought that he did not belong.

“Messrs. J. W. Penfield and Lew Thorne, of Willoughby, Ohio, are guests of the Paddock. They are on a tour of the west looking for investment, and are more than favorably impressed with Beatrice.”[6]

J. W. Penfield was surely more impressed with Beatrice than with one Nebraska investment made.

Every record potentially leads to more records. Evidence about J. W. Penfield’s Nebraska connection is still out there, waiting to be found.

What discoveries await you?

Enjoy researching in Nebraska, the final Midwestern state to join the Advancing Genealogist’s online law library.

[1] America Counts Staff, region information, “12 States Make up the Midwest Region of the Country,” United States Census Bureau (https://www.census.gov/library/stories/state-by-state/midwest-region.html : accessed 18 November 2021).
[2] E. C. Page, Digest, Page’s Nebraska Digest: A Digest of the Decisions of the Supreme Court of Nebraska, Vol. 2 (San Francisco, California: Bancroft-Whitney Co., 1902), 2332; digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com : accessed 18 November 2021); Penfield v. Dawson, etc. Co., 57 Neb. 231–240 (1898).
[3] For death, residence, and occupation: “Ohio Deaths and Burials, 1854–1997,” database, FamilySearch.org (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:F6ZT-S2D : accessed 18 November 2021), entry for James W. Penfield, 20 April 1897, at “Cambridgeboro,” PA., residence Willoughby, OH, manufacturer; citing “Record of Deaths, Probate Court, Lake County, O., 189 , pp. 16–17,” imaged from Family History Library film no. 004978863.  “J. W. Penfield,” Telegraph-Forum (Bucyrus, OH), 23 April 1897, p. 7, c. 2; digital images, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/ : accessed 18 November 2021). For company information see note 4.
[4]  For case information: D. A. Campbell, Case Reporter, Reports of Cases in the Supreme Court of Nebraska, Vol. 57 (Lincoln, Nebraska: State Journal Company, 1899), 231–240; digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com : accessed 18 November 2021); Penfield v. Dawson, etc. Co., 57 Neb. 231–240 (1898). For company information: “Combined,” The Bucyrus Evening Telegraph (Bucyrus, OH), 2 September 1896, p. 3, cols. 4–5; digital images, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/ : accessed 18 November 2021). “Where is Penfield?,” The Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, OH), 19 November 1903, p. 2, col. 2; digital images, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/ : accessed 18 November 2021).
[5] “Gas Well that Blew Both Ways,” Omaha Daily Bee (Omaha, NE), 22 June 1895, p. 12, c. 1; digital images, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/ : accessed 18 November 2021).
[6] “Messrs. J. W. Penfield and Lew Thorne…,” The Beatrice Daily Express (Beatrice, NE), 29 April 1890, p. 4, col. 5; digital images, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/ : accessed 18 November 2021).
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2 Responses to A Lesson in Assumptions: Introducing Historic Nebraska Law

  1. Jerry Sherard says:

    Thank you for posting this interesting find and the Nebraska law references..

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