Papers of Benjamin Kissam, 1755 - 1776
Scope and Contents
Under the name of James Duane, another prominent lawyer and later federal judge, Kissam wrote: “N.B. Mr. Duane Composes Judgments for me and lets me take the fees to my own Use, and I the same to him, therefore the articles charged on the other side for Judgmts. composed by me are not to be charged to him.” (p. 51).
Kissam represented the proprietors of the Kayoderosseras, a huge area of land formerly inhabited by the Mohawk. The Native Americans felt they had been treated unfairly when the land patent was granted to a number of colonists in the early eighteenth century. Kissam’s ledger lists the services he performed for the proprietors in reaching a new settlement with the Mohawk in 1768.
The “Supream Court Register” contains information on the cases Kissam had before that court from 1768 to 1775 (the ledger indicates that he kept other registers for other jurisdictions during this period.). At the beginning of the entry for each case, he lists the names of the plaintiff and defendant, usually the name of the other attorney, and the means by which he got involved in the case. He then describes the actions taken in the case, and the dates as well as his costs and fees. If the case concerned a debt, he noted when and how it was repaid. Occasionally, he had the client sign a statement in the register saying that he would pay Kissam, or that he or she had received from Kissam the money recovered from the case.
Almost all of the cases in the register are civil, and debt is by far the most common type. There are also assumpsit cases, one involving a marriage promise; ejectment for lands in Cortlandt Manor and Oysterbay, as well as Westchester, Albany, Orange, Dutchess, Queens and Ulster Counties; trover and conversion; trespass; assault and battery; and slander.
For the few criminal cases, the entries are not too detailed. In 1772, Kissam represented first a man, and later a woman, who were accused by the Crown of receiving stolen goods. The man was convicted, but the woman was released because the attorney general could produce no witnesses.
In addition to providing details about Kissam’s practice in the appeals court over this seven year period, the register provides the names of 22 other lawyers practicing there. These include James Duane, who is frequently named, and John Jay, a practicing attorney, who is named about a half dozen times. Kissam's notes about how he came to be involved in each case reveal his standing in the professional and social community. Some of his clients were from the wealthiest and most influential New York families, such as DeLancey, DePeyster, Livingston, Van Cortlandt, and Van Rensselaer. Captain Isaac Sears, whose name appears a number of times, was a ship owner and, like many of Kissam’s clients and colleagues, a leader in the revolutionary cause.
Although it has been reported by Jay’s biographers that Kissam was a loyalist, his political views are not evident in these volumes - even as the war was beginning. It is clear that he was well respected by many leaders of the revolution, such as Jay, Duane, and Sears, as well as Peter, Philip, and Robert Livingston, Abraham Ten Broeck and the Rutgers family.
Historical records of the practice of colonial lawyers are extremely rare, and so for that reason alone the Kissam ledger and register are valuable. These manuscripts are all the more important, however, because of Kissam’s association with John Jay and other leaders in the revolutionary era, and because his clientele represented a wide range of colonial New Yorkers.
- Kissam, Benjamin, 1728-1782 (Person)
Biographical / Historical
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