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Today, the term red tape is shorthand for bureaucracy, but before there was red tape, there was red ribbon. It was used to bind government documents. Archivists in St. Louis have been cutting through a lot of it lately. They just finished preserving and digitizing 11,000 legal documents.

The documents date back to the period right after the Civil War. They include vivid details about sunken steamboats, marriages, runaway slaves, and Confederate raids and life in a nation struggling to recover from war.

Matt Sepic of member station KWMU in St. Louis has the story.

MATT SEPIC: When Mariano Favazza was elected St. Louis circuit court clerk a decade ago, someone handed him a manila envelope. On it was the signature of his predecessor, along with an important message.

Mr. MARIANO FAVAZZA (Circuit Court Clerk, St. Louis): Keep forever. That's kind of how we kept the papers safe.

SEPIC: Inside was the case of Dred Scott, the Missouri slave who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom. Favazza says state archivists, flush with grant money, preserved these documents and sealed them in a vault. After that, they started sorting through thousands of other court files. These aren't in the history or law books, but cases from 1866 through '68, after the Civil War, tell of a growing city in a former slave state struggling with its past.

A former slave owner sued a steamboat captain for transporting a runaway. The captain still had to pay, even after slavery was abolished. A rural merchant tried to recover money after Confederates seized his store. He got nothing. Missouri state archivist Michael Everman says the most tragic cases are the hundreds of marriages that failed after the war.

Mr. MICHAEL EVERMAN (Archivist, Missouri): People would be reading and say, oh, my god, this guy was drunk all the time and he exposed himself and slept with their 10-year-old daughter, and this kind of stuff that they would bring out in the divorces.

SEPIC: One involved prominent St. Louis attorney Britton Hill. His wife accused him of abuse and adultery. Britton later claimed she tried to kill him with natural gas as he slept. Even though these cases can make for a depressing read, Everman enjoys being the one state worker who literally gets to cut through red tape.

Mr. EVERMAN: We would take scissors and just snip it.

SEPIC: That's the red ribbon lawyers tied around legal documents. Once the tri-folded pages are cleaned and flattened, they tell other stories of sunken steamboats, wartime loyalty oaths and unpaid debts. Everman says there's a common theme running through all this 19th-century legalese.

Mr. EVERMAN: This shows the interactions and relationships between people and institutions, and some of those institutions were different than what they had had to deal with before the war.

SEPIC: These cases didn't set precedents, and some are pretty boring, but fellow archivist Pat Barge says this everyday legal wrangling does open a window on the past.

Ms. PAT BARGE (Archivist, Missouri): To actually be able to see documents that have historical value, if not academically, certainly to somebody's genealogy, doing genealogical research, that's never lost.

SEPIC: Any scrap of information, even a name mentioned once in a deposition, can prove the existence of an ancestor. Now that these documents have been catalogued and preserved, another team will scan them digitally so academics and genealogists alike can peruse them online. The post-Civil War years may have been the start of a more litigious society, but Mariano Favazza, the court clerk, says we shouldn't be so cynical. It's always better to argue in a courtroom than on a battlefield.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in St. Louis.

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