The analysis of markets, courts, and civil litigation on the northeastern frontier of the United States provides a valuable opportunity to assess the evolution of institutions during economic development. The data set pools longitudinal and cross-sectional observations on 30,000 lawsuits filed in Maine during the critical period between 1700 and 1860. The earliest legal institutions moderated both social and economic norms, but courts quickly began to specialize in commercial issues. The residence of debtors and creditors and changes in spatial characteristics over time yield insights into the nature and extent of capital markets and impersonal exchange. The distribution and disposition of property and debt cases indicate that early markets were well developed and orderly; the evidence of “social tension” between debtors and creditors was minimal. The results do not support the standard claim of a transition from interactions based on community norms to impersonal market exchange late in the eighteenth century.

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