How much have you considered the impact local and federal laws had on your ancestors? Laws played a key role in how they did business, earned money, fought wars, and married. I came across an interesting case: Why did the ancestor go free after being convicted of manslaughter after having been “seduced by the instigation of the devil” in Maryland in 1783? Court documents detailed the witness statements and the ruling, but not the sentence. A peek into the early laws of Maryland gave me some clues. Apparently, sometimes rather than being committed to prison, if it was determined that a person had acted in self-defense, a manslaughter sentence meant that the perpetrator was branded on the palm of the hand or the thumb with the letter “M,” something that would never happen today.
It is important and sometimes crucial to our research to be aware of or look for the laws that were part of the records our ancestors made, such as probate laws, land transactions, or military service. It’s not one of the easiest things to look up, but it is worth the effort.
Ideas for Finding Early Laws
- Follow one of the Experts. One of my favorite legal experts is Judy Russell, JD, CG, CGL. Follow her blog at The Legal Genealogist for tips and little known facts about the law and our ancestors.
- Check out your State Law Library or State Archive. Many archives have online searchable references to early laws, such as the Archives of Maryland online or Maryland’s State Law Library.
- Read up about it. Books such as Black’s Law, The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, The Source, and Redbook have sections that talk about laws or legal terminology in context of genealogical research. I am super excited about the new book by Kay Haviland Frelich and William B. Frelich, Genealogy and the Law. I can’t wait to get my copy. Other books, such as Anne Orthwood’s Bastard: Sex and the Law in Early Virginia, may be more specific to the subject and region you are searching for.
Just knowing more about the laws can help us rid ourselves of preconceived ideas of both why our ancestors did something or why they put up with things we do not today. It is especially important to know more about the laws that affected women in our ancestry. In any case, ignorance of the law is no excuse for bad research.
Tell us some interesting legal clues that you’ve uncovered in your history!