Select Page

How old was he…?

So many times, in genealogy, our ability to construct an argument that this person is related to that person in just this way depends on figuring out just how old somebody was at the time of a specific event.

oregonAnd we often don’t have direct evidence of age in the form of a birth certificate or even a death certificate — even if we could be reasonably confident the information on the death certificate was correct.

So we rely, as researchers, on clues that we extract from other bits and pieces of information we can gather on our subjects.

Things like: how old would he be if he was in the militia? How old did he have to be to marry without parental consent?

And where do we find out how old he’d have to be?

Oh, The Legal Genealogist loves that question.

The answer, of coure, is in the law.

Some of the answers may come directly from a document like a colonial charter, or the statute creating a territory. Some will come from the laws passed by the legislature.

A handful of examples, drawn from early Oregon law, since Oregon is where The Legal Genealogist was this past weekend — and from a time so early it was still a territory of the United States:

• How old did someone have to be to vote in the Oregon Territory? He had to be 21 — and I use the term he with deliberation. The statute creating the territory in 1848 provided that you had to be a “white male inhabitant” to cast your ballot.1 It stayed the same under the Oregon territorial statutes: white, male, age 21 to vote.2

• How old did you have to be to claim federal land in Oregon under the Donation Land Act of 1850? It may surprise you to find teenagers in those early land records — because the law simply said you had to be above the age of eighteen years.3

• If you come across an Oregon court record that says John Smith was served with a copy of a court suit, how old did John Smith have to be? He could have been as young as fourteen under early Oregon law. All that the first civil procedure code required was that the papers be served to “some white person of the family, above the age of fourteen years, at the dwelling-house or usual place of abode of the defendant.”4

• If a witness was subpoenaed to come into court and testify, how old would that witness likely have been? Under Oregon law, unless the court went beyond the usual, the witness would have had to have been at least 10 years old.5

• If that same court file tells us that Joseph Jones is the one who served the subpoena for the witness, how old did Joseph Jones have to be? The evidence code said he’d have had to be at least 18 years of age.6

• And if the records of the trial where the 10-year-old testified say that James Johnson was a member of the jury, do we know how old James Johnson had to be? We do if we look at the statute: he had to be at least 21, but no older than 60.7

• To make a will disposing of real property — land — in early Oregon, a person had to be at least 21 years of age. But he could make a perfectly valid will disposing of personal property at the age of 18.8

• Men listed in a road order — the people responsible for building and maintaining the roads in a neighborhood — had to be between the ages of 21 and 50.9

• To marry in territorial Oregon, a boy had to be 18 years of age and a girl 15 years of age.10 Parental consent was needed if the boy was under age 21 or the girl under age 18.11

Now many of these age provisions give a wide range so it may well be necessary to combine several in order to narrow down an age and make a credible decision whether the individual was this age or that age.

But when no one document provides the answer, every clue we can get is a Good Thing.


  1. §5, Act to Create the Territory of Oregon, in The Statutes of Oregon (Oregon: Asahel Bush, public printer; 1855); digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 26 Oct 2014).
  2. Ibid., §1, Title I, at 64.
  3. Ibid., §4, Donation Land Act of 1850.
  4. Ibid., §29, Title 3, Civil Procedure, at 86.
  5. Ibid., §4, Title 1, Evidence, at 130.
  6. Ibid., §10, at 132.
  7. Ibid., §1, Chapter 1, Jurors, at 188.
  8. Ibid., §1, Chapter 1, Wills, at 384.
  9. Ibid., as to road crews, at 500.
  10. Ibid., §2, Marriages, at 534.
  11. Ibid., §5.
Print Friendly