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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

Today’s words are a matter of percentages.

percentage-sign-2It’s very hard for The Legal Genealogist — or anyone else here in the 21st century — to come to grips with the reality of the race-based distinctions the law made only a short time ago.

Even though we find it distasteful, the fact is the law pigeonholed people into various categories based on the percentage of African ancestry they had, and assigned names to those categories.

The language of the law then reflected those distinctions by having names for those the law regarded as non-white.

So we don’t like it. Not one bit.

But we can’t begin to understand the records if we don’t understand the language that was used.

Terms we may see in records we review in researching our families then may include:

• Demi-meamelouc: a person who was “1/32 black, (issue of) white and meamelouc.”1

• Griffe: a person who was “3/4 black, (issue of) Negro and mulatto.” 2

• Marabou: a person who was “5/8 black, (issue of) mulatto and griffe.”3

• Meamelouc: a person who was “1/16 black, (issue of) white and metis.”4

• Métis or métif: a person who was“ 1/8 black, (issue of) white and quarteron.”5

• Mulatto: “a person that is the offspring of a negress by a white man, or of a white woman by a negro”;6 a person who was “1/2 black, (issue of) white and Negro.”7

• Mustizo: “A name given to the issue of an Indian and a negro.”8

• Octoroon: “a person having one quadroon and one White parent and therefore having one-eighth Black blood.”9

• Quadroon: “A person who is descended from a white person and another person who has an equal mixture of the European and African blood”;10 a person who was “1/4 black, (issue of) white and mulatto”.11

• Sacatra: a person who was “7/8 black, (issue of) griffe and Negro.”12

• Sang-mêle: a person who was “1/64 black, (issue of) white and demi-meamelouc.”13

Words like these are hard to accept. Hard to deal with. But it’s part of our history and we have to know what the words meant when we see them.


SOURCES

Image: OpenClipArt, user laobc

  1. John Russell Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms: A Glossary of Words and Phrases Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States, 4th ed. (Boston : Little, Brown, 1877), 422 ; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 12 Jan 2015). Bartlett added: “…these varieties exist in New Orleans, with sub-varieties; and experts pretend to be able to distinguish them.”
  2. Ibid. See also Dupree v. State, 33 Ala. 380 (Ala. 1859).
  3. Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms, 422.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 792, “mulatto.”
  7. Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms, 422.
  8. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 795, “mustizo.”
  9. The Free Dictionary (http://www.thefreedictionary.com : accessed 12 Jan 2015), “octoroon.”
  10. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 970, “quadroon.”
  11. Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms, 422.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
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