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The stories in the law book

There are always stories to be found in those dusty old law books.

Sometimes the most powerful and compelling stories of all.

And all we need to do is look for them.

Case in point: a set of pages in the back of a volume entitled The Revised Code of the Laws of Mississippi, a book of laws in effect in that State as of the end of the year 1823,1 in which The Legal Genealogist was poking around in anticipation of this Saturday’s seminar at the Mississippi Genealogical Society in Pearl.

PriLawsStarting at page 558 and running through to page 650 is what the compilers of these laws referred to as a Summary of Private and Local Acts. These were the statutes passed not to affect all of the citizens of Mississippi generally, but rather for the benefit of some individual or individuals, or for some local purpose like setting an election.

The laws begin with a group authorizing the sales of real estate by executors, administrators and guardians. There, you can find, for example, that the executors of Hannah Curtis were allowed to sell lands that she owned when she died, including “an undivided share of a tract of land which she claimed, (as one of the heirs or legatees) of her deceased father, Samuel Sweezey.”2 Not a bad find, for a few lines of text: the existence of a will, likely of a widow, and the name of her father.

You can learn, in those same real estate sale pages, that Amy Blanchard was the widow of Thomas Blanchard of Adams County, that Jane Green was the widow of Henry Green of Jefferson County,3 that Eliza Darrach was the widow of James Darrach of Claiborne County,4 and that Nancy Carrill was the widow of William Carrill of Adams County, and that William left children including Thomas, Manoria, Charity, Eliza Ann and Polly.5

Reading on, you can find that freedom was granted to many of the residents of early Mississippi in the form of divorces:

• Elizabeth Hutchins was divorced from John Hutchins, and allowed to sue him to “recover the property which of right belongs to her, and which was given for advancement in marriage.”6

• Elizabeth Whittle was divorced from Richard Whittle, and Richard had “no right to any real or personal estate acquired by said Elizabeth, since the year 1787, nor to any estate real or personal, given her in marriage.”7

• John Peake was divorced from his wife Phebe.8

• Elizabeth Roach was divorced from Benjamin Roach, and her name changed to Elizabeth Greenfield.9

And that’s not all. Read on, and you find that freedom from the sting of illegitimacy was granted to other residents of the state:

• Sarah, John and Peggy Irons and Crawford, Polly and James McGalgin Davis all had their last names changed to Sprowl as they were recognized as the natural children and legitimate heirs of John Sprowl.10

• William Murfee’s name was changed to William Knowland and he was recognized as the legitimate child of Pharoah Knowland.11

• Catherine Lewis Hartley was recognized as a natural child and lawful heir of William Lewis.12

At the same time, “Alexander Foster, Elizabeth Jacobs, Peggy Jeffres, Rebecca Foster, Moses Foster, William Foster, Hugh Foster, James Foster, and Mary Foster, children of Moses Foster, by a Choctaw woman, are declared to be released from their civil disabilities, so far as to enable them to inherit real and personal property, according to law, sue and be sued, give testimony in courts of law and equity, and the males to vote at elections and serve in the militia as other citizens of the state: Provided, that the said Alexander, Elizabeth, Peggy, Rebecca, Moses, William, Hugh, James, and Mary, shall, as soon as they arrive at the age of twenty one years, go into the county court of Claiborne county, and there, by some proper instrument of writing, signed by each of their names, discharge themselves from all their Indian privileges, and signify their assent to the provisions of this act….”13

Even more powerful stories appear in the pages under the heading “Persons Emancipated”:

• William Barland of Adams County was allowed to set free “a female, named Elizabeth, and her twelve children” all of whom were acknowledged to be William’s children: Andrew Barland, Elizabeth Barland alias Elizabeth Germain, Margaret Barland alias Margaret Henderson, James Barland, William Barland Jr., Adam Barland, David Barland, George Barland, Alexander Barland, John Barland, Agnes alias Anna Barland, and Susanna Barland.14

• Mary, late the slave and wife, now widow, of Ben Vousden of Adams County, a free person of color, and their five children Louisa, Rachel, Sandy, Mary Ann and Benjamin, were all freed, but the children were subject to being bound out until age 21 for the son and 18 for the daughters “to be treated and provided for in all respects as apprentices” and recognized as heirs to Ben’s estate.15

• A mulatto girl Isabella, daughter of John Baptiste Nicaisse was freed as long as her father posted a bond that she would not become a public charge.16

• And perhaps the most remarkable of all: John Hopkins, Esq., of Jefferson County, was allowed to set free a girl named Lucinda Jefferson, and the girl was “invested with all the rights, privileges and immunities of any other free white female in this state.” The statute reported that Hopkins “did, some years ago, purchase the said girl as a slave, whom he then believed and still believed to be the offspring of free white parents, who had, by fraud, been made to pass as a slave; And the said John Hopkins having represented to the general assembly, that it is his wish that the said girl be restored to her natural and civil rights.”17

Yes, indeed, there are always stories to be found in those dusty old law books.

Sometimes the most powerful and compelling stories of all.

As long as we take the time and look for them.


SOURCES

  1. The Revised Code of the Laws of Mississippi… 1823 (Natchez: Francis Baker, 1824), 418; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 27 Jan 2016).
  2. Ibid., 558.
  3. Ibid., at 559.
  4. Ibid., at 563.
  5. Ibid., at 568-569.
  6. Ibid. at 571.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., at 573.
  9. Ibid., at 575.
  10. Ibid., at 576.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid. at 577.
  13. Ibid., at 577.
  14. Ibid., at 578.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid. at 579.
  17. Ibid., at 580-581.
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