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Those very early Maine laws…

So The Legal Genealogist is getting ready to head off to Maine this weekend for the Maine Genealogical Society’s 2016 Annual Fall Conference in Brewer and, as usual, decided to delve into that state’s early laws.

usa_maine_location_map-svgAnd immediately ran into a snag.

Because there aren’t any early Maine laws.

Oh, it wasn’t all that much of a lawless frontier in the early days of the Republic, no.

It’s just that … well … it wasn’t a state in the early days of the Republic.

The Maine that exists today didn’t come into being until 1820. That’s when Maine became the 23rd state as part of the Missouri Compromise, which allowed Missouri to enter the union as a slave state and Maine as a free state.1

So the laws of the State of Maine begin with the adoption of the Constitution of 1820, “in order to establish justice, ensure tranquillity, provide for our mutual defence, promote our common welfare, and secure to ourselves and our posterity the blessings of liberty,”2 and in the adoption of a fairly comprehensive set of laws at a first session of the Legislature there in 1820-21.3

Now there are some pretty interesting laws in that first set of state laws passed in 1820-21 and published by order of the Legislature of March 1821. Among them:

• A law that made it illegal to dig up or remove dead bodies.4

• A law that made it illegal to take a dead body in order to try to collect a debt.5

• A law that made it illegal to sell bad or unwholesome food.6

• A law that sought to control damage from fireworks.7

• A law that said a murder case had to be tried in the county where the death occurred, even if the mortal wound was inflicted elsewhere. And that was the same rule if the victim was “feloniously stricken, poisoned or injured, on the high seas.”8

Before 1820, well… that’s a different story.

Because, of course, before 1820, the area that today is Maine was part of Massachusetts. Or… well … maybe part of New York. Or both.

You see, in the 1600s there were mostly competing claims to parts of what is today Maine.

The Charter of the Council of Plymouth, the 1620 charter from King James to a bunch of English nobles, is the first real part of Maine’s legal history and it put what is modern-day Maine into the same territory as modern Massachusetts under English nobles.9 Part of the territory was granted in 1669 to the Duke of York by Charles II, and that put it under the control of what became New York.10

Of course, the English claims weren’t the only ones either: the French claimed the area as well and their claims were contested until the middle of the 18th century when the French and Indian War was fought.11

So the legal history of early Maine includes a little bit of this and a little bit of that…

The best early reference is the Maine Historical Society’s Province and Court Records of Maine.12 A now-four-volume set, this reference set covers all of the surviving records of the courts of the day (1607-1691, that is) — and it really was the courts that ran the show.

There was a lot of jockeying for control during that time, with land grants for parts of Maine being issued by local nobility in Maine, by the colonists in Massachusetts, by those in New York, and don’t forget the French.

Finally, the English got their act together with a totally new charter for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691, and that put Maine under the control of Massachusetts as a district of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts starting in 1691.

And that means, for the most part, the early laws of Maine are the early laws of Massachusetts, and you need to look at the Acts and Resolves Passed by the General Court of Massachusetts.13

But only until 1820. When Maine started passing its own laws.

Like “An Act respecting Houses of Correction, and for suppressing and punishing of Rogues, Vagabonds, common Beggars and other idle and disorderly persons.”14

Or “An Act for the preservation of certain Fish.”15

Or… sigh… warming the cockles of our genealogical hearts… “An Act for recording Births and Deaths by the Clerks of Towns”…16

Just remember, though, that the very earliest Maine laws … aren’t in Maine at all.


SOURCES

  1. Maine,” History.com (http://www.history.com/ : accessed 11 Sep 2016).
  2. Preamble, Maine Constitution of 1820, in Laws of the State of Maine, 2 vols. (Brunswick, Me. : State Printer, 1821), I: 21; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 11 Sep 2016).
  3. See ibid.
  4. Ibid., “An Act to protect the Sepulchres of the Dead,” I: 93.
  5. Ibid., “An Act to prevent the arrest of Dead Bodies,” I: 93.
  6. Ibid., “An Act against selling unwholesome Provisions,” I: 104.
  7. Ibid., “An Act to prevent damage from firing Crackers, Squids, Serpents and Rockets within the State,” I: 115.
  8. Ibid., §§40-41, “An Act regarding Judicial Process and proceedings,” I: 266.
  9. See Michael G. Chiorazzi and Marguerite Most, Prestatehood Legal Materials: A Fifty-State Research Guide (New York: Haworth Inf. Press, 2005), 482.
  10. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “History of Maine,” rev. 29 Aug 2016.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Charles Thornton Libby, et al., editors, Province and Court Records of Maine, 4 vols. (Portland, Me. : Maine Historical Society, 1928-1958).
  13. See generally “Massachusetts Acts and Resolves Available in the Internet Archive,” Massachusetts State Library (http://www.mass.gov/anf/research-and-tech/oversight-agencies/lib/ : accessed 11 Sep 2016).
  14. “An Act respecting Houses of Correction, and for suppressing and punishing of Rogues, Vagabonds, common Beggars and other idle and disorderly persons” in Laws of the State of Maine, 2 vols. (Brunswick, Me. : State Printer, 1821), I: 451; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 11 Sep 2016).
  15. Ibid., “An Act for the preservation of certain Fish,” II: 773.
  16. Ibid., “An Act for recording Births and Deaths by the Clerks of Towns,” II: 596.
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