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Recorded forever in the laws

The Legal Genealogist believes it 100%: there isn’t very much in genealogy that’s quite as much fun as a good juicy divorce.

Divorce records often disclose details we can’t find elsewhere: things like the maiden names of the wives and relationships to children.

So it’s a joy to come across a record that tells us, for example, that between December 14, 1860, and January 31, 1861, the following people got divorces:

• Patrick Coyle and Ann Coyle, and Ann was given “custody of their child, John Coyle, a minor or ten years of age.”1

• Owen Connelly and Sarah Connelly, with Sarah being given “custody of her daughter, Ann Connelly,” and Sarah being “restored to her maiden name, Sarah Lancaster.”2

• Carson D. Boren and Mary, his wife.3

• William R. Stocking and Isabella Stocking.4

• Francis W. Hughes and Ellen Hughes, with Ellen “restored to the title of her maiden name, to wit: Ellen Haven.”5

• John Cantwell and Ann Cantwell.6

• E.H. Thompson and Elizabeth B. Thompson.7

• Thomas W. Avery and Elizabeth Avery.8

• Samuel W. Baldwin and Rachel Minerva Baldwin.9

• William Webster and Catharine Webster, with Catharine being given “the custody, care and control of the minor children, the issue of said marriage, respectively named Catharine and William.”10

• William W. Fuller and Luka Kaway Fuller.11

• D.D. Bordwell and Mary Ann Bordwell, with Mary Ann getting “sole custody and control of her children, to wit: Catharine Bordwell, Rebecca Bordwell, H.D. Bordwell and Martha Jane Bordwell.”12

• John DeShaw and Agnes DeShaw.13

• Robert Anderson and Sarah Emma Anderson, with Sarah’s name changed to Sarah Emma Relyen.14

• Isaac Boggs and Mina A. Boggs, with Mina “restored to her maiden name, Mina A. Kimball.”15

• James Cawley and Joanna Cawley, with Joanna’s name changed to Joanna McCarty.16

• Richard Blake and Lauhallen Blake.17

That’s the kind of record set that makes any genealogist smile… and you won’t find it in any courthouse.

Because those divorces, in the Territory of Washington, were not granted by a court. They were granted by the Territorial Legislature, and the record you need to look at will be those session laws I wrote about yesterday.18

Yep, I’m off in the local laws again, preparing for this weekend’s spring seminar of the Tacoma-Pierce County Genealogical Society in Tacoma (walk-ins are welcome Saturday — just sayin’ …) and this time looking at some real treasures in the statute books.

These are what are called private laws: laws passed for the benefit of individuals or private entities and that have no general effect. Think for example of these divorces or putting someone on a pension list or appropriating money to pay a bill. By definition, priuvate laws include “all that part of the law which is administered between citizen and citizen, or which is concerned with the definition, regulation, and enforcement of rights in cases where both the person in whom the right inheres and the person upon whom the obligation is incident are private individuals.”19

If a law does have a general effect — say, a tax law or that law that says we have to wear our seatbelts — that’s a public law: “a law or statute that applies to the people generally of the nation or state adopting or enacting it, is denominated a public law, as contradistinguished from a private law, affecting only an individual or a small number of persons.”20

Private laws are wonderful things for genealogical research. And they’re published in those volumes of laws passed every year by the legislature, federal and state, which means they’re usually digitized and online somewhere and can be found through some form of word search.

Private laws cover a lot more than just divorces. Any time somebody wanted to set up a ferry or a toll road or to build a bridge or to incorporate a college or a bank, and in so many cases where money needed to be appropriated, a private law was enacted.

Spend some time with the statutes and session laws of any jurisdiction where your people lived.

You just may find them — and that elusive maiden name or proof that that child really was the child of that person — in the private laws of the time and place.


SOURCES

  1. “An Act to Dissolve the Bonds of Matrimony between Patrick Coyle and Ann Coyle, his wife,” 14 Dec 1860, in Session Laws of the Territory of Washington … 1860 (Olympia, Wash. : James Lodge, Public Printer, 1861), 71; digital images, “Session Laws,” Office of the Code Reviser, Washington State Legislature (http://leg.wa.gov/ : accessed 26 Apr 2017).
  2. Ibid., “An Act to Dissolve the Bonds of Matrimony Existing between Owen Connelly and Sarah Connelly…,” 15 Dec 1860, at 73.
  3. Ibid., “An Act to Dissolve the Bonds of Matrimony between Carson D. Boren and Mary, his wife,” 17 Dec 1860, at 74.
  4. Ibid., “An Act to Dissolve the Bonds of Matrimony between William R. Stocking and Isabella Stocking,” 9 Jan 1861, at 81.
  5. Ibid., “An Act to Dissolve the Bonds of Matrimony Existing between Patrick Coyle and Ann Coyle, his wife,” 10 Jan 1861, at 83-84.
  6. Ibid., “An Act to Dissolve the Bonds of Matrimony Heretofore Existing between John Cantwell and Ann Cantwell, his wife,” 14 Jan 1861, at 92.
  7. Ibid., “An Act to Dissolve the Bonds of Matrimony between E.H. Thompson and Elizabeth Thompson,” 15 Jan 1861, at 92.
  8. Ibid., “An Act to Dissolve the Bonds of Matrimony between Thomas W. Avery and Elizabeth Avery, his wife,” 15 Jan 1861, at 93.
  9. Ibid., “An Act to Dissolve the Bonds of Matrimony between Samuel W. Baldwin and Rachel Minerva Baldwin,” 21 Dec 1860, at 101.
  10. Ibid., “An Act to Dissolve the Bonds of Matrimony between Samuel W. Baldwin and Rachel Minerva Baldwin,” 21 Jan 1861, at 101-102.
  11. Ibid., “An Act to Dissolve the Bonds of Matrimony Existing between Wm. W. Fuller and his wife, Luka Kaway Fuller, ” 21 Jan 1861, at 102.
  12. Ibid., “An Act to Dissolve the Bonds of Matrimony Existing between D.D. Bordwell and Mary Ann Bordwell, his wife,” 21 Jan 1861, at 102-103.
  13. Ibid., “An Act to Dissolve the Bonds of Matrimony between John DeShaw and Agnes DeShaw, his wife,” 21 Jan 1861, at 103.
  14. Ibid., “An Act to Dissolve the Bonds of Matrimony Existing between Robert Anderson and Sarah Emma Anderson, his wife,” 31 Jan 1861, at 103-104.
  15. Ibid., “An Act to Dissolve the Bonds of Matrimony Existing between Isaac Boggs and Mina A. Boggs, his wife,” 18 Jan 1861, at 110.
  16. Ibid., “An Act to Dissolve the Bonds of Matrimony Existing between James Cawley and Joanna Cawley,” 31 Jan 1861, at 131.
  17. Ibid., “An Act to Dissolve the Bonds of Matrimony Existing between Richard Blake and Lauhallen Blake,” 31 Jan 1861, at 131.
  18. See Judy G. Russell, “For Washingtonians too,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 26 Apr 2017 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 27 Apr 2017).
  19. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 940, “private law.”
  20. Ibid., 963, “public law.”
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