Part 2: How old did folks have to be

A reader asks a wonderful question: how old did folks have to be to do certain things? Part 2 of the answer looks at colonial statutes.

Blog reader Howard Swain wants to use the ages at which folks could legally do things to help calculate likely birth years. A perfect use of circumstantial evidence… as long as you know how old folks had to be to, say, marry, or witness a will or deed, or pay taxes, or serve in the militia.

Laws of Pennsylvania

Statutes outrank common law rules

We’ve already seen that some colonial charters had specific age provisions. Whenever a fundamental document like a colonial charter specified an age, that would trump any other type of law on that subject. But in most cases, the colonial charter or similar document didn’t say. So the next step in finding out how old folks had to be is to go to the specific statutory laws in effect at that time and in that place. They’re called acts or laws or statutes, and sometimes even resolves, and if they contained specific age provisions, then those provisions would outrank any common law rule about how old folks had to be.

The operative phrase here is statutory laws in effect at that time and in that place. We can’t fall into the trap of assuming that all the colonies had similar laws (they didn’t) or assuming that once a colony passed a law on a subject, it didn’t change its mind (it often did, and passed another law).

Consider for example militia service. Generally, colonial militias followed the same pattern as their British predecessors and enrolled males at the age of 16. That was the law as early as 1637 in Connecticut (“all p(e)rsons shall beare Armes that are above the age of sixteen yeeres”),1 by 1718 in New Hampshire (“all male persons from sixteen years of age to sixty … shall bear arms, and duly attend all musters)”2 and by 1715-1716 in North Carolina (“all the Freemen … between the years of Sixteen years & Sixty”).3

But that wasn’t the law in Virginia. There, in 1722, “all free male persons whatsoever, from twenty-one to sixty years of age” were liable for militia service.4 And by 1755, the law had changed so that militia service was required of “all male persons, above the age of eighteen years, and under the age of sixty years.”5

So… where do we find out what the laws were in colonial times? Oh, we are so lucky. Almost all of the early laws are available online or, if not online, then readily available in libraries and sometimes for our own libraries — for free. The vast majority are word-searchable, and searching for “years of age” or “age of” turns up all kinds of information. Many advanced searches also let you do what are called Boolean searches (things like “years” in the same sentence or paragraph as “militia”). The results really cover the waterfront: many early statutes covered everything from militia service to marriage to guardianship and a whole lot more.

Here are some online resources that are just stunning in what they offer (all resources accessed 18 Jan 2012):

Connecticut

Charles J. Hoadly, et al., compilers, The public records of the Colony of Connecticut [1636-1776], 15 volumes (Hartford : various, 1850-1890); digital images, The Internet Archive.

Delaware

(governed as part of Pennsylvania until the Revolution)

Georgia

Robert & George Watkins, editors, A digest of the laws of the state of Georgia From its first establishment as a British province down to the year 1798, inclusive, and the principal acts of 1799 (Philadelphia : R. Aitken & Co., 1800); digital images, The Internet Archive.

Maryland

Archives of Maryland, Legislative Records, Proceedings, Acts and Public Documents of the General Assembly; searchable text.

Massachusetts

The Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay, 21 vols. (Boston : Wright & Potter, state printers, 1869-1922); digital images, The Internet Archive.

New Hampshire

Acts and Laws of His Majestry’s Province of New-Hampshire, in New-England (Portsmouth : Daniel Fowle, 1761); digital images, The Internet Archive.

New Jersey

Bernard Bush, compiler, Laws of the Royal Colony of New Jersey, 1703-1775, New Jersey Archives, 3d series, vols. II-V (Trenton : New Jersey State Library, Archives and History Bureau, 1777-1986). Readily available in libraries and, when available, volumes are free from the New Jersey Department of State.

New York

The Colonial Laws of New York from the Year 1664 to the Revolution, 5 vols. (Albany : James B. Lyon, State Printer, 1894); digital images, Cornell University Library Historical Monographs Collection.

North Carolina

Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Pennsylvania

Staughton George, Benjamin M. Nead, and Thomas McCamant, editors and compilers, Charter to William Penn and Laws of the Province of Pennsylvania Passed Between the Years 1682 and 1700 (Harrisburg : Lane S. Hart, State Printer, 1879); digital images, Google Books.

Rhode Island

[Acts and resolves] At the General Assembly of the governor and company of the English colony of Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations in New-England in America [1747-1800] (n.p., n.d.); digital images, The Internet Archive.

South Carolina

John Faucheraud Grimke, editor, The public laws of the state of South-Carolina, from its first establishment as a British province down to the year 1790, inclusive (Philadelphia : R. Aitken & Co., 1790); digital images, The Internet Archive.

Virginia

William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia from the first session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, 13 vols. (New York, Richmond and Philadelphia : 1819-1823); online transcription by Freddie L. Spradlin, VaGenWeb.


SOURCES

  1. J. Hammond Trumbull, compiler, The public records of the Colony of Connecticut (1636-1665), vol. 1 (Hartford : Brown & Parsons, 1850), 15; digital images, The Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org : accessed 18 Jan 2012).
  2. Act for the Regulating of the Militia, Acts and Laws of His Majestry’s Province of New-Hampshire, in New-England (Portsmouth : Daniel Fowle, 1761), 80; digital images, The Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org : accessed 18 Jan 2012).
  3. Laws of North Carolina, 1715-1716, chapter XXV, Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, Vol. 23: 29; Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
    (http://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/ : accessed 18 Jan 2012)
  4. Laws of May 1723, chap. II, in William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia from the first session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, vol. 4 (Richmond : 1820), 118; online transcription by Freddie L. Spradlin, VaGenWeb (http://vagenweb.org/hening/ : accessed 18 Jan 2012).
  5. Laws of August 1755, chap. II, in ibid., 6: 531.
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12 Responses to Part 2: How old did folks have to be

  1. Suzanne Johnston says:

    Judy:

    I’m learning so much from you and enjoy your writing style.
    Have you used the following website for early Pennsylvania?

    http://www.palrb.us/about/allabout.php

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks so much for the kind words. As to the Pennsylvania site, I had seen reference to it, and just checked it out — wow! What a great resource! Would that all states were as accommodating!

  2. Patti Hobbs says:

    Great post, Judy. Very helpful.

  3. WOW! These two posts have been filled with such good information. With every post I am thankful you started this informative, entertaining and well written blog. Keep writing and we’ll keep reading! Thank you.

  4. Donn Devine says:

    Delaware had a separate legislature from Pennsylvania and its own laws after 1700. Colonial-period laws can be found in Laws of Delaware, Vols. 1 & 2 (Wilmington, 1797), viewable in digital form at the following URLs:

    Vol 1 Del Laws

    http://cdm15323.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/p15323coll1&CISOPTR=3064&REC=1

    Vol. 2 Del Laws

    http://cdm15323.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/p15323coll1&CISOPTR=3065&REC=2

  5. Donn Devine says:

    Please correct earlier citation to read (New Castle, 1797) rather than Wilmington

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Donn, I had some difficulty getting the links to load directly in Firefox. For folks who want to get to the root page, the link is here.

  6. Howard Swain says:

    Thanks. This is what I was hoping for.

    I’ve recently become interested in early Rhode Island — starting in 1636. I wonder if this would have those early laws:
    Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England. Transcribed and edited by John Russell Bartlett, secretary of state. Printed by order of the Legislature. Providence, A. C. Greene, State printers 1856-65. [7 vols cover to 1776; vol 1 starts in 1636]

    Google seems to have a few of the vols, but not the whole set. I haven’t searched elsewhere online.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You’re most welcome, Howard. What a great question you asked! And yes, the Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England would have much of what you’re looking for and all of the volumes (v. 1-10, which also includes early State records) are available in digital format at the Internet Archive.

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