Staying on top of records access issues

The Legal Genealogist has said it before and will say it again and again:

As genealogists, we need to be in the forefront of records access issues. If we can’t see the documents that give us the evidence we need, of relationships and more, then our research results will suffer.1

It really is up to us, as individuals and as a community to stay on top of records access issues, to understand them, and to speak out whenever the need arises.

Alert IconIssues like the loss of access to the last three years of the Social Security Death Index.2

Issues like the Kansas Supreme Court rule on marriage records that went into effect in October of last year, that means that marriage information that had been publicly available for decades is no longer accessible.3

Issues like the new European Union rules on privacy that may threaten even Holocaust research.4

These and so many other issues come up, all the time, and threaten our ability to access the information we want and need.

Now I know it’s easy to say that we need to stay on top of these issues.

But today, thanks to the work of others, it’s also a whole lot easier than it used to be to do.

Thanks, in particular, to the work of others that we can take advantage of — delivered right to our email in-boxes.

First, head on over to the website of the Records Preservation & Access Committee (RPAC), at Use the Subscribe to Blog via Email link in the upper right hand corner to have new posts from RPAC delivered right into your email from this joint genealogical committee focusing on nothing but records access issues.

RPAC’s sponsoring members are the National Genealogical Society (NGS), the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS) and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS), and participating members are the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG), the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGen), the American Society of Genealogists (ASG), ProQuest and

Second, head on over to the FGS website itself, and to the additional blog RPAC has available there at There you can read through older posts that will explain a lot of the background of some ongoing issues. I don’t think you need to subscribe to posts at this older site, but you can if you want to be sure not to miss something that accidentally gets posted only at this older blog rather than the new one. Use the icon on the right hand side of the black navigation bar at the top.

More importantly, however, this site is a resource for explanations and materials before the launch of the site.

Finally — and boy is this ever a “last but not least” part of staying on top of records access issues — the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) has an announcement list, the IAJGS Records Access Alert. When it was started up some time ago, it was only open to select groups. But at the IAJGS 2015 October Board meeting, IAJGS made the wonderful decision to open the Alert list to anyone who is interested in records access.

Subscribing to this list is a little more complicated, so let me run through the steps:

1. Head over to this link to sign up.

2. Enter your email address in the first box for the sign-up.

3. Enter a first name, a last name and an organization in the second box. You can use your local society as your organization — and you can use Legal Genealogist if you don’t belong to a local society.5 (John Doe Legal Genealogist will work, but only if your name is John Doe…)

4. Optionally, you can choose a password so nobody else can change your subscription — but be aware this isn’t much of a security check, and the password may be emailed to you occasionally, so don’t use the one you use for, say, your banking.

5. Check the radio button if you want to get one daily digest (on those days when there may be more than one announcement).

6. Wait until you get a confirming email from the list, and then click on the link in the email to validate your subscription.

That’s it: you’ll then be subscribed, and get the announcements from the list. It’s only for announcements, not discussion. This isn’t a chat list so the only email you’ll get will be the announcements and alerts. That means, of course, that you’re only going to get an email when there’s something important to be aware of, and not just on a routine daily or weekly basis.

Be aware, of course, that the best source of information about threats to records access is the community itself. It really is a “see-something-say-something” situation. If you become aware of an issue with records access in your areas, you can let RPAC know at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , and you can alert IAJGS at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Records access isn’t something we can take for granted — and it’s not a responsibility we can leave to someone else. We all need to stay informed and to speak out when necessary.

Join in by staying aware… and staying alert.


  1. See, e.g., Judy G. Russell, “Staying alert,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 3 Nov 2015 ( : accessed 19 May 2016).
  2. See ibid., “SSDI access now limited,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 30 Dec 2013. And see 42 U.S.C. §1306c.
  3. See “Kansas Supreme Court Rule would redact Marriage Certificates,” RPAC blog, posted 1 April 2015 ( : accessed 19 May 2016).
  4. See Sam Sokol, “Could new European digital privacy laws hurt Holocaust research?,” Jerusalem Post, posted 27 Oct 2015 ( : accessed 19 May 2016).
  5. Yes, I do have permission from IAJGS for you to do that!
Posted in General, Records Access | 2 Comments

Milking every detail

On the 6th day of December 1909, Carrie H. Viereck of Kent County, Delaware, was appointed guardian of the four Viereck children: Henry W., Jr., who was 15 years of age; Elizabeth V., who was 11; Mary M., who was four; and Bertha S., who was two.

Del-guardianShe was, she said in her petitions for the younger children, the widow of Henry W. Viereck, who died intestate on the 24th of October 1909, and entitled to dower in the real estate of her late husband, several small rental properties and other lots worth about $3,500 total.

The children were each entitled to a one-fourth undivided interest in their father’s estate, and the older two were the named beneficiaries for a life insurance policy worth $2,000.1

Now by the early 20th century it wasn’t all that unusual for a mother to be named guardian of her children when they were inheriting property from their father, and in this case the oldest boy, Henry Jr., who was over the age of 14 and so entitled to choose a guardian, asked to have Carrie appointed.

So this is a simple, typical, family, where the father died and the mother took over and, with court approval, managed her children’s property, right?

Not exactly.

There are two clues in what The Legal Genealogist has already told you about this case that things may not have been exactly what they seem on the surface.

You’ve spotted both of them, I’m sure, and you may be wondering about those two not-quite-adding-up facts.

The first, of course, is the seven-year age gap between Elizabeth, the 11-year-old, and Mary, the four-year-old. By itself, not all that unusual: child mortality may have taken a toll in the intervening years.

But add in the second fact: that only the older two children were named as beneficiaries of the insurance policy. Now you have a reason to think twice about this family.

And that’s where the reading every word part comes in.

Because Henry Jr.’s guardianship papers add a key word to the mix here. His petition for the appointment of a guardian reads, in relevant part, that “he is a minor above the age of fourteen years … and … prays the Court to appoint his said step-mother, Carrie H. Viereck as his guardian…”2

Step-mother, not mother.

And if Carrie was Henry Jr.’s step-mother, and Henry Jr. and Elizabeth are the two being treated differently, then she was likely Elizabeth’s step-mother as well.

You can confirm that theory, in this case, by looking at the census records for 1910. Carrie was the head of household on that census in Milford, shown with her step-son Henry William, step-daughter Elizabeth V., and daughters Mary M. and Bertha S. More, she’s shown as mother of only three children, all three surviving, and there’s also a 12-year-old son Harold E. Henry in the household.3

Now that tells us something about Carrie’s relationship to these older two children. That oldest boy didn’t have to choose her as his guardian. He could have opted for someone from his father’s family, if any had lived in the area, or some adult friend, or a neighbor. So they must have been getting along reasonably well.

And that’s borne out by reading every word and milking every detail from the rest of the file. Because when the boy grew to be a man, he married and moved to Philadelphia — and sold what remained of his interest in his father’s estate to that step-mother Carrie.4

Reading every word, you’d pick up the fact that the boy turned 21 on the 8th of January 1915 (so you now have his exact birthday: 8 January 1894), that he had by then married a woman named Elizabeth, and that he sold his rights in the property to Carrie by deed dated 10 April 1915.5

And, reading every word, you’d pick up the fact that his sister Elizabeth turned 21 by the time the estate was finally settled in 1920: she turned 21 on 23 February 1920 (so you now have her exact birthday: 23 February 1899).6

There’s more, of course, to be found in this file, as there is in just about every court file on just about every family.

As long as you read every word.

And milk every detail.


  1. Kent County, Del., Orphans’ Court Record 1909-20, #55, Estate of Henry W. Viereck Sr., Petitions for Appointment of Guardian; digital images, “Delaware Orphan Court Records, 1680-1978 > Kent > Orphans’ Court records 1889-1967” FamilySearch ( : accessed 18 May 2016), citing Delaware Public Archives, Dover.
  2. Ibid., Petition of Henry W. Viereck of Milford, Kent Co., Del., September term 1909.
  3. 1910 U.S. census, Kent County, Delaware, Milford, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 20, p. 184(A) (stamped), dwelling/family 2, Carrie H. Viereck household; digital image, ( : accessed 18 May 2016); citing National Archive microfilm publication T624, roll 145.
  4. Kent County, Del., Orphans’ Court Record 1909-20, #55, Estate of Henry W. Viereck Sr., Petition for Partition, 7 Feb 1920.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., Confirmation and Decree for Distribution, 6 March 1920.
Posted in General, Methodology | 1 Comment

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

In the December 1865 term of the District Court for Poweshiek County, Iowa, Job Cushman sued George W. Chambers and Eliza Jane Chambers, his wife.

lienThe petition of the plaintiff Cushman sought the foreclosure of a mortgage against both of the defendants and judgment on a vendor’s lien against George W. Chambers arising out of the sale by Cushman to the Chamberses of the northeast quarter of Section 16, Township 81 North, Range 16 West in Poweshiek County.1

Now… most of us know what a mortgage is. Unless we happened to inherit real property … or a ton of money … from our parents or some earlier generation, most of us have or have had mortgages to buy our homes. We know, then, that by definition, a mortgage is:

An estate created by a conveyance absolute in its form, but intended to secure the performance of some act, such as the payment of money, and the like, by the grantor or some other person, and to become void if the act is performed agreeably to the terms prescribed at the time of making such conveyance.

A conditional conveyance of land, designed as a security for the payment of money, the fulfillment of some contract, or the performance of some act, and to be void upon such payment, fulfillment, or performance.

A debt by specialty, secured by a pledge of lands, of which the legal ownership is vested in the creditor, but of which, in equity, the debtor and those claiming under him remain the actual owners, until debarred by judicial sentence or their own laches.

Mortgage is a right granted to the creditor over the property of the debtor for the security of his debt, and gives him the power of having the property seized and sold in default of payment.2

Sigh… The language of the law. It’s that last one most of us know today, the granting of a right to a creditor to secure a debt. In most states, these days, title to the land stays with the buyer and the creditor only gets the right to come after the land if the mortgage or other debt isn’t paid.3

In the Cushman case, the mortgage debt was clearly a debt for the purchase of the land itself — sometimes called a purchase money mortgage.

But what’s this lien business? And particularly what’s a vendor’s lien?

The definition of a lien should sound very familiar:

A qualified right of property which a creditor has in or over specific property of his debtor, as security for the debt or charge or for performance of some act.

In every case in which property, either real or personal, is charged with the payment of a debt or duty, every such charge may be denominated a lien on the property.4

And a vendor’s lien was a very particular kind of lien: “A lien for purchase money remaining unpaid, allowed in equity to the vendor of land, when the statement of receipt of the price in the deed is not in accordance with the fact.”5

So, in other words, a mortgage is generally a type of lien — that secured interest in specific land for payment of a debt — and a vendor’s lien is an even more specific type of lien, for a balance owed in the Cushman v. Chambers case on a promissory note given in addition to the mortgage.


  1. Poweshiek County, Iowa, District Court Record Book B: 1, Cushman v. Chambers, December term 1865; ; digital images, “Iowa, Poweshiek County Probate, School, and Court Records, 1850-1954 > District Court complete record, 1854-1863, vol B,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 17 May 2016).
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 789-790, “mortgage.”
  3. See generally Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School ( : accessed 17 May 2016), “mortgage.”
  4. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 719, “lien.”
  5. Ibid., 1213, “vendor’s lien.”
Posted in Legal definitions | 1 Comment

The records of renunciation

It is a strong word, the word renounce.

To the ordinary dictionary, it means “to give up, refuse, or resign usually by formal declaration (renounce his errors).”1

To the law, it means to “reject; cast off; repudiate; disclaim; forsake; abandon; divest one’s self of a right, power, or privilege. Usually it implies an affirmative act of disclaimer or disavowal.”2

Burlington.renounceAnd to the genealogist, it means a terrific set of records, useful in proving family relationships beyond almost any other set of records we might ever hope to find.

Particularly when it appears in the context of the second definition given in the law dictionaries: that of renouncing probate. Meaning, in English practice, “refusing to take upon one’s self the office of executor or executrix. Refusing to take out probate under a will wherein one has been appointed executor or executrix.”3 Or, just as commonly in American practice, the act of declining to serve as administrator of an estate when the law would have given the person preference to act in that role.

Case in point: the volumes of renunciations filed with the Surrogate– the chief probate officer — of Burlington County, New Jersey, between 1878 and 1908 that The Legal Genealogist came across last night, digitized on FamilySearch. (And why, yes, I am speaking this Saturday, May 21, at the Burlington County Historical Society, at 2 p.m. — come on out and join us!)

New Jersey law at the time, like the law of most jurisdictions, gave preference in administering an estate to the spouse and then next of kin of any person who died without a will. If none of them would serve, then the court would appoint someone else, often someone the family asked to have appointed.4 And many family members didn’t want to serve, didn’t feel capable of serving, or had agreed that someone else would be better.

So they filed renunciations — formal statements declining to serve.

These are not long documents. They’re filled with boilerplate language. Only rarely is a particular reason given for not serving, as, for example, when Sterling Bonsall renounced his appointment as executor and trustee of the will of Joshua Eyre in 1879 and explained: “the property is in another state and my health will not allow of attending to his wishes and administering on his Estate…”5

But despite those limitations, these are records not to be missed, because nearly every one spells out genealogical information that’s priceless. Just a few examples, to whet your appetite:

• Rebecca Ann Clevenger, Mary Ann Parker, Haldale Kirby and Mary Parker were identified as the “widow & children of Samuel P. Paker of Springfield Township who died intestate,” and filed their renuncation 21 November 1878.6

• Hannah M. Shamalia was the aunt of Charles Leeds, and renounced administration of his estate in favor of Henry S. Haines.7 Esther M. Stiles was Leeds’ niece, and also renounced in Haines’ favor,8 as did another aunt, Mary Morris.9

• Five daughters of John Lukemire — Mary Pitman, Elizabeth White, Eunice S. Wells, Annie McCully, and Esther H. Lukemire — all renounced their right to administer their father’s estate, and instead “request(ed) that Charles M. Sloan be appointed.”10

• Nathan M. Stevenson, Stacy Stevenson, Cornell Stevenson, Ann Pew, Sarah Cox and Edwin Steward, identified as “nephews and nieces of Mary Stevenson, who died intestate, being entitled to share in the administration of her effects,” renounced their right and asked, instead, that Mary Anna Steward be appointed.11

• The next of kin of Elizabeth C. Fort, who died without a will, were Charles S. Cook, Sarah G. Cook, Jane Lamson, Abram R. Woolston and Thomas C. Woolston, and they all renounced in favor of Joshua S. Lamson of Bordentown.12

• When Lillie E. Hopkins died without leaving a will, it was her mother, Elizabeth A. Howard, and her sister Sallie E. Hopkins, who renounced their right to administer the estate in favor of Joseph M. Brick.13

• And when Jesse H. Gray died intestate, his widow and children all renounced their right to administer the estate in favor of James Lippincott. The renunciation identified all of the family members — including not just the daughters, but their husbands as well: “Sarah Gray widow and Mary B Estill wife of Charles Estill, Keturah H. Gray, Sarah Jane Parker wife Joseph G Parker, Beulah Dubel wife of John H Dubel, Roxanna F. Clevenger wife of Wm. D Clevenger and Samuel H Gray, children…”14

Now in this particular county during this particular time period, these renunciations were filed in a separate book in the Surrogate’s Office. In many other jurisdictions and at different times, the procedure may well have been different: you’ll find renunciations in the court minutes, or in the file granting administration, or in the loose papers. And, of course, there are times when you won’t find it at all.

But if you’re trying to reconstruct the Gray family of Burlington County in the 1870s, knowing who each of the husbands of each of the daughters was would give you a big leg up in your research, no?

Worth looking for.

As a way to for us to get information when they, back then, gave up their right to administer an estate.


  1. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 16 May 2016), “renounce.”
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1021, “renounce.”
  3. Ibid., “renouncing probate.”
  4. See §28, An act respecting the orphans’ court, and relating to the powers and duties of the ordinary, and the orphans’ court and surrogates, 27 March 1874, in Revision of the Laws of New Jersey (Trenton, N.J., John L. Murphy, Printer, 1877), 758; digital images, HathiTrust Digital Library ( : accessed 16 May 2016).
  5. Burlington County, New Jersey, Surrogate’s Court, Renunciations 1: 5, In re Estate of Joshua Eyre, renunciation of Sterling Bonsall, 20 January 1879; digital images, “New Jersey Probate Records, 1678-1980 > Burlington > Renunciations 1878-1908 vol 1-2,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 16 May 2016).
  6. Ibid., In re Estate of Samuel Parker, 21 Nov 1878, Renunciations 1: 1-2.
  7. Ibid., In re Estate of L. Charles Leeds, 23 Dec 1878, Renunciations 1: 2.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., Renunciations 1: 3.
  10. Ibid., In re Estate of John Lukemire, 25 Feb 1879, Renunciations 1: 7.
  11. Ibid., In re Estate of Mary Stevenson, 14 Feb 1879, Renunciations 1: 9.
  12. Ibid., In re Estate of Elizabeth C. Fort, 14 March 1879, Renunciations 1: 11-13.
  13. Ibid., In re Estate of Lillie E. Hopkins, 21 July 1879, Renunciations 1: 21-22.
  14. Ibid., In re Estate of Lillie E. Hopkins, 16 Aug 1879, Renunciations 1: 23.
Posted in Legal definitions, Resources | 1 Comment

The other side of the coin

Just yesterday, at the spring seminar of the New Hampshire Society of Genealogists, The Legal Genealogist stood before a group of enthusiasts and reminded everyone in the room (the speaker included) that DNA — as a research tool — has limitations.

DNA heartThe one point I try to stress, each and every time I talk about using DNA testing, is this: DNA can tell us how we are biologically related to each other. DNA doesn’t — and can’t — tell us how families are formed.

Think for example of the case where DNA proves that this child is not the biological child of this man. That’s a common scenario, whether it’s a relationship today or (as in the case of Richard III and the questions DNA has raised about his paternity1) a relationship in the far distant past.

And think about what DNA does not and cannot ever tell us: whether that child loved that man, and that man loved and cherished and guided and raised that child. It may have been the child of his wife by her first husband. Or the child of his wife’s sister. Or a child taken in to the family when no-one else would or could. But the only the bonds of biology can be tested through DNA; the bonds of the heart don’t show up in our genetic code.

This point was stressed, in Alva Noë’s post DNA, Genealogy And The Search For Who We Are, on NPR’s blog back in January, where he pointed out that:

family and family history are one thing, and DNA-based ancestry is another. You just can’t map these beautiful, defining, important family stories onto a DNA tree. … (Y)ou literally can’t. DNA draws the boundaries in the wrong place.2

And, he went on:

As a culture, we like simple solutions. And the idea that who, and what, we really are is written in the language of the genome, that it is inside us — and that we need only send away to have it decoded — is almost irresistible. But to judge by the example of (Henry Louis) Gates’ television show (Finding Your Roots), the stories that matter, the ones that bring his guests and his viewers to tears, are sagas of marriage and migration, of childrearing, hard work and love. It is family that matters — and family is relationship, not DNA. Family is not to be found inside us. The DNA story is a good one, and no doubt important for certain purposes, e.g., medical. But when what we want to know is who we are, it won’t deliver the answers.3

Noë then urged his readers to listen to a presentation by Professor Mark Thomas of University College London on the topic at the Who Do You Think You Are Live conference in Birmingham, England, last year. It’s worth lending an ear to Thomas, even though he focuses almost entirely on the limits of YDNA and mtDNA in determining ancestral origins, not taking much into account from the newer autosomal DNA tests.

But when we review what Thomas says — when we think about what’s written in our genetic code — and above all when we set out to use DNA in our research, the bottom line we have to keep in mind as genealogists (rather than as geneticists) is this: families are more than blood or DNA.

That stepfather and stepson are family every bit as much as two related by biology — and in far more important ways than biology alone suggests.

Let’s not forget the relationships of the heart even as we enthusiastically learn more about the relationships of the genome.


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Case closed … and another opened,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 3 Dec 2014 ( : accessed 15 May 2016).
  2. Alva Noë, “DNA, Genealogy And The Search For Who We Are,” Cosmos & Culture: Commentary on Science and Society, NPR, posted 29 January 2016 ( : accessed 15 May 2016).
  3. Ibid.
Posted in DNA | 19 Comments

A life story discovered and lost

I might have called him Uncle John, this brother of my grandmother.

Maybe Uncle Johann, or even Uncle Jo.

It’s hard to say now how his name would have been pronounced by the relatives who, like The Legal Genealogist, grew up speaking English and not his native German.

What nicknames we might have used.

If we’d ever had the chance to know him.

If he had lived.


I might have asked him — that Johann Nuckel — about his childhood in Bremen, as the oldest child of my great grandparents, Carsten Hinrich Wilhelm Nuckel and Juliane Margarethe (Smidt) Nuckel.

I might have asked him if he had any problems as a boy because his parents were married on the 25th of October 18841 and he — well, he was born not even three months later, on 12 January 1885.2

I might have asked him about the dark days of his childhood, as his parents buried one child in 1892,3 when he himself was just seven, and another in 1893,4 and another in 1896,5 and another in 1898.6 And then lost a child through stillbirth in 1904.7

I might have asked him about any schooling he’d gotten, and what it was like to be a factory worker there just after the turn of the 20th century.

I might have asked him what led him to the recruiting office of the Bremen military in 1905. It may have been that he had simply reached the age when he could be conscripted for two or three years of active military service, and he may just have been reporting for duty. He may have tried to enlist for one year of active service followed by six years of reserve duty, rather than the longer conscripted service.8

I might have asked him what he did in the German military after that day in 1905 when he was there in that recruiting office. If he actually was serving or waiting to be called or…

And I definitely would have thanked him for going into that recruiting office on that day in 1905. Because it was there, in that recruiting office, that his actions led to the creation of the one document I’ve seen so far that tells me I even had a great uncle named Johann.

One document that proves he was the first-born child of my great grandparents. That he was my grandmother’s brother. Because this one document — the recruiting commission alphabetical list just now digitized by Ancestry from the Bremen State Archive — names his parents: Carsten Hinrich Wilhelm Nuckel and Juliane Margarethe (Smidt) Nuckel.

It’s always a sweet moment when a new resource gives you another branch — even a twig — to add to the family tree.

But so many of these moments in my father’s German family are so bittersweet. If there is any thread that ties that family together, it’s the thread of early death.

And this Johann is not an exception to this family rule.

Because the same document that puts Johann Nuckel in my family tree takes him out of our family story as well.

Just below the entry for 1905 is another entry for 1906. “Gestorben an 17 Februar 1906,” that entry reads. “Sterbeliste Nr. 813.” He was just 21 years old when he died on the 17th of February 1906.

Maybe I’d have called him Uncle John, this brother of my grandmother.

Maybe Uncle Johann, or even Uncle Jo.

It’s hard to say now what tales he’d have added to our family story.

If we’d ever had the chance to know him.

If he had lived.


  1. Bremen Standesamt (City Registrar), Heiraten (Marriage) Nr. 713/1884, Nuckel-Smidt, 25 Oct 1884.
  2. Bremen Ersatzkommission, 1874-1914, Alphabetische Liste des Aushebungsbezirks Bremen – Geburtsjahr 1885, Bd. 03 L-R, entry for Johann Nuckel, citing Staatsarchiv Bremen.
  3. “Die Leichenbücher der Stadtgemeinde Bremen von 1875 – 1939” (The Funerary Records of the City of Bremen, 1875-1939), book 1892, page 59; online database, Die Maus – Family History and Genealogical Society of Bremen ( : accessed 30 Jan 2015).
  4. Ibid., book 1893, page 451.
  5. Ibid., book 1896, page 117.
  6. Ibid., book 1898, page 234.
  7. Ibid., book 1904, page 871.
  8. See generally Wikipedia (, “German Army (German Empire),” rev. 7 May 2016.
Posted in My family | 5 Comments

The concerns of 1855

So your ancestor was a mayor or a town council member. A local official of some kind around the middle of the 19th century.

Ever wonder just what it was that he — or the town or the city — was supposed to do? What the authority was? What its concerns were?

Or maybe it was just that you had an ancestor who lived in an area making the transition from rural to more urban… and you’re wondering what life was like… what people cared about.

NH4There is a place to look, you know… and, yes, you already know what The Legal Genealogist is going to say.

You need to look at the laws.

Because you’re likely going to find an awful lot of clues to the context of the times in those law books.

As I was getting ready to head off to Manchester, New Hampshire, for tomorrow’s spring seminar of the New Hampshire Society of Genealogists (are you joining us? have you sent your email off to the This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to see if NHSG can hold a space for you?), I came across the job description of an entire city in New Hampshire’s laws… and what a tale it tells.

It seems that on the 29th of June 1855 the town of Dover, New Hampshire, became the City of Dover, New Hampshire.1 Now that may seem pretty much like a distinction without a difference, but remember that New Hampshire has the town meeting form of government in many communities. Cities were and are allowed to govern through mayors and boards of aldermen or selectmen, rather than through the town meeting.2

So… what was the brand-new City of Dover — and its mayor and board of aldermen — supposed to do for its residents? You can read the entire list in the law and boy does it ever tell us a lot about the cares and concerns of the day. Because, the law provided, the city council had the authority to “make, establish, publish, alter, modify, amend, or repeal ordinances for the following purposes among others”:

“1. To restrain and prohibit all descriptions of gaming, and fraudulent devices, and to authorize the destruction and demolition of all instruments and devices used for the purpose of gaming.

“2. To regulate or prohibit the exhibitions of common show men and shows of every kind.

“3. To prevent riots, noises, disturbances or disorderly assemblages, and to restrain and suppress disorderly houses, and shops, and houses of ill-fame.

“4. To compel the owner or occupant of any cellar, tallow chandler’s shop,, soap factory, tannery, stable, barn, privy, sewer or other unwholesome or nauseous house or place, to cleanse, remove or abate the same.

“5. To direct the location and management of all slaughter houses, markets, steam mills, steam engines, black-smiths’ shops, and buildings or places for storing powder.

“6. To regulate the keeping and conveying of gun powder, and other combustible and dangerous materials, and the use of candles and lights in barns and stables.

“7. To prevent encumbering the streets or sidewalks with carriages, carts, lumber, fire-wood, stones, or any other thing what ever, and to prevent the obstruction of sidewalks and bridges, by persons collecting or gathering together, and to regulate the erection of buildings.

“8. To restrain and punish vagrants, mendicants, street beggars and common prostitutes.

“9. To prevent the running at large of dogs, and to authorize the destruction of the same when at large contrary to the ordinance.

“10. To regulate and restrain the rolling of hoops, playing at ball, or playing kites, or any other amusement or practice having a tendency to annoy persons passing in the streets and on the sidewalks, or to frighten teams and horses within said city.

“11. To regulate the ringing of bells, and regulate or prevent the blowing of horns and bugles, and crying goods and other things, therein.

“12. To require all persons to keep the snow, ice and dirt from the sidewalks in front of the premises owned or occupied by them, and to abate and remove nuisances.

“13. To regulate the burial of the dead.

“14. To regulate guaging, the place and manner of selling and weighing hay, packing, inspecting and branding beef and pork, and of selling and measuring wood, lime and coal ; to appoint a suitable person or persons to superintend and conduct the same.

“15. To regulate porters, cartmen and cartage, and hackney coaches, cabs and other carriages and their drivers.

“16. To prescribe the powers, authorities and duties of marshal, assistant marshals, police and watchmen of said city.

“17. To establish, regulate and make public pumps, wells and reservoirs, and to prevent the unnecessary waste of water.

“18. To regulate the grade of streets, and the grade and width of sidewalks ; relative to trees planted for shade, ornament, convenience or use, public or private, and to the fruit of such trees ; relative to sweeping and burning of chimneys ; relative to the bonds to be given by the several officers of said city ; relative to public lamps and lights ; relative to preserving said city from exposure to fire, and to prevent the use of any building, in the compact parts of the city for bakers’ shops, black-smiths’ shops, hatters’ shops, tallow chandlers’ shops, or for any other purposes, which, in the opinion of the city council, shall dangerously expose said city to injury or destruction by fire ; or the erection or use of any building in the compact parts of said city, for any noisy, noisome, or offensive occupation ; for making and regulating public squares and walks for preventing and punishing trespasses on, (or) injuries to public buildings, and in relation to cemeteries, public burial grounds, squares, commons, and other public grounds, and may make any other by-laws, regulations and ordinances, which may seem for the well being of said city, provided they be not repugnant to the constitution and laws of this State, which by-laws, regulations and ordinances, shall take effect and be in force from the time therein limited, without the sanction of any other authority whatever.”3

Now some of these things we might all have thought of — burying the dead, for example, would be a real concern to folks in the towns. But without reading the law, I for one might not have considered just how much of a nuisance those hoop-rollers or kite-fliers might have been in 1855 Dover.

Just reading the list of concerns the City was allowed to address tells me something about life at that time I might not otherwise have known.


  1. “An Act to establish the city of Dover,” 29 June 1855, Chapter 1699, in Laws of the State of New Hampshire, … 1855 (Concord, N.H. : Asa Handley, State Printer, 1855), 1590; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 12 May 2016).
  2. See generally Wikipedia (, “Town meeting: New Hampshire,” rev. 30 Mar 2016.
  3. “An Act to establish the city of Dover,” 29 June 1855, Chapter 1699, in Laws of the State of New Hampshire, … 1855, at 1595-1596.
Posted in Resources, Statutes | Leave a comment

New Hampshire’s bad boys (and girls)

You can tell an awful lot about people and what they were thinking — what they believed, what they aspired to — by reading the laws of the time.

That’s the one thing The Legal Genealogist really hopes every genealogist eventually comes to understand: that we read the laws not just to get the answers to specific genealogical questions about our families, but to get the flavor of the places where and the times when our families lived.

And there can’t be a better example of that than a particular New Hampshire statute, passed in February 1791, that I came across last night while getting ready for Saturday’s Spring Seminar of the New Hampshire Society of Genealogists in Manchester. (There may still be a slot or two — you can email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to see if NHSG can hold a space for you!)

NH3It’s entitled “An ACT for the punishment of idle and disorderly persons, for the support and maintenance of the poor, and for designating the duties and defining the powers of overseers of the poor,” and it was passed 15 February 1791.1

Now the statute has a lot of sections about authorizing the towns to build “a workhouse, in which to set their poor to work,”2 and the maintenance of paupers at town expense,3 and apprenticing poor children.4

But the real story here is the identification of the bad boys (and girls) under the law. The classes and categories of “rogues” and “vagabonds” that industrious New Hampshire did not want loitering about its streets. For the law allowed the towns to build houses of correction for the keeping and correction of these non-contributors to 18th century society.5

And who were these folks, these bad boys (and girls) of 1791? Well, they included:

any rogue, vagabond, lewd, idle or disorderly persons, persons going about begging, or persons using any subtle craft, juggling or unlawful games, or plays, or persons pretending to have knowledge in physiognomy or palmistry, or persons pretending that they can tell destinies or fortunes, or discover by any spells, or magic art, where lost or stolen goods may be found, common pipers, fiddlers, runaways, stubborn servants or children, common drunkards, common night walkers, pilferers, persons wanton and lascivious in speech, conduct or behavior, common railers or brawlers, such as neglect their calling or employment, mispend what they earn, and such as do not provide for themselves or the support of their families…6

Now think about that… and think about what that tells you about those farmers and artisans of the late 1700s. Think about the mindset it reflects — the attitudes and work ethic it incorporates.

And whether our particular family was among those farmers and artisans — or we descend from one of the vagabonds or rogues of the day — this reflection of the time in the laws of the time is part of our family history.


  1. “An ACT for the punishment of idle and disorderly persons, for the support and maintenance of the poor, and for designating the duties and defining the powers of overseers of the poor,” in Constitution and Laws of the State of New-Hampshire (Dover, N.H. : Samuel Bragg Jr., for the State, 1805), 298; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 11 May 2016).
  2. Ibid., at 298.
  3. Ibid., at 299.
  4. Ibid., at 300.
  5. Ibid., at 299.
  6. Ibid.
Posted in Resources, Statutes | 9 Comments

USCIS proposes big fee increase

In genealogy, as in everything else in our lives, There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

And, The Legal Genealogist regrets to report, sometimes lunch gets downright expensive.

As all of us who need records from the United States Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS, formerly INS) are about to see, and in the very near future.

USCISUSCIS has proposed a major increase in its genealogy program service fees and, while the proposal is only in the proposal stage right now, the likelihood that the fee increase won’t happen is somewhere between zip and zero.

So we need to be prepared — and, if we can, to act now, before the fee increase takes effect.

Here’s the deal.

USCIS holds some of the most genealogically valuable records on the planet if we have immigrant ancestors who came to the US or created immigration- or naturalization-related records in the 20th century. These include the Naturalization Certificate Files (C-Files), from September 27, 1906 to March 31, 1956; Alien Registration Forms (Form AR-2), August 1940 to March 1944; Visa Files, July 1, 1924 to March 31, 1944; Registry Files, March 1929 to March 31, 1944; and A-Files, April 1, 1944 to May 1, 1951. See this USCIS page for an overview.

Right now, anybody who needs copies of these records from USCIS can make a request for a records search — a report back from USCIS as to what records it has for an individual and what the document and file numbers are (and we need those numbers to request those particular records). The fee for that document request is currently $20.

Once we have those document and file numbers, we can make a request for a copy of those genealogy records — a C file or an A file, for example — and get it from microfilm with a fee of $20. Or if the records only exist in text form rather than on microfilm, we can get a copy for a fee of $35.

All of those fees, under the proposal filed for public comment by USCIS on May 4th, would go up to $65: $65 for the initial search request; $65 for the copy from microfilm; and $65 for the copy from textual records.

Now that’s a pretty hefty increase — some 225% for the records search and microfilm copy, 86% for the textual copy. And it’s sure to infuriate those who believe that (a) all genealogical records should be free and/or (b) the genealogical records they need should be free, even if everyone else has to pay for them.

But fees at USCIS have remained the same since November 2010 — no fee increases at all. And there isn’t any serious funding provided by Congress for the genealogy program at USCIS. So either the users pay for the service by fees or — and this alternative is unthinkable — the genealogy program at USCIS goes away and we end up waiting until the records are archived at the National Archives (meaning we won’t have access in our lifetimes…).

Now of course this really is just a proposed rule at this point. You can certainly send a comment in to USCIS on the proposed rule and try to convince them it shouldn’t happen. The rule announcement is on the Federal Register website here. We all have another 55 days to tell USCIS what we think of this proposal.

But — seriously — the chances of this not going through even if every last one of us rose up in unison are essentially nil. This fee increase will take place. The rule proposal makes it clear that USCIS thinks the real cost of providing these records is considerably higher, if all administrative costs had been factored in, and that we’re getting a break by holding the increase to the $65 level.

So feel free to comment if you choose… but cover your bets right now. In short, if you’ve been holding back and waiting to make a document search request or waiting to order USCIS records, now is the time to get your request in.

To make a search request to produce any and all records citations for your person — and you can’t order a record without the record citation number — head over to the USCIS genealogy program web request page right now and pay the current $20 fee to get the request in. And note that the page says the request page will be down today (May 11th) between 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. EDT.

If you’re really really lucky — and there are no guarantees here because some search requests have been taking a very long time — you’ll get the records citation report back before the new fees go into effect and you’ll be able to then go ahead and order the records themselves from microfilm or textual record before the new fees take effect. Don’t count on this — I’ve had one search request pending since October 26, 2015, with no response.

But at least act now to make your search request. No matter what happens with the fee proposal, it can’t take effect before the comment period expires on July 5th, and that means you have that long for sure to get a search request for $20 rather than $65.

Posted in General | 3 Comments

New Hampshire statutes

The Legal Genealogist has a mantra — something everyone who’s ever read this blog can probably recite from memory:

If we want to understand the records, we have to understand the law, and not just in the abstract, but at the very time and in the very place where the records were created.

So… where do we find the law?

That’s always a question, and it’s not always easy to answer. There are colonial laws that sometimes were and often weren’t collected and published and then digitized in an easily accessible form. Then in some cases there are territorial laws between the Revolution and statehood. And then the laws of the state.

NH2Sometimes the laws are simply arranged chronologically and published year after year at the end of each legislative term in what are usually called session laws — by definition, the “name commonly given to the body of laws enacted by a state legislature at one of its annual or biennial sessions.”1

Sometimes the laws are compiled into codifications — by definition, the “process of collecting and arranging the laws of a country or state into a code, i.e., into a complete system of positive law, scientifically ordered, and promulgated by legislative authority.”2

And sometimes you have to slog your way through both to answer a particular question.

Even in a place as small, as orderly and as well-governed as the Granite State — New Hampshire — where I’ll be speaking on Saturday to the New Hampshire Society of Genealogists in Manchester — finding the laws can be tough sledding.

But just to give you a leg up if you’re doing New Hampshire research, here’s a guide to the codified versions of Granite State law: a complete list and, if online, where to find every code from the provincial days to just before World War I:

• Albert S. Batchellor, editor, Laws of New Hampshire, Vol. 1: Province Period (Manchester, N.H. : John B. Clarke Co., 1904)

• –, Laws of New Hampshire, Vol. 2: 1702-1745 (Concord, N.H. : Rumford Printing Co., 1913)

• Henry Harrison Metcalf, editor, , Laws of New Hampshire, Vol. 3: 1745-1774 (Bristol, N.H. : Musgrove Printing House, 1915)

• –, Laws of New Hampshire, Vol. 4: 1776-1784 (Bristol, N.H. : Musgrove Printing House, 1916)

The Laws of the State of New-Hampshire (Portsmouth, N.H. : John Melcher, State Printer, 1797)

Constitution and Laws of the State of New-Hampshire (Dover, N.H. : Samuel Bragg Jr., 1805)

Laws of the State of New-Hampshire… 1805 to … 1810 (Concord, N.H. : Isaac Hill, 1811)

The Laws of the State of New-Hampshire (Exeter, N.H. : C. Norris & Co., 1815)

The Laws of the State of New-Hampshire … since June 1, 1815 (Concord, N.H. : Isaac Hill, 1824)

The Laws of the State of New-Hampshire (Hopkinton, N.H. : Isaac Long, 1830)

Revised Statures of the State of New Hampshire … 1842 (Concord, N.H. : Carroll & Baker, State Printers, 1843)

• A compiled volume of the laws from 1842 to 1847 is not available online that I’ve been able to find, but you should be able to locate a hard copy: Laws of the State of New-Hampshire from November Session 1842, to June Session, 1847, Inclusive (Concord, N.H. : Butterfield & Hill, State Printers, 1847). A decent substitute is a slightly later new edition of the 1842 revision, Revised Statures of the State of New Hampshire … 1850 (Concord, N.H. : John F. Brown, 1851)

The Compiled Statutes of the State of New Hampshire (Concord, N.H. : Butterfield & Hill, State Printers, 1853)

The General Statutes of the State of New-Hampshire (Manchester, N.H. : John B. Clarke, State Printer, 1867)

The General Laws of the State of New Hampshire (Manchester, N.H. : John B. Clarke, State Printer, 1878)

The General Laws of the State of New Hampshire (Concord, N.H. : J.B. Sanborn, 1878)

The Public Statutes of the State of New Hampshire (Manchester, N.H. : John B. Clarke, State Printer, 1891)

• William M. Chase and Arthur H. Chase, compilers, The Public Statutes of the Commonwealth of New Hampshire, … 1901 (Concord, N.H. : Edson C. Eastman, 1900)

• –, Supplement to the Public Statutes of the Commonwealth of New Hampshire (Chase edition, 1901), … 1901 to 1913 (Concord, N.H. : Chase & Chandler, 1914)

That should keep you busy for a little while…


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1096, “session laws.”
  2. Ibid., 216, “codification.”
Posted in General, Resources, Statutes | 8 Comments