Dueling administrators

Oh, the tales the court records tell…

OHanlonAnd it doesn’t really matters whose court records or where or why… there is always a story to be told.

For some reason, The Legal Genealogist ended up poking around in records of the New Plymouth Court last night.

No, not Plymouth. As in Massachusetts or Ohio.

New Plymouth.

As in New Zealand.

And in those court records, just as in court records everywhere, there is always a story to be told.

Case in point: the story of the O’Hanlon family, where the mama wasn’t happy — and it ended in a family feud.

Rose Anna O’Hanlon, resident at Hawera in the Provincial District of Taranaki, a hotelkeeper, died at New Plymouth on the 24th of May 1884. Her widower, Charles Patrick O’Hanlon, reported the death1 and — since Rose didn’t leave a will — asked to be given letters of administration on her estate.2

Pretty straight-forward, right? Married woman dies, husband takes over.

Um… not so fast.

On the same day that Charles went in to take over his wife’s estate, in came Mary Elizabeth O’Hanlon, Rose’s oldest daughter and next of kin, who was, she said, the only one of Rose’s children who was over age 21. She made her own request to be given the right to administer her mother’s estate.3

In particular, she didn’t want Charles Patrick O’Hanlon to touch a thing. He didn’t have a right to it, she said, because, in January 1882, her mother had gone to court and obtained an order protecting her property and earnings from her husband:

previous to the twenty second day of April one thousand eight hundred and eighty one she the said Rose Anna O’Hanlon had been subject to cruelty by her said husband without adultery, and that her said husband had habitually failed to provide a maintenance for his said wife and children without such failure being covered by sickness of other unavoidable cause.4

As a result, the court had entered the relief she wanted:

It is hereby by virtue of the provisions of the Married Womans Property protection Act 1880 Adjudged and ordered that the earnings and property of the said Rose Anna O’Hanlon acquired since the twenty second day of April one thousand eight hundred and eighty one shall be protected against her husband the said Charles Patrick O’Hanlon and all Creditors and persons claiming under him.5

Mary Elizabeth said everything Rose had when she died, she’d acquired after getting the court order and living separately from Charles — so nothing, no power of administration, and not one penny, should go to Charles.6

The probate court went along with Mary Elizabeth. Letters of administration “limited to such personal property as the deceased had acquired or become possessed of since the 22nd April 1881 (being the date from which a Protection Order granted to Deceased took effect) (were) granted to Mary Elizabeth O’Hanlon, Eldest daughter & next of kin of deceased.”7

Now… that’s a pretty good story all by itself. But the story of the law itself that Rose used to protect herself is a good one too.

New Zealand was among the first areas of the British Empire to give married women some protection over their own property. The first act, passed in 1860, focused on protection of women who had been deserted by their husbands and allowed the local courts to “make and give to the wife an order protecting her earnings and property acquired since the commencement of such desertion from her husband, and all creditors and persons claiming under him.”8

Its provisions were continued in 1870 and 1880,9 but the 1880 act — the one that Rose acted under — expanded protection to women in any of the following cases:

(1) Where she is deserted by her husband without reasonable cause (2) When she is subjected by her husband to cruelty without adultery (3) Where her husband is guilty of living in open adultery (4) Where her husband is guilty of habitual drunkenness (5) Where her husband habitually fails to provide a maintenance for his wife and children without such failure being caused by sickness or other unavoidable cause.10

Then by the act of 1884, effective 1 January 1885, married women in New Zealand were given the same right to own and acquire property — real and personal — as single women were given.11

Oh, and there’s one more tidbit to the O’Hanlon story… Mary Elizabeth wasn’t Charles and Rose’s only child. She was just the only child who was of age by 1884. It sure looks like they also had at least one son… another Charles O’Hanlon… who emigrated to the United States.12

Yes indeed… the tales the court records tell…


  1. District Court of Taranaki, New Plymouth, In re Rose Anna O’Hanlon, No. 146 (1884); Affidavit of Death, Charles Patrick O’Hanlon, 2 June 1884; digital images, “New Zealand, Archives New Zealand, Probate Records, 1843-1998,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 4 Nov 2015).
  2. Ibid., application for letters of administration, 2 June 1884.
  3. Ibid., Charles Patrick O’Hanlon, application of Mary Elizabeth O’Hanlon, 2 June 1884.
  4. Ibid., application of Mary Elizabeth O’Hanlon, 2 June 1884; attachment A, Resident Magistrates Court of Upper Wanganui, New Zealand; Order, In re Married Womans Property protection Act 1880, Rose Anna O’Hanlon (12 Jan 1882).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., application of Mary Elizabeth O’Hanlon, 2 June 1884.
  7. Ibid., Motion paper, 4 June 1884.
  8. §2, “Married Women’s Property Protection Act, 1860,” Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 30 March 1861, p.4; digital image, National Library of New Zealand, Papers Past (http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/ : accessed 4 Nov 2015).
  9. See Bettina Bradbury, “Colonial Comparisons: Rethinking Marriage, Civilization and Nation in Nineteenth-Century White Settler Societies,” in Phillip Buckner & R. Douglas Francis, eds., Rediscovering the British World (Calgary, Alberta : University of Calgary Press, 2005), 151.
  10. §3, “Married Women’s Property Protection Act, 1880,” in William Badger, ed., Statutes of New Zealand … 1842-1892, 4 vols. (Christchurch, NZ : p.p., 1892), I:427; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 4 Nov 2015).
  11. Ibid., “Married Women’s Property Act, 1884,” in Badger, ed., Statutes of New Zealand, I:423.
  12. See “U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007,” entry for Charles Patrick (Charles James) O’Hanlon, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 4 Nov 2015).
Posted in Court Cases, Statutes | 4 Comments

Save a little, get a lot

Discovering that you have genealogical ties to New York can be cause for joy, such as when The Legal Genealogist found records showing that immigrant ancestors came through Ellis Island to begin their new lives here in the 19th and 20th centuries.

BOOK(3)But discovering that you have genealogical ties to New York can also be cause for despair, such as when you discover that most parts of New York don’t have vital records dating back nearly as far as we’d like; it didn’t even try to require recordation of vital statistics until 1847 and that effort was a failure.1

Or such as when you realize that “in 1911, a horrendous fire swept through the Capitol, causing wholesale destruction to everything in its path. The flames roared wildly through both the State and Assembly libraries reducing them to ashes.”2 Among the losses: some of the official records of the early Dutch period.

It’s not for no reason that New York is often described as the black hole of northeastern research.3

It isn’t that there aren’t terrific things to be found in New York: “New York has wonderful resources for the genealogist” and an “amazing number of records have survived from the colonial period to the present.” But those record types “may differ from sources found in other states,” presenting a different challenge: “to learn what they are and how to use them effectively.”4

And that’s where the New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer comes in: a massive work from the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society (NYG&B) to guide the researcher to those resources across the state and county by county.

I’ve written about this guide before,5 and anyone who’s even had a chance to glance at it knows how valuable this guide is:

• Diane Rapaport in the September issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly called the book “the biggest and best ever guide to New York research. Everything a researcher would want to know about researching New York’s sixty-two counties, and the boroughs of New York City, is now in one comprehensive, encyclopedic, easy-to-use manual.”6

• Henry Hoff, editor of the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, declared “This is a volume that every library and New York researcher should have, and indeed must have.”7

• And the New York Times described the book as “an overdue handbook for serious researchers,” “an enlightening and eclectic chronological tour of four centuries of New York benchmarks and record-keeping,” and “an authoritative, fact-filled beginner’s resource.”8

• The Federation of Genealogical Societies recently presented the NYG&B with an Award of Merit in recognition of distinguished work in family history for this publication.9

You can order your copy of the Guide through the NYG&B website here, and I’ll warn you: this isn’t an inexpensive book. For NYG&B members, it’s $65; for libraries, $75; and for non-NYG&B-members, $85, plus $10 shipping.

Except right now. Until November 30, if you use the the discount code “BOOKSHIP,” U.S. shipping and handling (regularly $10) is free for all. Mail, phone, online all get free shipping — amd even international orders get a $10 discount on shipping.

So act now… save a little and get a lot — a lot of information for your New York research.

Highly recommended.


  1. FamilySearch Research Wiki (https://www.familysearch.org/learn/wiki/), “New York Vital Records,” rev. 25 Oct 2015.
  2. The Capitol Fire,” New York State Assembly (http://assembly.state.ny.us/ : accessed 3 Nov 2015).
  3. See e.g. Gary Jones, “Genealogical Scope,” Gary’s Genealogy Junk (http://www.gjonesgenealogy.com : accessed 3 Nov 2015).
  4. Harry Macy, Jr., Preface, in New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer (New York : NYG&B, 2014), ix.
  5. Judy G. Russell, “New help with Empire State research,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 5 Feb 2015 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 3 Nov 2015).
  6. Diane Rapaport, “Review: New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 103 (September 2015): 235-236.
  7. Henry Hoff, “Review of Books: New York Family History Research Guide and Gazetteer,” New England Historical and Genealogical Register 169 (Spring 2015): 189-190.
  8. Sam Roberts, “Bookshelf: Books on a Photographer, the Underground Railroad and Ancestry,” The New York Times, posted 18 Apr 2015 (http://www.nytimes.com/ : accessed 3 Nov 2015).
  9. See “FGS Awards Presented at the New York State Family History Conference,” FGS Voice, 20 Sep 2015 (http://voice.fgs.org : accessed 3 Nov 2015).
Posted in General | Leave a comment

Records access notices

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.

But how? How do we stay abreast of all of the challenges there are out there these days?

Alert IconChallenges like the loss of access to the last three years of the Social Security Death Index.1

Challenges like the new Kansas Supreme Court rule on marriage records, that means that marriage information that had been publicly available for decades is no longer accessible.2

Challenges like the new European Union rules on privacy that may threaten even Holocaust research.3

Just keeping up with the fight on all the front is exhausting — and The Legal Genealogist alone couldn’t begin to keep our community informed the way we all need to be informed.

Fortunately, there are others out there committed to the same fight, who are doing more than any one individual could possibly do… and now you too can have the benefit of this collective work.

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.

Here’s what you need to do:

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.4 (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 alerts is the community itself. It really is a “see-something-say-something” situation, and you can tell IAJGS about any problem brewing in your area by sending an email to 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.

And to do that, we have to stay informed.

Here’s an easy way to do that.

Sign up, won’t you?

I have…


  1. See 42 U.S.C. §1306c. See also Judy G. Russell, “SSDI access now limited,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 30 Dec 2013 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 2 Nov 2015).
  2. See “Kansas Supreme Court Rule would redact Marriage Certificates,” RPAC blog, posted 1 April 2015 (http://www.fgs.org/rpac/ : accessed 2 Nov 2015). The new rule went into effect 1 October.
  3. See Sam Sokol, “Could new European digital privacy laws hurt Holocaust research?,” Jerusalem Post, posted 27 Oct 2015 (http://www.jpost.com/ : accessed 2 Nov 2015).
  4. Yes, I do have permission from IAJGS for you to do that!
Posted in Records Access | 4 Comments

Kudos to Harvard Law!

Forty thousand law books.

Forty million pages, give or take a few.

Court decisions that begin with cases that were decided before the Constitution of the United States was even written.

And — coming soon to the Internet near you — digitized copies of all of them.

Every. Last. Word.



All thanks to the Harvard Law School Library and its “Free the Law” project.

The law school’s announcement last week, that it was digitizing its entire collection of U.S. case law and making the collection available online, for free, to anyone with an Internet connection, was driven by the view that “the law should be free and open to all,” according to Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow. “Using technology to create broad access to legal information will help create a more transparent and more just legal system.”1

No argument there. The sheer cost of access to computerized legal research systems even for primary law sources like these case books can be daunting, and lawyers, law firms and legal researchers of all stripes will surely welcome the opportunity to use this new resource.

But, of course, there are those secondary beneficiaries of this kind of largesse… folks like us. The genealogical community. Because the amount of genealogically valuable information tucked into the pages of American case law can be simply stunning.

The Legal Genealogist uses one case in a court records lecture that was decided by the Virginia Supreme Court in 1843. In eight pages of discussion of a nasty murder in the back hills of what is now West Virginia, you get enough information to chart out a good part of four generations of one family: who’s related to whom, details about which individuals lived near others — and even that one family member was blind.2

That’s eight pages from one book.

Think about more than 40 million pages. From roughly 40,000 books.

Think about all the ways our ancestors might have come in contact with the courts… and ended up in those pages.

Think about all the folks who found themselves unable to pay debts, or in trouble with the criminal law.

Think about all the people who may have been trying to collect a debt, or protect a land boundary, or a reputation.

Think about all the sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, cousins, in-laws — all the family members who ever got into a fight over who was going to get the land or the money or the slaves.

Think about court records for the identities of those slaves, years before African-Americans were ever recorded by name in the census.

All of that information, free, online, word-searchable.

Even better: the entire database will be accessible to nonprofit organizations and scholars who want to develop specialized tools to access the data in particular ways.3 So there may be even more ways to get into the data and use it effectively.

The funding for the digitization project is coming from Ravel Law, a private company that runs a legal research and analytics platform. And, no, it isn’t doing this out of the goodness of its heart. Ravel and Harvard are withholding the database from other commercial users for eight years and, during those eight years, Ravel expects to recoup the costs by offering specialized tools for lawyers and legal researchers.

That’s a perfectly reasonable way of financing the enormous costs of getting this much data digitized and put online — and we should all welcome the fact that we’re going to get free access because of the way Ravel was enticed to do this.

Now, it isn’t going to happen overnight. The first set of records is from California and it’s coming online sometime later this month. New York is expected to be next, by the end of the year, and the whole shooting match of nationwide case law should be online by the middle of 2017.

But this is going to be an enormously valuable resource for all of us… and those with Californians in their ancestry should start marking their calendars. By the end of this month — this month!! — you’ll be able to word-search California case law for mention of your ancestors… free.

Kudos to Harvard Law School.

I can’t wait…

  1. Harvard Law School Launches ‘Free the Law’ Project with Ravel Law To Digitize US Case Law, Provide Free Access,” Harvard Law Today, posted 29 Oct 2015 (http://today.law.harvard.edu/ : accessed 1 Nov 2015).
  2. M’Cune v. Commonwealth, 41 Va. 771 (1843).
  3. See Eric Eckholm, “Harvard Law Library Readies Trove of Decisions for Digital Age,” New York Times, posted 28 Oct 2015 (http://www.nytimes.com/ : accessed 1 Nov 2015).
Posted in Court Cases, Primary Law, Resources | 10 Comments

Why they’re not better… What they’re good for

In case you’ve lived on the Dark Side of the moon for the past few years, here’s a “news” flash: the Legal Genealogist is not a fan of ethnicity estimates.

Those percentages reported by the DNA testing companies — x percent Irish and y percent Scandinavian — are not scientifically valid representations of our exact ethnic heritage.

I’ve said this before.

Others have, too.

Now, read this post, by a an expert in population genetics, if you want to understand more about why these percentages aren’t better … and what they really might help tell us, if we understand their limits.

Dr. Joe Pickrell is a Junior Group Leader and Core Member at the New York Genome Center, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia University. He has a PhD in human genetics from the University of Chicago and a BS in biology from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He’s also a co-founder of the new research website DNA.Land, and he’s the author of the blog post I want you to read.

And if you read nothing else, read this part:

…what you would ideally like to have is a detailed list of your ancestors at different time depths, each labeled with their geographic location and any ethnic self-identifiers. You could then say, for example, that 100 years ago 25% of your ancestors lived in Illinois and identified as Jewish, while 500 years ago 5% of your ancestors lived in present-day Andalucia and identified as Muslim.

Unfortunately genetic tests are about as useful as Ouija boards for obtaining much of this information, so we’re going to have to compromise with some dramatic approximations. Specifically, the approach taken by all of the commercial companies (and that we take as well) is to try to estimate the general geographic regions where your ancestors lived (and in a select small number of cases their ethnic identifiers) some indeterminate time in that past, probably something like a few hundred years ago.

Does this all sound a bit vague? It should because it is. The precision suggested by these reports is an illusion–there’s plenty of wiggle room in the definition of “general geographic regions” and “some indeterminate time in the past” to allow for very different interpretations.

Compromise. Estimate. Wiggle room.

NOT precise scientific analysis.

Estimates, not real percentages.

Not useless, since there are some things you can do even with these generalized data points. But not, not, NOT precise numbers.

Posted in DNA | 13 Comments

What’s your favorite Halloween costume?

It’s Halloween today — that time when we all get to dress up in costumes and commit a legal form of extortion.

Trick or treat, after all, would get you arrested the rest of the year…

Even The Legal Genealogist admits to occasionally having fun playing dress up.

But… sigh… I have a confession to make.

I don’t have, or at least can’t readily access, a single solitary photograph in a Halloween costume.

There may be one, somewhere, but for the life of me I can’t find any.

And here I was going to challenge everybody to a “what’s your favorite Halloween costume” contest today!

Now… don’t be disappointed. I still challenge you to tell me about your favorite Halloween costume!

It’s just that I’m going to have to use instead, as my own entry, the last really good picture of me that was even taken:


I was, after all, in dress-up clothes, for sure — my DNA establishes rather definitively that my ancestry is boringly European.

Happy Halloween!

Posted in My family | 6 Comments

Not the only, not even the first

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we all know about the Salem witch trials.

Witch hat halloween poster vintageSeriously, The Legal Genealogist knows tomorrow is Halloween, and everybody goes a little bit Salem-witch-trial crazy around this time of year.

But Massachusetts wasn’t the only place to have laws about witchcraft — and it wasn’t the only place to hold a witch trial.

Enter… Pennsylvania.

Where I am, right now, getting ready to present to the North Hills Genealogists here in Pittsburgh for the 2015 Fall Conference, with Michael J. LeClerc. Today, I’m doing a workshop on conflicting evidence, and Michael’s doing on on genealogical writing. Tomorrow, we go head-to-head with presentations ranging from using old documents to tax lists.

So… about those Pennsylvania witches.

First off, the law. It was adopted as part of “An Act for the Advancement of Justice, and More Certain Administration Thereof,” in 1718, and the provision in question simply provided “That another statute made in the first year of the reign of King James the First, chapter twelfth, entitled ‘An act against conjuration, witchcraft, and dealing with evil and wicked spirits,’ shall be duly put in execution in this province, and of like force and effect, as if the same were [here] repeated and enacted.”1

Not very helpful, is it?

So we have to go to the earlier British law, enacted in 1604, which provided:

That if any pson or persons after the saide Feaste of Saint Michaell the Archangell next comeing, shall use practise or exercsise any Invocation or Conjuration of any evill and spirit, or shall consult covenant with entertaine employ feede or rewarde any evill and wicked Spirit to or for any intent or pupose ; or take any dead man woman or child out of his her or theire grave or any other place where the dead body resteth, or the skin, bone or any other parte of any dead person, to be imployed or used in any manner of Witchecrafte, Sorcerie, Charme or Inchantment ; or shall use practise or exercise any Witchcrafte Sorcerie, Charme or Incantment wherebie any pson shall be killed destroyed wasted consumed pined or lamed in his or her bodie, or any parte therof ; then that everie such Offendor or Offendors theire Ayders Abettors and Counsellors, being of the saide Offences dulie and lawfullie convicted and attainted, shall suffer pains of deathe as a Felon or Felons, and shall loose the priviledge and benefit of Cleargie and Sanctuarie.2

So Massachusetts wasn’t the only place to have laws about witchcraft — and it wasn’t even the first place to hold a witch trial.

That honor belongs to Pennsylvania where, on December 27, 1683, Margaret Mattson — an elderly Swede from Ridley Township, now Delaware County — stood trial before William Penn himself, charged with being a witch. Another woman had also been charged, but Mattson was the only one to go to trial.

The case is reported in detail in an 1862 history of Delaware County:

Henry Drystreet, attested, saith he was tould 20 years ago, that the Prisoner at the Barr was a Witch, and that several cows were bewitcht by her; also that James Saunderling’s mother tould him that she bewitcht her cow, but afterwards said it was a mistake, and that her cow should doe well againe, for it was not her cow but another Persons that should dye.

Charles Ashcom, attested, saith that Anthony’s Wife being asked why she sould her cattle; was because her mother had Bewitcht them, having taken the Witchcraft of Hendrick’s Cattle, and put it on their oxen; she myght keep but noe other Cattle, and also that one night the Daughter of ye Prisoner called him up hastely, and when he came she sayed there was a great Light but just before, and an old woman with a knife in her hand at ye Bedd’s feet, and therefore she cryed out and desired Jno. Symcock to take away his Calves, or Else she would send them to Hell.3

A 1908 account of the trial suggests that, at one point in the trial, Penn asked the woman if she could fly on a broomstick and when she was confused in her answer, he was reported to have said he didn’t know any law that made it illegal.4

There’s no doubt that Penn and his Council carefully controlled the courtroom in this case, and while Penn’s charge to the jury wasn’t recorded, the jury verdict was: “The Jury went forth, and upon their Returne Brought her in Guilty of haveing the Comon fame of a Witch, but not Guilty in manner and forme as she Shee Stands Indicted.”5

For which the woman’s husband then had to post a bond for her good behavior for the next six months.

Witchcraft trials, Pennsylvania style.

Not as big a deal as Salem in one respect… but when it came to getting to the right result? A very big deal indeed.


  1. “An Act for the Advancement of Justice, and More Certain Administration Thereof,” §VIII, Chapter 236, 3 St.L. 199, 203 (31 May 1718).
  2. “An Acte against conjuration Witchcrafte
    and dealinge with evill and wicked Spirits,” 1 Jas. I, c.12.
  3. George Smith, History of Delaware County, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia : Henry B. Ashmead, printer, 1862), 152; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 29 Oct 2015).
  4. Amelia Mott Gummere, Witchcraft and Quakerism: A Study in Social History (Philadelphia: The Biddle Press, 1908), 39; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 29 Oct 2015). See also Joseph S. Kennedy, “Before Salem, a witch inquiry in Pennsylvania,” Philly.com (http://articles.philly.com/ : accessed 29 Oct 2015).
  5. Smith, History of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, at 153.
Posted in Statutes | 10 Comments

Fort Pitt, Virginia?

Here’s a trivia question for you.

Assume that a soldier was carried as a sergeant on the rolls of Colonel Campbell’s Company, 13th Virginia Regiment, on a company muster roll dated 5 April 1779 at Fort Pitt.

Plan_of_Fort_Pitt,_1759The record indicates that he was on the company rolls from October 1778 through March of 1779.1

If you were entering this into your genealogy database software, and had to include a state as part of the location description, which state would you list?

Now, everybody knows that Fort Pitt was right in the area where the City of Pittsburgh sits today, at the forks of the Ohio River, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers converge2 — the city where The Legal Genealogist will be headed tomorrow for the 2015 Conference of the North Hills Genealogists.

But before you roll your eyes at the question… stop and think for a minute.

Because it wasn’t so clear in 1778 and 1779 just what state would end up with the area where Fort Pitt stood.

You see, there were competing claims to that area by Virginia and Pennsylvania. William Penn’s 1681 charter for Pennsylvania had some very fuzzy language about where the western border of his province would be, while the land grant to the Ohio Company by the British Crown put the area squarely into the area that should be considered Virginia. Adding to the confusion was a British map that disagreed with the claims of both the Pennsylvanians and the Virginians and the fact that Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon — surveyors of the Mason-Dixon line — didn’t complete the survey to fix the southwestern border of Pennsylvania.3

The history of the area can be set out in a timeline:

February 1754 – William Trent, a British Indian trader, shows up and builds a fort near where Fort Pitt was later built.4

April 1754 – The French are not amused. They march down the river and make the British leave. They then start building their own fort.5

November 1758 – The British still claim the area, and send an army to take it back. The French burn their fort to the ground when they realize they’re outnumbered and will have to surrender.6

November 1759 – The British start building Fort Pitt.7

1771-1772 – Pennsylvania creates Westmoreland County, with the area of Fort Pitt inside its borders, and the British army takes a powder, leaving Fort Pitt in private hands.8

1774 – Virginia’s Governor, Lord Dunmore, claims authority over Fort Pitt and send John Connolly to assert that claim. Pennsylvania responds by arresting Connolly, who cons his way out of custody and gets a Virginia court to commission him as a justice of the peace for the area. He comes back with his own troops and arrests a bunch of Pennsylvanians.9

1775 – Virginia’s Augusta County begins holding court sessions at what was then called Fort Dunmore.10

1776-1778 – The Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, court doesn’t meet at all.11

1775-1780 – After John Connolly backs the British and the frontiersmen look to independence, Connolly hightails it back to Virginia and a Pennsylvania militia captain takes over at the Fort.12 Fort Pitt becomes the western headquarters for patriot troops during the Revolutionary War,13 with most troops and most commanders being (yep, you guessed it) Virginians.14,

1780 – Congress gets tired of the squabbling15 and gets Virginia and Pennsylvania to agree to extend the Mason-Dixon line to the west, and the whole area becomes — officially and forever — Pennsylvania.16

So… service at Fort Pitt, 1778-1779?

Pennsylginia? Virgylania?

Or maybe just Fort Pitt, somewhere.


Image: “A Plan of the New Fort at Pitts-Burgh,” John Rocque (1759), via “Wikimedia Commons”.

  1. Compiled Military Service Record, Peter McCune, Sgt., 9th Virginia Regiment, Revolutionary War; Compiled Service Records of Soldiers who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, microfilm publication M881, 1096 rolls (Washington, D.C. : National Archives Trust Board, 1976); digital images, Fold3.com (https://fold3.com/ : accessed 28 Oct 2015), Peter Mc Cune file, p.2.
  2. See Jane Ockershausen, “Forts at the Forks: Frontier History Comes to Life at the Fort Pitt Museum,” Trails of History, Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (http://www.phmc.pa.gov/ : accessed 28 Oct 2015).
  3. See Charles A. Grymes, “Virginia-Pennsylvania Boundary,” Virginia Places (http://www.virginiaplaces.org/ : accessed 28 Oct 2015).
  4. Chronology by Decade: 1750 – 1759,” Historic Pittsburgh (http://digital.library.pitt.edu/pittsburgh/ : accessed 28 Oct 2015).
  5. Fort Pitt Timeline,” Fort Pitt Museum, Heinz History Center (http://www.heinzhistorycenter.org/ : accessed 28 Oct 2015).
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Chronology by Decade: 1770 – 1779,” Historic Pittsburgh (http://digital.library.pitt.edu/pittsburgh/ : accessed 28 Oct 2015).
  9. Boyd Crumine, The County Court for the District of West Augusta, Va., … 1777-1780 (Washington Co. Historical Soc. : n.p., 1905), 16-18; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 28 Oct 2015).
  10. Ibid., 17.
  11. Ibid., 18.
  12. Chronology by Decade: 1770 – 1779,” Historic Pittsburgh
  13. Fort Pitt Timeline.”
  14. See E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra, compiler, A Guide to Virginia Military Organizations in the American Revolution, 1774-1787 (Richmond : Library of Virginia, 1978), 60-61.
  15. See Journals of the Continental Congress 15: 1411 (Washington, D.C. : GPO, 1909)digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html : accessed 28 Oct 2015).
  16. See Resolution of the General Assembly of Virginia, 23 June 1780, agreed to by the Assembly of Pennsylvania, 23 September 1780, in Samuel Hazard, ed., 8 Pennsylvania Archives 352-354 (Philadelphia : Jos. Severns & Co. Printer, 1853); digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 28 Oct 2015).
Posted in General, Statutes | 9 Comments

New, easier-to-use, mobile-friendly

The news came yesterday from Millennia Corporation, Surprise, Arizona, that a major update of the FamilyTreeWebinars.com website had been launched: “a brand new responsive, mobile-friendly website for FamilyTreeWebinars.com (that) makes it easy to find topics of interest… Genealogists will now be able to watch courses on their smartphones, tablets or other mobile devices.”

LFTFamilyTreeWebinars.com is a leader in online education for genealogists offering weekly webinars that are free to watch in real time and for a few days afterwards. Today’s webinar, for example — Complex Evidence – What is It? How Does it Work? And Why Does it Matter? — is by Warren Bittner.

Recorded webinars are then available permanently in an online library and may be accessed by subscription on a monthly ($9.95) or annual basis ($49.95). Many recordings may also be purchased on CD as a stand-alone product.

And, yes — truth in reporting, here — The Legal Genealogist is a presenter in the webinar series; it keeps the cats fed…

A video outlining the new features is online here, and features of the update include:

• A new search tool to easily find courses.
• Internal indexing of each individual course to allow easy access and jump to specific topics.
• A new resume watching feature that lets members pick up where they left off.
• A playlist to bookmark courses for future review.
• Presenter pages that feature the individual instructor’s courses and materials.

In a press release announcing the update, Geoff Rasmussen, host of the webinar series, said that “genealogists will be able to find what they need more quickly and watch on the platform of their choice. And they won’t have to worry about remembering where they left off. They can focus on increasing their genealogy skills and less on navigating the website.”

So, what kinds of webinars will you find there?

Well, focusing on Pennsylvania, for example — since I’m headed there this weekend to speak to the North Hills Genealogists in Pittsburgh — there are two webinars looking at research in the Keystone State.

One is available as a stand-alone:

Researching Your Pennsylvania Ancestors, presented by by Lisa Alzo: Pennsylvania has a plethora of archives, libraries, and repositories, where you’ll find a wealth of documents to help you unlock key details about your ancestors. Discover what records are available, where they are located and how to utilize them to trace your roots in the Keystone state.

The other is a bonus webinar, available to webinar series subscribers only:

Best Online Resources for Pennsylvania Genealogy, presented by Lisa Alzo: Pennsylvania has an abundance of resources for genealogists, and the good news is that many of them can now be accessed online. In this webinar, you’ll discover what digitized resources are available for Pennsylvania Research and how to search them to learn more about your Keystone State ancestors.

Coming east, across the Delaware River, you can learn about the Garden State:

Next Exit: Your New Jersey Ancestors, presented by Thomas MacEntee: Participants will learn the basics of researching their New Jersey ancestors starting with the early history as part of the New Netherlands colony to the present-day. Does the search for your New Jersey ancestors often take you to a dead end? What are the best strategies for Garden State research and which record sets are available? We’ll cover the history of New Jersey and review a variety of resources and strategies to get you on the route to success!

Headed west, those with Ohio ancestors have a wealth of webinars to choose from, covering just about every aspect of research there. You can start with this stand-alone webinar:

Researching Your Ohio Ancestors, presented by Chris Staats and Lisa Alzo: If you have ancestors who lived in or passed through Ohio, you’ll find a wealth of documents waiting for you online, and at archives, libraries, and repositories. Discover what records are available, where they are located, and how to utilize them to trace your roots in the Buckeye state.

Then, for series subscribers, bonus webinars presented by Jana Sloan Broglin include:

Ohio: The Great Land Experiment;
Ohio’s Probate Court;
America’s Expansion: The Ohio Country 1783-1812;
Early Ohio Wills and Estates;
Ohio’s Recorder’s Office;
Unusual Ohio Courthouse Records; and
Ohio’s Common Pleas Court.

There’s so much more, on DNA testing, methodology, researching in places near and far, using technology — a total (at the moment) of 275 classes.

And — shameless self-promotion and plug here — since I am a presenter in this webinar series, my cat food budget is aided when folks find some value in:

Building a Family from Circumstantial Evidence.
That First Trip to the Courthouse
How Knowing the Law Makes Us Better Genealogists
Using Court Records to tell the Story of our Ancestors’ Lives
The Ties That Bond
Copyright Mythconceptions
The Fair Court: Records of Chancery Courts
Martha Benschura – Enemy Alien ; and
Making a Federal Case Out of It (BONUS webinar for subscribers).

Posted in General | 4 Comments

For good beer!

It was a good year, 1722, in the Province of Pennsylvania.

The Legal Genealogist is sure of that, having spent yesterday evening deep in the pages of the Pennsylvania Statutes at Large.

Beer-Mug-ClearwoodYes, there’s another trip coming up, to the North Hills Genealogists, in Pittsburgh, this weekend, and there’s this terrific website of the Pennsylvania Legislative Reference Bureau, an agency of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, which “has undertaken a project to digitize the annual session laws published from time to time in the Province and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from 1682 to the most recently completed session of the Legislature.”1

According to the Project’s website, the Statutes at Large “contain public and private laws of the Province and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania through 1809…, setting forth significant archival documents and enactments, with references to original sources, prior provisions and review by British Crown and Parliament agencies.”2 “Publication began in 1896 with Volume 2, the laws from 1700 to 1712, and continued through 1913, with 16 volumes published or authorized.”3

The General Laws of 1722 are 13 in number — 13 specific statutes passed by the Legislature in that year. And it’s clear that 1722 was a good year, since five of those 13 had to do in whole or in part with wine, rum, beer and other spirits.

The laws included:

• An Act for laying a duty on wine, rum, brandy and spirits, molasses, cider, hops and flax imported, landed or brought into this province.4

• An Act laying an excise or duty on all wine, rum and other spirits retailed in this province.5 Eight pence a gallon, that tax was, to be paid over every three months.

• An Act for encouraging the making of good beer and for the consumption of grain in this province.6

• An Act to prohibit the selling of rum and other strong liquors to the Indians and to prevent abuses that may happen thereby, aimed at those who “trade promiscuously with the Indians as they return from hunting, whereby they have opportunity, first, to debauch the natives with great quantities of rum and strong spirits, and then cheat them of their peltry.”7

• An Act for regulating the gauging of cask or, in other words, to make sure that a barrel contained the amount of rum, wine or the like that it was supposed to contain.8

My favorite of all these is the one encouraging the making of good beer. The Legislature “found by experience that the using of molasses and other materials … in brewing ale and beer doth very much hinder the consumption of malt.”9 It said it wanted “to encourage the raising of wheat and barley for the brewing trade, so it is expected that brewers may take special care to bring their beer and ale to the goodness and perfection, which the same was formerly brought to, that so the reputation which then was obtained (and is since lost), may be retrieved.”10

To achieve that goal, it went so far as give authority to “the justices of the peace of the respective counties, and the mayor, recorder and aldermen of the city of Philadelphia, …(to) allow higher prices than common to be taken for such beer and ale as, by the judgment of persons skilled therein, shall exceed in quality and goodness any law or ordinance to the contrary notwithstanding.”11

But, it cautioned, it would “prevent the ill designs of brewers, retailers, victualers and butchers, who combine to advance the prices of [the] grain and provisions they respectively buy, beyond a due proportion of the rates they give” by using British laws “against all such combinations and evil practices.”12

Good beer for a good year.

And you thought our early ancestors — and the laws they passed — were dull…


Image: OpenClipArt.org, user Clearwood

  1. Project Narrative,” Pennsylvania Session Laws, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Legislative Reference Bureau (http://www.palrb.us/ : accessed 26 Oct 2015).
  2. Ibid., “Introduction to Statutes at Large.”
  3. Ibid., “All About Session Laws.”
  4. Ibid., 3 St.L. 268, Ch. 249.
  5. Ibid., 3 St.L. 280, Ch. 251.
  6. Ibid., 3 St.L. 291, Ch. 253.
  7. Ibid., 3 St.L. 310, Ch. 256.
  8. Ibid., 3 St.L. 321, Ch. 260.
  9. “An Act for encouraging the making of good beer and for the consumption of grain in this province,” 3 St.L. 291.
  10. Ibid., § IV, at 294.
  11. Ibid., § V.
  12. Ibid., § V-VI, at 294-295.
Posted in Resources, Statutes | 1 Comment