Too much serendipity???

Okay… cue the Twilight Zone music.

The Legal Genealogist is in Columbia, Missouri, for the Annual Conference of the Missouri State Genealogical Association (MoSGA) and wondered, just for the heck of it, if there was some family connection to Missouri that could be highlighted today.

BooneCoMOI try to write something about my family every Saturday and, even though I knew I didn’t have any direct ancestors who came from Missouri, I figured there had to be something in my own family history that would link me to the Show Me State.

And, sure enough, looking at the master place list in The Master Genealogist software that I use, I came across an entry for a distant cousin who was connected to Missouri.

I looked a little closer, and found that he was connected to Boone County, Missouri, shown on the inset map.

And looking a little closer still, he was connected to Columbia, Missouri, which is in Boone County.

Can’t get much closer than that!

So here’s the story.

My fifth great grandparents Thomas and Dorothy (Davenport) Baker had a passel of kids — 13 that we can document. The third son and fourth child was Martin Baker, who married Phoebe Snodgrass in Botetourt County, Virginia, in 1772.1

They had two daughters, Mary and Hannah, before Martin died. His estate was admitted to probate in Botetourt County on 9 August 1781.2

Mary married Samuel Marrs in Montgomery County, Virginia, in 1792.3 Their children included Eli Marrs, born in 1804 in Kentucky, who came with his parents to Boone County, Missouri, in the 1840s and married there in 1845.4

Eli — whose last name is alternately spelled Marrs and Mars — is buried here in Columbia, Missouri, in the city cemetery not far from where I will be speaking today.5

Now Eli and I would be second cousins four times removed. Not exactly the closest of relatives, but hey… considering the odds of getting a family hit not just in the same state but the same county and even the same city, that’s quite a bit of serendipity, isn’t it?

But that’s not all.

You see, Eli and Emily had two sons, Samuel and Barton, who went to Washington State in the early years of the 20th century. Samuel died there in 1923.6 Barton died there in 1918. In Snohomish County, Washington.7

And, you see, next weekend, I’ll be speaking at the Northwest Genealogical Conference.

In Snohomish County, Washington.

Now go ahead and cue that music, okay?


  1. See “Virginia Source Book,” Snodgrass Clan Society of America ( : accessed 7 Aug 2015), citing original records.
  2. Botetourt County, Virginia, Will Book A:146; FHL microfilm 30695.
  3. See Register of Marriages, Montgomery County, Virginia, 1777-1853, Mairs-Baker, 9 Dec 1792; Library of Virginia, Richmond.
  4. See Boone County, Mo., Marriage Book A: 282, Marrs-Pennington (1845); digital image, ( : accessed 7 Aug 2015), citing Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City, Mo.
  5. Columbia Cemetery, Boone County, Missouri, Eli Mars marker; digital image, Find A Grave ( : accessed 7 Aug 2015).
  6. “Washington, Death Certificates, 1907-1960,” database and index, entry for Samuel Claiborne Mars (1923), FamilySearch ( : accessed 7 Aug 2015).
  7. Ibid., entry for Barton Stone Mars (1918).
Posted in My family | 8 Comments

The Show Me State and divorce

Yeah, actually, The Legal Genealogist really was poking around in old statute books again last night.

MO.divToday is the official kickoff of the 2015 Annual Conference of the Missouri State Genealogical Association (MoSGA) — a two-day conference entitled “Liars, Laws and Brick Walls.”

So, of course, I had to look and see what Missouri law used to say about liars — and particularly those who promised lifelong love and fidelity… and lied.

Those whose marriages ended — or who wanted them to end — in divorce.

And all I have to say is … I’m awfully glad I was born in the second half of the 20th century.

It would have been a whole lot harder to deal with an erring spouse — or even a plain old ordinary unwanted spouse — under early statutes.

Here’s what Missouri law said were the grounds for divorce in 1845:

When a marriage hath been or shall be solemnized between two persons, and either party at the time of the contract was, and still is, impotent, or had a wife or husband living at the time of the marriage, or has committed adultery subsequently to the marriage, or wilfully deserts and absents himself or herself, without a reasonable cause, for the space of two years, or shall be convicted of felony or infamous crime, or addicted to habitual drunkenness for the space of two years, or shall be guilty of such cruel and barbarous treatment as to endanger the life of the other, or shall offer such indignities to the person of the other as shall render his or her condition intolerable, or when the husband shall be guilty of such conduct as to constitute him a vagrant, … the innocent and injured party may obtain a divorce from the bonds of matrimony…1

Not exactly the no-fault provisions we have today, are they?

And it was risky to lie to get a divorce. The person asking for the divorce had to swear that “the complaint is not made out of levity or by collusion, fear or restraint, between the complainant and defendant, for the mere purpose of being separated from each other, but in sincerity and truth…”2

And, the statute went on: “If it shall appear to the court that the adultery, or other injury or offence, complained of, shall have been occasioned by the collusion of the parties, or done with an intention to procure a divorce, or that the complainant was consenting thereto, or that both parties have been guilty of adultery, then no divorce shall be decreed.”3

Read the last phrase of that paragraph again.

If the husband was fooling around, the wife could get a divorce.

If the wife was fooling around, the husband could get a divorce.

But if both the husband and the wife were fooling around, they were stuck. No divorce for them!

And oh… if just one of them was fooling around? Just one of them lying about the “faithful until death do us part” bit?

That guilty party, the statute provided, “shall forfeit all rights and claims, under and by virtue of the marriage ; nor shall the guilty party be allowed to marry again (within) five years after such divorce… ”4

The things you learn when researching “Liars, Laws and Brick Walls.”


  1. §1, Chapter 53, “Divorce and Alimony,” in The Revised Statutes of the State of Missouri (St. Louis: State Printer, 1845), 426; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 6 Aug 2015).
  2. Ibid., §2, at 427.
  3. Ibid., §7.
  4. Ibid., §8.
Posted in Statutes | 8 Comments

The Show Me State on Flickr

So The Legal Genealogist is headed out to Missouri today for “Liars, Laws and Brick Walls” — the Annual Conference of the Missouri State Genealogical Association (MoSGA).

It gets underway tomorrow morning with a pre-conference workshop on the Missouri First Families program and then we’re really going to have some fun — talking and learning about those “Liars, Laws and Brick Walls” in our family history.

So you might be wondering why — on a day when I’m headed to Missouri — I’m going to feature a set of images made available, entirely in the public domain — by the British Library.

Yes, that British Library — “the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world’s greatest libraries. It holds over 13 million books, 920,000 journal and newspaper titles, 57 million patents, 3 million sound recordings, and much, much more.”1

Which, in December 2013, released more than one million images onto its Flickr photostream, entirely free of copyright restrictions of all kinds, available for anyone to use, re-use, change, modify, adapt, republish.

Including “maps, geological diagrams, beautiful illustrations, comical satire, illuminated and decorative letters, colourful illustrations, landscapes, wall-paintings and so much more that even (the librarians themselves) are not aware of.”2

Obviously, these aren’t newly-released images; they’re just new to me, and they’re so much fun I want to make sure that anyone else who missed them can get caught up too.

And among them … these images … of Missouri


“St. Louis University,” from An Illustrated History of Missouri.3


“Bird’s-Eye View of the Kansas City Exposition Grounds,” from The History of Jackson County, Missouri … Illustrated.4


“Kansas City Union Depot,” from The History of Jackson County, Missouri … Illustrated.5

Because you never know where something relevant to your research is going to show up.

It may be in a library half a world away.

Or, if we’re lucky, in that library’s Flickr photostream


  1. Kay Kremerskothen, “Welcome the British Library to The Commons!,” Flickr blog, posted 16 Dec 2013 ( : accessed 5 Aug 2015).
  2. Ben O’Steen, “A million first steps,” British Library Digital scholarship blog, posted 12 Dec 2013 ( : accessed 5 Aug 2013).
  3. Walter Bickford Davis and Daniel Steele Durrie, An Illustrated History of Missouri (St. Louis: A. J. Hall & Co., 1876), 427; digital image, British Library Flickr photostream ( : accessed 5 Aug 2015).
  4. The History of Jackson County, Missouri … Illustrated (Kansas City, Mo. : Birdsall, Williams & Co., 1881), 423; digital image, British Library Flickr photostream ( : accessed 5 Aug 2015).
  5. Ibid., at 410.
Posted in Resources | 6 Comments

The language in a deed

Reader Roger Newman had no issues with the measurements of land mentioned in yesterday’s blog.

tenementWhether land was measured in acres or arpens (or arpents) was something he could figure out.

But parsing through a deed and some of the language in it?

That’s another story.

“I see this sentence in the middle in (a) deed when (the buyer) purchased it (1878), mortgaged it and when he sold it (1887),” he wrote. “I don’t see this in any other deeds I have. What does it mean?”

The language:

“155.50 acres of land. Together with all and singular the tenements, hereditaments and appurtenances thereunto belonging, or in anywise appertaining. To have and to hold the said…”

What it doesn’t mean, of course, is that there was a city sitting on those 155.5 acres. Tenements, in this context, won’t likely be the kind you see in the illustration.

Tenement, in a legal sense, “signifies everything that may be holden, provided it be of a permanent nature, whether it be of a substantial and sensible, or of an unsubstantial, ideal, kind. … offices, rents, commons, advowsons, franchises, peerages, etc.”1 So “‘Tenement’ is a word of greater extent than ‘land,’ including not only land, but rents, commons, and several other rights and interests issuing out of or concerning land.”2

Hereditaments are those things “capable of being inherited, be it corporeal or incorporeal, real, personal, or mixed, and including not only lands and everything thereon. … The term includes a few rights unconnected with land, but it is generally used as the widest expression for real property of all kinds, and is therefore employed in conveyances after the words ‘lands’ and ‘tenements,’ to include everything of the nature of realty which they do not cover.”3

And an appurtenance is something “which belongs to something else; an adjunct; an appendage; something annexed to another thing more worthy as principal, and which passes as incident to it, as a right of way or other easement to land; an out-house, barn, garden, or orchard …”4

In other words, by selling the land and “all and singular the tenements, hereditaments and appurtenances thereunto belonging,” the seller was transferring to the buyer the land, any and all rights associated with the land, any and all buildings on the land — in other words, everything there was to sell.

And to have and to hold…? No, this wasn’t a marriage contact (“to have and to hold from this day forward as long as you both shall live”). It’s a “common phrase In conveyancing, derived from the habendum et tenendum of the old common law.”5 That habendum et tenendum stuff is just Latin for have and hold — and it’s nothing more than “(f)ormal words in deeds of land from a very early period.”6

Parsing through the language in a deed can be tough work, indeed… but it’s important to know just what was being sold: whether it’s some rights or all rights, some of the land or all of the land, can be the clue we need to reconstruct a family.


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1160, “tenement.”
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 568, “hereditaments.”
  4. Ibid., 83, “appurtenance.”
  5. Ibid., 563, “have and hold.”
  6. Ibid., 555, “habendum et tenendum.”
Posted in Legal definitions | 8 Comments

The alternative measures

So The Legal Genealogist is getting ready to head off to Missouri at the end of this week to join an enthusiastic crowd at the Missouri State Genealogical Association (MoSGA) conference in Columbia.

The conference, titled “Liars, Laws and Brick Walls,” is going to be a blast — we’ll talk about rogues and rascals, chase immgrants down into their new-country rabbit holes, and review the ways in which court records add to our family histories. And that’s just the start of what the conference offers. In addition:

• Sharlene Miller is offering a workshop on the Missouri First Families program.

• Patti Hobbs will explain the benefits of DNA testing and how to understand test results.

• Erika Woehlk will review the online databases of the Missouri State Archives (and they are terrific resources).

• Cheryl Land will help guide newcomers with her overview of beginning genealogy.

• Preston Washington helps us understand the significant records of Indian Territory.

• Rob Taylor will offer “Confessions of an Obituary Seeker,” with examples drawn from newspapers at the State Historical Society of Missouri.

Getting ready for a conference like this always send me to the resources of the local area, and I always come across something I didn’t know — or hadn’t readily focused on — before.

Boone.landAnd every time I look at Missouri research, I have to remind myself… it started out as French territory, and then became Spanish territory.1

Then it was returned to France, and all of that was before it was sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase.2

Which explains why the United States Congress, on the 10th of February 1814, confirmed title to land in Missouri to one Daniel Boone — yes, that Daniel Boone — described as “one thousand arpens of land.”3


We all know what arpens are, right?

Sure we do.

Okay, so maybe you do. Me? I had to look it up.

An arpen, or arpent, was a “French measure of land, containing one hundred square perches, of eighteen feet each, or about an acre. But the quantity raried in different provinces.”4

Except that a perch is defined, not as 18 feet, but as a “measure of land containing five yards and a half, or sixteen feet and a half in length.”5

So what is it?

The answer lies in the last part of the definition of arpen in Black’s Law Dictionary: “But the quantity raried in different provinces.”

The arpen, a term used only in Missouri, or arpent, the term used elsewhere, in France and Canada was 100 square perches, and the the perche was 18 French feet.6 That’s not the same thing as a foot in the English measure — or the Spanish measure.

Using the French measure, an arpent was .84 acres. But using the Spanish measure, it was 1.26 acres.7 Or, as the Missouri Supreme Court noted, “An arpent is a land measure varying in dimension from eighty-four hundredths of an acre to one acre and four hundredths and to one acre and twenty-eight hundredths.”8

This inconsistency had to be resolved: “After the Louisiana Purchase, United States surveyors measured existing land grants, settling on an exact measurement of 191.994 feet per arpent.”9

Or thereabouts.

More or less…


Image: “An act for the relief of Daniel Boone” (10 February 1814); Record Group 233; NARA, Archives I, Washington D.C.

  1. See “Timeline of Missouri History: 1673-1799,” Missouri Digital Heritage ( : accessed 3 Aug 2015).
  2. Ibid., “Timeline of Missouri History: 1800-1820.”
  3. “An Act for the relief of Daniel Boone,” 6 Stat. 127 (10 Feb. 1814).
  4. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 89, “arpen.”
  5. Ibid., 887, “perch.”
  6. Jack D. L. Holmes, “The Value of the Arpent in Spanish Louisiana and West Florida,” 24 Louisiana History (Summer 1983) 314.
  7. Ibid., 315.
  8. Troll v. St. Louis, 257 Mo. 626, 648 (1914).
  9. Breadbasket of the Colony,” St. Charles Museum and Historical Association ( : accessed 3 Aug 2015).
Posted in Legal definitions | 3 Comments

New Ancestry Academy course

When Ancestry launched Ancestry Academy back in April, it did so with a lot of hoopla, a core of course offerings and a promise.

The hoopla — a description of this new entry into the genealogical-education-at-home field — included the fact that this was “a new educational website that offers exclusive, high-quality video courses taught by genealogy and family history experts. Ancestry Academy courses cover a wide range of relevant family history topics and offer something for genealogists of all levels.”1

RecDeathCourses are “broken into a series of short lessons that let you learn when you want and how you want. Watch a course all the way through or pick and choose the lessons most interesting to you.” And there are short quizzes you can take at the end “to make sure you’re getting the most out of every course.”2

The initial course offerings included included things like “DNA 101: An Insider’s Scoop on AncestryDNA Testing,” with Anna Swayne. Or “And Seek and Ye Shall Find: Become an Ancestry Search Expert,” with Anne Gillespie Mitchell. They were focused mostly on Ancestry resources, and were — and remain — mostly free. Subscriptions are $11.99 a month or $99.99 a year to access all courses, and access to Ancestry Academy is included in Ancestry’s new All Access subscription.3

Each course is introduced in a brief segment that’s a conversation between the instructor and Laura Prescott, Director of Ancestry Academy, and you can find a good overview of how Ancestry Academy works and what to expect in the review by Pam Cerutti at Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter.4

And that promise to add new courses regularly? It’s been kept. With courses like “Who is That Tick Mark? Using Early Census Records,” with J. Mark Lowe. “Brother vs. Brother: Exploring Civil War Ancestors,” with Amy Johnson Crow. “The Mystery of Manuscripts,” with Pamela Boyer Sayre. “Tracing French-Canadian Ancestors and Learning Their Stories,” with David Ouimette.

And, now, one more new one. “The Records of Death: Using Probates in Family History.” Presented by The Legal Genealogist.

The course description says it all:

The probate process, where courts supervise the passage of property from one generation to another, is a rich source of genealogical information. Whether your ancestor left a will or died without one, whether rich or poor, landowner or tenant, male or female, there may well be records of death that provide invaluable clues. Understanding those records, and the laws under which they were created, is essential to any complete family history.5

In addition to the introductory and wrap-up dialogues with Laura Prescott, the course has 10 segments:
The Lingo of Probate Law; Estates with a Will: Procedures; Estates with a Will: Records; Estates without a Will: Procedures; Estates without a Will: Records; Special Records of Widows: Dower & Set-asides; Special Records of Children: Guardianships & Indentures; Finding Probate Records; Using Probate Records; and Limits of Probate Records.

It was a blast to put the course together, and great fun working with Laura and her team.6

Come check out Ancestry Academy. As EOGN editor Pam Cerruti notes, “the content is robust and has something to offer all levels of genealogists.”7


  1. Introducing Ancestry Academy, a New Way to Learn About Family History,” Ancestry blog, posted 16 Apr 2015 ( : accessed 2 Aug 2015).
  2. Ibid.
  3. That includes access to and as well.
  4. Pam Cerutti, “Hands on with Ancestry Academy,” Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter, posted 1 July 2015 ( : accessed 2 Aug 2015).
  5. The Records of Death: Using Probates in Family History,” Ancestry Academy ( : accessed 2 Aug 2015).
  6. I would kill for permanent access to the hair and makeup person…
  7. Cerutti, “Hands on with Ancestry Academy.”
Posted in General | 4 Comments

Serendipity strikes twice

It’s always so nice… so very nice… when the genetic evidence lines up with the documentary evidence. Taking the two together, combining the paper trail and the clues hidden in our own genetic code, can provide a confidence level for answers to questions that we simply couldn’t have reached in any other way.

And sometimes… sometimes… serendipity plays a role.

Genetic QuestionsA case in point from The Legal Genealogist‘s own family comes from the effort to identify a second great grandmother where the evidence of her parentage was utterly inconsistent.

My great grandfather Jasper Carlton Robertson died in Tillman County, Oklahoma, in 1912. His death certificate identifies his mother as Isabella Gentry.1 Other family records say her maiden name was Rankin,2 and the International Genealogical Index used to say her name was Pugh.3 Since Isabella and her husband, Gustavus Robertson, were married before the 1850 census,4 we’ve had a fun chase trying to trace Isabella’s family back in time through burned courthouses and non-existent records.

Serendipity came into play in this research at one point, some 11 or 12 years ago, when I discovered that a Maxine Smith and Clarence Wilson had written a piece on the man I thought might be Isabella’s father for the bulletin of the Rankin County, Mississippi, Historical Society. I couldn’t get the original bulletin but was able to put my hands on a copy.5 It listed the children, and even said one Gentry daughter married a Robertson, but it had the daughter’s first name beginning with a G and the son-in-law’s first name beginning with an I. If true, this couldn’t be my Isabella’s family. But I couldn’t find out where they’d gotten the information identifying the children.

I tracked down every piece of information I could find linking the Wilsons to the Gentry family and found that Jacob Elijah Gentry, grandson of my candidate father, had a daughter Willow Isabel Gentry6 who married a James Otho Wilson, and they were the parents of Clarence and Maxine.7 The only clue I had to their whereabouts around 2001 or 2002 was that the Wilson family was involved in some way with a radio station in Oregon.

I emailed the radio station, explained who I was and who I was looking for, and as the days stretched into weeks without a reply, I pretty much forgot about it.

And then late one day in early November, 2002, came an email from Jim Wilson. Clarence, he said, was his oldest brother, Maxine his older sister. He knew about Clarence’s and Maxine’s family history research.

It turns out that Maxine had been diagnosed with cancer and wanted to make one more trip to the old family stomping grounds. She and Clarence had rented a camper and taken off through Texas, Oklahoma, and back ultimately into Mississippi. They had done the family research on the trip; Jim thought it kept Maxine alive to work on the article about the family history.

By 2002, Maxine had long since passed on, and Jim didn’t think Clarence could help much — he was nearing 90 years old by then — but he gave me the address of Clarence’s daughter where Clarence was then living. I wrote her a letter and asked if she thought perhaps Clarence and I could talk.

The phone rang one day not long after, and it was Clarence’s daughter. No, she said, he just wasn’t up to a conversation. But just that morning, just before my letter arrived, she had put all of the research notes from his and Maxine’s family history trip into the trash. She didn’t think the trash had been collected yet. Did I want them?

Hidden away in one battered old blue notebook, a single hint to a record it would have taken me years to have found otherwise. The documentary evidence now pointed to Elijah Gentry as Isabella’s father.

Now fast forward to 2015, and serendipity strikes again — this time in the DNA evidence. In my match list at AncestryDNA, up popped a DNA cousin named Brad. Not someone I asked to test, but someone who decided to test on his own.

Whose mother was Maxine Wilson.

And whose maternal grandmother was Willow Isabel (Gentry) Wilson.

Brad graciously consented to let me transfer his raw data to Family Tree DNA where we can actually see how his DNA compares to my closer relations:8


The matches here in this first graphic are between Brad and one of my uncles, two aunts and a cousin in that Gentry line.


And the matches here in this second graphic are between Brad and two other key Gentry cousins.

The DNA backs up the paper trail.

At a confidence level that neither, alone, could have achieved.


  1. Oklahoma State Board of Health, death certificate 3065 (1912), Jasper C. Robertson; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Oklahoma City.
  2. Texas State Board of Health, death certificate 1583 (1952), Mrs. Mattie Crenshaw; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin.
  3. It no longer says that, thankfully. But it did. See Karen Brode, “IGI Index,” Rootsweb CLANBOYD-L Archives, discussion list, 7 Sep 2002 ( : accessed 9 Mar 2012).
  4. 1850 U.S. census, Winston County, Mississippi, population schedule, p. 373 (stamped), dwelling 809, family 816, Isabella “Robinson”; digital image, ( : accessed 9 Mar 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication M432, roll 382.
  5. In 2011, I was able to get a photocopy of the original manuscript contributed by Maxine Smith to the Rankin County Historical Society, now in the vertical files of the Rankin County Library, Brandon Genealogy Room.
  6. 1910 U.S. census, Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, Castle, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 137, p. 135-B (stamped), sheet 1-B, dwelling/family 9, Willow Gentry in Jacob Gentry household; digital image, ( : accessed 9 Mar 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T624, roll 1265.
  7. See 1930 U.S. census, Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, Castle, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 4, page 33-A (stamped), sheet 3-A, dwelling/family 53, Clarence E. and H. Maxine Wilson in J. Otho Wilson household; digital image, ( : accessed 9 Mar 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 1917.
  8. The lack of analytical tools at AncestryDNA continues to be a source of frustration… See generally Judy G. Russell, “The raw story at AncestryDNA,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 24 Mar 2013 ( : accessed 2 Aug 2015). … But I digress.
Posted in DNA | 18 Comments

Happy birthday, Phoenix!

It was one of those conversations you never forget.

The Legal Genealogist‘s niece, Bobbi, had called just before Christmas to say she’d pretty much given up on having a second child.

It had been more than five years since her daughter Sydney was born and, despite their best efforts,1 no second child was happening.

And, she said, she was starting to feel that it was for the best. Sydney was in school all day. Her time was starting to be her own again. She was thinking of finally going back to school and taking some classes she wanted to take.

All in all, she said, it was probably a good thing that Sydney was going to be an only child.

And, of course, you can write the rest of this story yourself, can’t you?



Phoenix will be nine years old tomorrow. His older sister is 15.2 And there’s a younger sister who was added to the mix just as unexpectedly as her brother.

Happy birthday, Phoenix!

Families are such fun…


  1. No, actually, I didn’t ask for any details, and you shouldn’t either. It’s rude.
  2. Heaven help us! A teenager! She’s a really good kid, just a teenager! Yikes!
Posted in My family | 6 Comments

Where’d that come from?

Time and time again, it appears in the law books and, so, in the records genealogists use.

The phrase a year and a day.

Year-daySomething had to be done within a year and a day, as for example that the owner of a shipwrecked vessel had to apply to any salvagers to get his property back within a year and a day from the time the goods were seized or the salvage belonged to the King.1

Or it was only valid if it lasted a year and a day, as when a tinner had been in possession of a tin-work for a year and a day, he had a right not to be dispossessed of the property without a court order.2

Or it only had some specific legal effect if it happened within a year and a day, as when the issue is how long after a wounding the death could occur and the crime would be considered murder — at common law, the wound had to cause death within a year and a day.3

And, yes, it is a defined term in the law dictionaries:

This period was fixed for many purposes in law. Thus, in the case of an estray, if the owner did not claim it within that time, it became the property of the lord. So the owners of wreck must claim it within a year and a day. Death must follow upon wounding within a year and a day if the wounding is to be indicted as murder. Also, a year and a day were given for prosecuting or avoiding certain legal acts; e. g., for bringing actions after entry, for making claim for avoiding a fine, etc.4

This period of time is particularly recognized in the law. For example, when a judgment is reversed, a party, notwithstanding the lapse of time mentioned in the statute of limitations pending that action, may commence a fresh action within a year and a day of such reversal; … again, after a year and a day have elapsed from the day of signing a judgment, no execution can be issued until the judgment shall have been revived by scire facias.5

So what’s with this “year and a day” thing anyway?

Why not just a year?

Why not, say, two years?

The Legal Genealogist has no real clue.

I mean, it’s perfectly reasonable to set some time frame within which things have to be done or have to happen. There has to be an end point — some fixed time — so people know what to expect. In the law, these are called limitations periods, and you’ll often see a reference to a statute of limitations: a law “prescribing limitations to the right of action on certain described causes of action; that is, declaring that no suit shall be maintained on such causes of action unless brought within a specified period after the right accrued.”6

And the time period itself is, or at least was, perfectly reasonable when it was originally fixed hundreds of years ago. When the common law was developing, for example, medical science was in its infancy and being sure that a death was due to this wound and not that illness was practically impossible after some time had passed. So the year-and-a-day murder rule was followed, though it’s largely been abolished today when cause of death is so much easier to determine.7

But why a year and a day?

One modern legal dictionary says the term meant “from any date until the same date in the following year, e.g. from January 1 to January 1 of the following year” and “arose because a year from January 1 would traditionally run through December 31, not January 1.”8 That’s not very helpful, really.

In one non-legal dictionary, the Collins English Dictionary, it says that it’s “a period fixed by law to ensure the completion of a full year.”9 That’s not much better.

The closest I can come to a real explanation is this one: “The time span of a year and a day … makes it clear that the time is precise; ‘a year’ is sometimes used to mean approximately a year, but a year and a day makes it clear that the exact time is indicated.”10

And that, you will find, appears in an utterly unexpected source, a wiki called TV Tropes. A website that describes itself as “a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction,” and where tropes are described as “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.”11

Is it right? I dunno. But it makes perfect sense to me. A common understanding, of a common law concept, understood well enough that we can reasonably rely on it.

And as a working theory, I’m going with it.


  1. See Charles Petersdorff, A Practical and Elementary Abridgment … and … Treatise on … the Common Law, 15 vols. (New York: W.R.H. Treadway & Gold & Hanks, 1832), 15:356; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 29 July 2015).
  2. J. Tregoning, The Laws of the Stannaries of Cornwall… (London: p.p., 1808), 45; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 29 July 2015).
  3. See Nathan Dane, A General Abridgment and Digest of American Law, 8 vols. (Boston: Cummings, Hilliard & Co., 1824), 7:121; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 29 July 2015).
  4. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1251, “Year and Day.”
  5. John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union, rev. 6th ed. (1856); HTML reprint, The Constitution Society ( : accessed 29 July 2015), “Year and Day.”
  6. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 1122, “statute of limitations.”
  7. See generally the discussion of the rule and its abolition in Rogers v. Tennessee, 532 U.S. 451 (2001), where the Supreme Court upheld Tennessee’s retroactive abolition of the rule.
  8. Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School ( : accessed 30 July 2015), “Year and a day.”
  9. Collins English Dictionary ( : accessed 30 July 2015), “year and a day.”
  10. TV Tropes Wiki (, “Year and a day,” rev. 26 June 2015.
  11. Home Page, TV Tropes ( : accessed 30 July 2015).
Posted in Legal definitions | 13 Comments

Last chance to speak out

You may have read, earlier this week, that the Arizona State Library’s genealogy collection is under major and imminent threat of being lost.

AZ.flagThe Legal Genealogist reported on Monday that: “Unless something changes — and fast — the Arizona State Library Genealogy Collection — a vast collection of more than 20,000 volumes, many of them irreplaceable — is about to be lost to public access.”1

The genealogical community was asked to step in and speak out on behalf of this collection, by emailing Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan (, Arizona State Librarian Joan Clark (, Digital Content Director Laura Stone (< This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. >), and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (Contact Governor Ducey), to let them know how important the collection is nationally as well as to the people of Arizona.

If you did, you may have gotten a response assuring you that nothing really was going to be lost, that the collection was just being moved, and that genealogical access would continue in a new location — business as usual.

And if you believed that, I have a bridge to sell you.

Please go to this link — an article in the Arizona Republic by staff writer Mary Jo Pitzi. Read what’s really going to happen to this collection:

a small portion of the 20,000-item collection will open to the public at the Genealogy Center at the Polly Rosenbaum Archives and History Building. … The new center will have fewer tangible materials than the current collection. Most of the new Genealogy Center will consist of online databases available for free to the public at three computer terminals. The library staff is moving the most-used reference books, such as a collection of volumes on Mayflower families and materials covering territorial days. But the bulk of the items now readily available in the 77-year-old library will be either placed in archival storage, offered to outside groups or otherwise disposed of2

Read that last sentence again, and tell me this is a good thing for Arizona.

The move is scheduled for tomorrow.


July 31st.

If you care, if you want to be heard, today is the day to act.

This is literally a “speak now or forever hold your peace” moment for this collection.

Again, you can email Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan (, Arizona State Librarian Joan Clark (, Digital Content Director Laura Stone (< This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. >), and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (Contact Governor Ducey), to let them know how important the collection is nationally as well as to the people of Arizona.

But do it today.



  1. Judy G. Russell, “Raising Arizona,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 July 2015 ( : accessed 30 July 2015).
  2. Mary Jo Pitzi, “Researchers lament Arizona genealogy library’s sudden downsizing, relocation,” The Arizona Republic, posted 29 July 2015 ( : accessed 30 July 2015).
Posted in Records Access | 20 Comments