A reader asks a wonderful question: how old did folks have to be to do certain things? Part 2 of the answer looks at colonial statutes.
Blog reader Howard Swain wants to use the ages at which folks could legally do things to help calculate likely birth years. A perfect use of circumstantial evidence… as long as you know how old folks had to be to, say, marry, or witness a will or deed, or pay taxes, or serve in the militia.
We’ve already seen that some colonial charters had specific age provisions. Whenever a fundamental document like a colonial charter specified an age, that would trump any other type of law on that subject. But in most cases, the colonial charter or similar document didn’t say. So the next step in finding out how old folks had to be is to go to the specific statutory laws in effect at that time and in that place. They’re called acts or laws or statutes, and sometimes even resolves, and if they contained specific age provisions, then those provisions would outrank any common law rule about how old folks had to be.
The operative phrase here is statutory laws in effect at that time and in that place. We can’t fall into the trap of assuming that all the colonies had similar laws (they didn’t) or assuming that once a colony passed a law on a subject, it didn’t change its mind (it often did, and passed another law).
Consider for example militia service. Generally, colonial militias followed the same pattern as their British predecessors and enrolled males at the age of 16. That was the law as early as 1637 in Connecticut (“all p(e)rsons shall beare Armes that are above the age of sixteen yeeres”),1 by 1718 in New Hampshire (“all male persons from sixteen years of age to sixty … shall bear arms, and duly attend all musters)”2 and by 1715-1716 in North Carolina (“all the Freemen … between the years of Sixteen years & Sixty”).3
But that wasn’t the law in Virginia. There, in 1722, “all free male persons whatsoever, from twenty-one to sixty years of age” were liable for militia service.4 And by 1755, the law had changed so that militia service was required of “all male persons, above the age of eighteen years, and under the age of sixty years.”5
So… where do we find out what the laws were in colonial times? Oh, we are so lucky. Almost all of the early laws are available online or, if not online, then readily available in libraries and sometimes for our own libraries — for free. The vast majority are word-searchable, and searching for “years of age” or “age of” turns up all kinds of information. Many advanced searches also let you do what are called Boolean searches (things like “years” in the same sentence or paragraph as “militia”). The results really cover the waterfront: many early statutes covered everything from militia service to marriage to guardianship and a whole lot more.
Here are some online resources that are just stunning in what they offer (all resources accessed 18 Jan 2012):
Charles J. Hoadly, et al., compilers, The public records of the Colony of Connecticut [1636-1776], 15 volumes (Hartford : various, 1850-1890); digital images, The Internet Archive.
(governed as part of Pennsylvania until the Revolution)
Robert & George Watkins, editors, A digest of the laws of the state of Georgia From its first establishment as a British province down to the year 1798, inclusive, and the principal acts of 1799 (Philadelphia : R. Aitken & Co., 1800); digital images, The Internet Archive.
Archives of Maryland, Legislative Records, Proceedings, Acts and Public Documents of the General Assembly; searchable text.
The Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay, 21 vols. (Boston : Wright & Potter, state printers, 1869-1922); digital images, The Internet Archive.
Acts and Laws of His Majestry’s Province of New-Hampshire, in New-England (Portsmouth : Daniel Fowle, 1761); digital images, The Internet Archive.
Bernard Bush, compiler, Laws of the Royal Colony of New Jersey, 1703-1775, New Jersey Archives, 3d series, vols. II-V (Trenton : New Jersey State Library, Archives and History Bureau, 1777-1986). Readily available in libraries and, when available, volumes are free from the New Jersey Department of State.
The Colonial Laws of New York from the Year 1664 to the Revolution, 5 vols. (Albany : James B. Lyon, State Printer, 1894); digital images, Cornell University Library Historical Monographs Collection.
Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Staughton George, Benjamin M. Nead, and Thomas McCamant, editors and compilers, Charter to William Penn and Laws of the Province of Pennsylvania Passed Between the Years 1682 and 1700 (Harrisburg : Lane S. Hart, State Printer, 1879); digital images, Google Books.
[Acts and resolves] At the General Assembly of the governor and company of the English colony of Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations in New-England in America [1747-1800] (n.p., n.d.); digital images, The Internet Archive.
John Faucheraud Grimke, editor, The public laws of the state of South-Carolina, from its first establishment as a British province down to the year 1790, inclusive (Philadelphia : R. Aitken & Co., 1790); digital images, The Internet Archive.
William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia from the first session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, 13 vols. (New York, Richmond and Philadelphia : 1819-1823); online transcription by Freddie L. Spradlin, VaGenWeb.
- J. Hammond Trumbull, compiler, The public records of the Colony of Connecticut (1636-1665), vol. 1 (Hartford : Brown & Parsons, 1850), 15; digital images, The Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org : accessed 18 Jan 2012). ↩
- Act for the Regulating of the Militia, Acts and Laws of His Majestry’s Province of New-Hampshire, in New-England (Portsmouth : Daniel Fowle, 1761), 80; digital images, The Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org : accessed 18 Jan 2012). ↩
- Laws of North Carolina, 1715-1716, chapter XXV, Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, Vol. 23: 29; Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
(http://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/ : accessed 18 Jan 2012) ↩
- Laws of May 1723, chap. II, in William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia from the first session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, vol. 4 (Richmond : 1820), 118; online transcription by Freddie L. Spradlin, VaGenWeb (http://vagenweb.org/hening/ : accessed 18 Jan 2012). ↩
- Laws of August 1755, chap. II, in ibid., 6: 531. ↩