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Law Day – Family History Day

Celebrating Law Day Family History-Style

It’s May 1, officially declared as Law Day in the United States,1 and for this self-proclaimed law geek it’s definitely my kind of holiday.

Law Day as a day to celebrate the rule of law and its role in creating and protecting American freedoms was first recognized in 1957 with a proclamation by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1961, a joint resolution of Congress called for an annual proclamation of Law Day, and each year the American Bar Association chooses a different theme. For 2012, it’s No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom.2

But hey… this ought to be celebrated throughout the genealogical community. We should call it Family History Day, because — without laws and the records created because of laws — there sure as heck wouldn’t be much family history for any of us to find. Our theme can be No Laws, No Courts, No Records.

Think about it for a minute. Think of all the bits and pieces and clues we use to piece together the stories of our ancestors. So very many of the records we rely on were created because of some legal requirement.

I know that my very distant ancestor Nicholas Gentry was a colonial militiaman in York County, Virginia, in 1680 because he got into a tussle with a creditor who got a court order garnisheeing his pay.3

I have a marriage bond for Boston Shew and Elizabeth Brewer in 1816 in Wilkes County, North Carolina.4 It exists because the law required it.

I have the 1895 Chicago birth certificate reflecting when and where my father’s aunt gave birth to her first and only child, in Chicago, in 1895.5 Why? Because the law required it.

I have death records for two great grandfathers, both born in 19th century Texas6 because the law required the deaths be recorded.

I have the passenger list for S.S. George Washington, the ship that carried my father and his parents from their home in Germany to their new home in America in 19257 because the law required it. I have my grandmother’s birth certificate from Germany — attached to the visa application the law required her to fill out to come to America.8 I know where they lived in 19309 and, as of 2 April when the 1940 census was released, I know where they lived in 1935 and 194010 — because the law required those censuses to be taken.

And I have that affidavit filed by my fourth great grandfather David Baker outlining his service in the 3rd Virginia in the Revolutionary War where he mentioned the death of his brother Richard at the Battle of Trenton11 that I wrote about this past Sunday.12 Why? Because, if David was to qualify for a pension, the law required it.

Just about everything our ancestors did that ended up being recorded on paper got there because some law required it. Without even trying, I came up with 20 different types of records that wouldn’t exist at all or in anything near the volume we have if it were not for the law:

     • Burial permits;
     • Census records (both state and federal);
     • Civil and criminal court records;
     • Copyrights;
     • Divorce records;
     • Estate records (probate and will records);
     • Immigration (visas, entry records);
     • Jury lists;
     • Land records;
     • Military draft, enlistment, pension and service records;
     • Naturalization records;
     • Passports;
     • Patents;
     • Prison records;
     • School records;
     • Social Security records;
     • Tax records;
     • Trademarks;
     • Vital records; and
     • Voting records.

I can’t imagine doing family history research without the records required by law. It’d be a nightmare. It probably wouldn’t even be possible.

So let’s hear it for Law Day. For a genealogist, it’s the best holiday there is.


  1. See 36 U.S.C. §113
  2. See “Law Day: Research Guide,” Library of Congress ( : accessed 30 Apr 2012). See also American Bar Association, “Law Day 2012” ( : accessed 30 Apr 2012).
  3. November 1680, order as to Nicholas Gentry, York County, Virginia, Deeds, Orders, Wills (1677 – 1684) 6: 268; York County Microfilm reel 3, Library of Virginia, Richmond.
  4. Wilkes County, North Carolina, Marriage Bond, 1816, Boston Shew to Elizabeth Brewer; North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
  5. Cook County, Illinois, Return of a Birth, Benjamin Franklin Ernest Schreiner, 4 July 1895; Couty Clerk’s Office, Vital Statistics Department, Chicago.
  6. Texas Board of Health, death certif. no. 13603, Martin Gilbert Cottrell, 26 Mar 1946; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin. Also Oklahoma State Board of Health, death certificate 3065 (1912), Jasper C. Robertson; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Oklahoma City.
  7. Manifest, S.S. George Washington, Jan-Feb 1925, p. 59 (stamped), lines 4-6, Geissler family; “New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” digital images, ( : accessed 10 Feb 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T715, roll 3605.
  8. Bremen birth certificate, attached to visa application, Form 255, 4 December 1924, Marie Geissler; photocopy received 2004 via FOIA request by Judy G. Russell from U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (now U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services).
  9. 1930 U.S. census, Cook County, Illinois, Chicago Ward 16, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 17, page 223(B) (stamped), sheet 18(B), dwelling 155, family 386, Hugo Geissler household; digital image, ( : accessed 5 Apr 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 441.
  10. 1940 U.S. census, Cook County, Illinois, Chicago Ward 13, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 103-867, page 1,429(B) (stamped), sheet 61(B), household 52, Hugo Geissler household; digital image, ( : accessed 2 Apr 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T627, roll 947.
  11. Affidavit of Soldier, 26 September 1832; Dorothy Baker, widow’s pension application no. W.1802, for service of David Baker (Corp., Capt. Thornton’s Co., 3rd Va. Reg.); Revolutionary War Pensions and Bounty-Land Warrant Application Files, microfilm publication M804, 2670 rolls (Washington, D.C. : National Archives and Records Service, 1974); digital images, Fold3 ( : accessed 28 Apr 2012), David Baker file, pp. 3-6.
  12. We paid in blood,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 29 Apr 2012).
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