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Not a friendly word

Being back on the road — this time for the fantastic gatherings of genealogists that are known as the Professional Management Conference of the Association of Professional Genealogists followed by the 2014 Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy — is interfering with schedules again.

inquisitionBut, once again, to ease withdrawal pains, The Legal Genealogist offers…

The term of the day:


Now the Spanish of the 15th century ensured that this word would never come to anyone’s lips lightly, didn’t they?

Because when most of us hear the word inquisition, we think Spanish Inquisition.

And it’s hard to feel warm and fuzzy about compelled expulsion of non-Catholics from their homes, rounding people up and torturing them in the name of God, and other lovely medieval concepts, isn’t it?1

And, frankly, even the more benign uses of the word aren’t going to give anybody the warm-and-fuzzies either.

Because, in the law, “an inquisition was an inquiry or inquest; particularly, an investigation of certain facts made by a sheriff, together with a jury impaneled by him for the purpose.”2

But — scary or not — it’s a word we as genealogists ought to embrace, because things like formal inquiries with sheriffs and juries will result in that other word that does give genealogists the warm-and-fuzies: records.

Our ancestors were often called to participate in these inquisitions:

• They sat as jurors for inquests called to determine the cause of death when someone turned up dead under unusual circumstances — and records of these inquests survive. I have one from Burke County, North Carolina, dating back to just after the Revolutionary War in which a distant cousin was involved as a juror.3

• In medieval England, there were inquisitions post mortem whenever a direct tenant of the crown died, to determine what lands were held and who should get them. The records, which span a critical time period, are considered among the most genealogy-friendly records of early England.4

• And — in bitter truth — even the Spanish Inquisition left records. The Inquisition Collection at Notre Dame University and other collections at the University of Pennsylvania and Indiana University exist to help those looking into that time.

So the word may not be warm and fuzzy… but we can embrace the records anyway.


  1. Even if torture might not have been used all that much. See Wikipedia (, “Spanish Inquisition,” rev. 2 Jan 2014.
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 627, “inquisition.”
  3. And no, actually, I don’t have the citation with me, darn it. It was in a box of miscellaneous records at the North Carolina State Archives in Raleigh, but it doesn’t show up in the MARS record search catalog online. Check with me after I get home if you have Davenport ancestors from Burke County.
  4. See “Public records: Inquisitions post mortem,” Some Notes on Medieval English Genealogy ( : accessed 9 Jan 2014).
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