Select Page

Part two

The Legal Genealogist knew it was going to happen.

Knew it.

Would have taken a bet on it.

Could have avoided it.



So about a nanosecond after yesterday’s post ran about the laws in colonial Massachusetts about handling stray animals, the question pinged through to my email inbox.

I won’t name the reader — at his / her / its request — who began the email by explaining: “I realize in your post you were writing about strays but the word I keep seeing references to in court records and laws is estrays.”

“Go ahead and shoot me for asking a dumb question but… What’s the difference?”

Now, I knew this was coming.

I really would have taken a bet on it.

I knew somebody would ask, and should have put it in the post.

Since I didn’t, I kind of have to ask…

Are you sure you really want the answer?

Really sure?

Really absolutely sure?

Okay, then.

The difference between stray and estray is …

— You’re ready, right?

— You’re sure?

— No reader’s remorse or anything like that, okay?

— You really want to know?

Okay then.

The difference between stray and estray is …

— One letter.

In case you hadn’t notice, estray begins with an E. Stray doesn’t.


The Black’s Law Dictionary entry for estray reads:

Cattle whose owner is unknown…. Any beast, not wild, found within any lordship, and not owned by any man…. Estray must be understood as denoting a wandering beast whose owner is unknown to the person who takes it up. … An estray is an animal that has escaped from its owner, and wanders or strays about; usually defined, at common law, as a wandering animal whose owner is unknown. An animal cannot be an estray when on the range where it was raised, and permitted by its owner to run, and especially when the owner is known to the party who takes it up. The fact of its being breachy or vicious does not make it an estray.1

And the Black’s Law Dictionary entry for stray: “STRAY. See ESTRAY.”2

So an estray is a stray.

With (can I get away with this?) a stray E at the beginning.


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 438, “estray.” And breachy, by the way, is a term that means “apt to break fences or be wild —used of domestic animals.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 5 Jan 2015), “breachy.”
  2. Ibid., 1127, “stray.”
Print Friendly, PDF & Email