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More on the law of strays

Okay, so The Legal Genealogist is having some fun with this topic, but hey… if you can’t have fun with a blog on genealogy and the law, where can you have fun?

Don’t answer that.

At least if it isn’t legal.


We’re talking about strays, or estrays, and the law.

First, some background for our hypothetical.

Group Of Farm Animals : Cow, Sheep, Horse, Donkey, Chicken, LambLet’s say your ancestors were neighbors of my ancestors, who lived in Kentucky in the 1850s. And let’s say that, in 1855 or so, one of those ancestors found two stray cattle roaming around and decided to take them up (capture them), in the hopes of being able to keep them if the owners never stepped forward to claim them.

The law in Kentucky had the same basic concept as the law we’ve been talking about in Massachusetts,1 that stray cattle could be taken up by anybody who found them, at least if he was a landowner, long-term tenant or keeper of a toll-gate.2

Under Kentucky law, you had to publicly announce within a set time that you’d found the stray beasties, there had to be a record made in court with the value of the animals assessed at the time, and the owner had to come forward within a specific time to claim them and would have to pay all fees and costs to get the cattle back.3

The big difference between Kentucky in the 19th century and Massachusetts in the 17th century was that Kentucky simply let the finder keep the animal if the owner didn’t show up and claim it,4 while Massachusetts expected the finder to pay the town some portion of the animal’s value.5

The end result in either case, if the owner didn’t show and the finder wanted to keep the stray, was that the finder became the new owner of the animal.

With that background, here’s today’s question, posed with the help of Kentucky attorney and blog reader Foster Ockerman, Jr.:

What sound would the two stray cattle your ancestor took up have made?

Sounds like a ridiculous question, doesn’t it?

I mean, okay, so maybe we didn’t all grow up on a farm, but we can all easily define the word cattle, can’t we?

“Cows, bulls, or steers that are kept on a farm or ranch for meat or milk,” according to Merriam-Webster.6 The Oxford Dictionaries website agrees: “Large ruminant animals with horns and cloven hoofs, domesticated for meat or milk, or as beasts of burden; cows.”7 “Any of various domesticated ruminant mammals of the genus Bos, including cows, steers, bulls, and oxen, often raised for meat and dairy products,” says the Free Dictionary.8

So easy answer, huh?

Moo, of course.

Except maybe it wasn’t moo at all.

Maybe it was baaaaaa.

Maybe it was oink.

Maybe it was a bleat.

Or a bray.

Or even a neigh.

Because the word “cattle” in the Kentucky statute didn’t just mean cows. The term as it was generally understood by lawyers at the time included “domestic animals generally; all the animals used by man for labor or food.”9 And the Kentucky law specifically mentioned some I sure wouldn’t think of as “cattle”: horses, mules, jacks and jennets.10

Even today, Kentucky law defines the term “stray cattle” to mean “any animal of the bovine, ovine, porcine, or caprine species for which the owner is no longer claiming ownership or for which the owner cannot be determined, but not including any member of the equine species.”11

In other words, horses and donkeys aren’t cattle today, since the law was amended in 2010.

But pigs and sheep and goats are cattle.

And, of course, cows too.

So your ancestor who took up those cattle?

He might have ridden one home and made bacon of the other.

The things you learn when you want to understand family history…


Note: Major league thanks to reader Foster Ockerman, Jr., who alerted me by email that, as he put it, the law used to say a horse was a cow.

  1. See generally Judy G. Russell, “A beastly problem,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 5 Jan 2015 ( : accessed 6 Jan 2015).
  2. §1, Chapter XCVI, “Strays,” in The Revised Statutes of Kentucky (Frankfort, KY: State Printer, 1852), 652-653; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 6 Jan 2015).
  3. Ibid., §§1-6.
  4. Ibid., §3.
  5. §3, Chapter 9, “Act Relating to Strays and Lost Goods,” 15 June 1698, in Acts and Resolves … of the Province of Massachusetts Bay (Boston: State Printers, 1869), I: 326-327; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 4 Jan 2015).
  6. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 6 Jan 2015), “cattle.”
  7. Oxford Dictionaries Online ( : accessed 6 Jan 2015), “cattle.”
  8. The Free Dictionary ( : accessed 6 Jan 2015), “cattle.”
  9. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 180, “cattle.”
  10. §2, Chapter XCVI, “Strays,” in The Revised Statutes of Kentucky (1852).
  11. Kentucky Revised Statutes (2010) §259.105(2).
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