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Underutilized resources

It is a supreme irony that genealogists in general assume that they could never find anything useful for their family history in the records of one particular court.

The Supreme Court of the United States.

StevensonAnd it’s ironic for two reasons:

• Because of the requirement in the U.S. Constitution that federal courts can only hear cases and controversies1 — meaning real disputes that affect real people, there is always a back-story to a Supreme Court case. It’s always going to matter, deeply, to the individual people and families involved.

• Because it’s the highest court in the United States, the decisions of the Supreme Court widely affect people’s lives and may very well help explain why an ancestor did what the ancestor did when the ancestor did it.

Consider, for example, the case of Stevenson’s Heirs v. Sullivant, decided by the High Court in 1820.2 It’s a case about bounty land, issued for Revolutionary War service, and the legal issues the Court had to confront dealt with the rights of the soldier’s children to the land granted for their father’s service.

Here are the facts, as given by the Court:

Previous to the year 1775, Hugh Stephenson, of Virginia, lived and cohabited with Ann Whaley, and had by her the appellants in this cause, whom he recognized as his children. In July, 1775, he made his will, in which he described the appellants as the children of himself, and of his wife Ann, and devised the whole of his property to them, and to their mother. In July, 1776, he intermarried with the said Ann Whaley, and died the succeeding month, leaving her pregnant with a child, which was afterwards born, and was named Richard. The will was duly proved after the death of the testator. In June, 1776, the testator was appointed a colonel in the Virginia line, upon continental establishment, and died in the service. After his death, and the birth of Richard, a warrant for 6,666 and two thirds acres of military lands, was granted by the State of Virginia to the said Richard, who died in the year 1796, in his minority, without wife or children, and without having located or disposed of the above warrant. His mother also died before the year 1796. The defendant claimed the land in controversy under John Stephenson, the elder paternal uncle of Richard; and the appellants having filed their bill in the Court below to recover the premises in question, the same was dismissed, and the cause was brought by appeal to this Court.3

So let’s see what family-related facts we learned from just this one paragraph:

• Hugh Stephenson and Ann Whaley lived together and had a bunch of kids before July 1775.

• Hugh and Ann didn’t marry until July 1776.

• Hugh died in the Revolutionary War in August 1776.

• When Hugh died, Ann was pregnant with a son who was born after his father’s death and was named Richard.

• Ann died before 1796.

• Richard died in 1796, without leaving a wife or child, and was still a minor when he died.

• Hugh had a brother named John.

There’s a lot more, of course. We know that at least some of the children Hugh and Ann had before 1775 were still alive in 1820, taking their fight for the bounty land all the way to the Supreme Court. We know that Hugh left a will naming the children (William, John, Magnus, Hugh, Nancy and Betty4) that was “duly proved” after his death.5 We know that the land, and the land fight, was in Ohio.6 We know that John Stephenson, Hugh’s brother, had disposed of his interest in the land to the respondent in the case, Sullivant.

All from one paragraph of the decision.

Clearly, anyone with any ties to the Stevenson family, or to the Sullivant family, wants to know about Stevenson’s Heirs v. Sullivant.

But there’s much more to this case that might affect so many other families.

What the Court was dealing with was inheritance rights of illegitimate children. Though it focused on Virginia law, the principles it reviewed were of general application at the time. And as to that, the Court said that “it is never to be lost sight of, that the appellants are to be considered as bastards, liable to all the disabilities to which the common law subjects them, as such, except those from which the (law) itself exempts them.”7

It discussed the fact that Virginia law at the time of the Revolution allowed an illegitimate child to inherit from the mother, but added that although illegitimate children may inherit from their mother, “they are, nevertheless, in all (other respects) bastards, and as such, they have, and can have neither father, brothers, or sisters. They cannot, therefore, inherit from Richard Stephenson, because, in contemplation of law, he is not their brother…”8

Think maybe that might have affected family dynamics in a few situations? Caused a falling out among older and younger children, perhaps? Driven an illegitimate child to enmity with legitimate siblings? Driven that illegitimate child to strike out on his own?

Now maybe nobody in your family ever had an illegitimate child and maybe you don’t descend from one. In that case, maybe you don’t need to think about this case when you’re trying to understand the reasons behind some of your ancestors’ actions.

For the rest of us — and for The Legal Genealogist in particular9 — it would be a supreme irony not to consider how a decision like this might have affected what our ancestors did, when they did it — and why.


  1. United States Constitution, Article III, §2.
  2. Stevenson’s Heirs v. Sullivant, 18 U.S. 207 (1820).
  3. Ibid., 18 U.S. at 207-208.
  4. See Ross B. Johnston, West Virginians in the American Revolution (Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publ. Co., 1977), 273.
  5. Stevenson’s Heirs v. Sullivant, 18 U.S. at 208.
  6. Ibid. at 207.
  7. Ibid. at 260.
  8. Ibid. at 261.
  9. I have at least two illegitimacies in just three generations in one of my lines…
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