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Not only what we think

To keep readers from feeling bereft while The Legal Genealogist is on the road, the blog over the next week or so will continue to focus on terms — words and phrases — we may come across in legal documents that don’t always mean what we think they mean.

Words like today’s term of the day: quarantine.

quarantineWe all think we know what quarantine means, and — for the most part — we do.

It’s that time period during which people or animals who were — or were thought to be — infected with a contagious disease would be isolated away from others in order to prevent the spread of the disease, right? That, after all, is the basic dictionary definition.1

My own grandmother, as a child, had been quarantined with her family in the brand new State of Oklahoma just after her father had homesteaded as a successful bidder in the Big Pasture land sale there. The disease: smallpox.2 It was an horrific experience she never forgot.

The term has a somewhat more specific definition in the legal sense, from a maritime origin:

A period of time (theoretically forty days) during which a vessel coming from a place where a contagious or infectious disease is prevalent, is detained by authority in the harbor of her port of destination, or at a station near it, without being permitted to land or to discharge her crew or passengers. Quarantine is said to have been first established at Venice in 1484.3

But that’s not all it means, in a legal sense.

There’s an alternate definition in the context of real property — land — where we as genealogists may come up against it as well.

In that context, it means the “space of forty days during which a widow has a right to remain in her late husband’s principal mansion immediately after his death. The right of the widow is also called her ‘quarantine.’”4

Remember that, for generations, women living in common law jurisdictions — England, the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere — didn’t inherit from their husbands. They may have cleared the land, planted the land, lived on the land, raised kids on the land — but they didn’t own the land and it didn’t pass to them when their husbands died.5

Their rights were limited to whatever the law of dower gave them — usually a life estate in one-third of their husband’s lands.6 And, if they were lucky, that life estate would include the house (that principal mansion). But even if it didn’t, quarantine was the right not to have to leave that house for a time after the husband’s death.

Not quite the concept we have in mind when we hear the word, is it?

But one we need to know.


Image:, user Monado, CC BY-SA 2.0

  1. See Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 4 June 2015), “quarantine.”
  2. Homestead Proof–Testimony of Claimant, 29 August 1908, Jasper C. Robertson (Tillman County, Oklahoma), cash sale entry, certificate no. 246, Lawton, Oklahoma, Land Office; Land Entry Papers, 1800-1908; Records of the Bureau of Land Management; Record Group 49, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  3. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 975-976, “quarantine.”
  4. Ibid.
  5. See generally Marylynn Salmon, Women and the Law of Property in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986).
  6. Ibid.
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