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Kentucky’s private laws

The Legal Genealogist, in case you hadn’t noticed, loves law books.

Any kind of law books.

KY.lawsCourt record books. Law dictionaries. Legal treatises.

And most of all, the statute books. The session law books. The day-to-day things that our legislators did for — or to — our ancestors.

And as one with Kentucky roots — my Bakers, Fores, and Cottrells all spent time in the Bluegrass State — and as one looking forward to spending some time there this weekend at the Family History Seminar and Book Fair sponsored by the Louisville Genealogical Society — it’s been a blast playing in the Kentucky statute books.

Kentucky became the 15th state when it was admitted to the Union on 1 June 1792.1 That’s when it first had the right to pass its own laws; before then, it was part of Virginia.2

And even in the unofficial versions of the state laws, the stories that come out in the private laws are just wonderful.

Private laws, remember, are laws passed not because the Legislature was trying to address some broad issue (like taxation or roads or voting eligibility) but to address some individual or family concern.3 The usual title of a private law, or at least a common one, was “An act for the relief of” the person or persons the law was intended to benefit.

These exist for the federal government and for the states as well. And looking just at the last of four volumes in an 1814 set edited by William Littell covering just the period from December 1808 through February 1812, the pages of The Statute Law of Kentucky are full of private laws.

Here’s just a sampling of the kind of thing you can find — and these are all direct quotes from the editor’s description of the laws as they were passed:

An ACT to amend an act entitled ” an act for the benefit of Daniel Kessler.” Approved December 17, 1808. By an act of the last session he had been permitted to obtain a land warrant for a quantity of land on Russel’s creek, not exceeding 200 acres, not left than 100 acres. It was found, on making a survey, that there was only 49 and a half acres of vacant land in the place. This act allowed him to obtain a warrant for that quantity, instead of the warrant, which the former act permitted him to obtain.4

An ACT to amend an act for the relief of the heirs of James Bristoe. Approved January 3, 1809. In the act of last session the name of James was by mistake inserted in the place of Benjamin, and the number (of the warrant) 765 instead of 766. This act corrects the mistake.5

An ACT for the relief of John Upton’s heirs. Approved January 25, 1809. They were infants, and their head-right land had been sold to the state for the payment of the first instalment. This act permitted their claim to be reinstated.6

An ACT for the relief of Silas M’Bee, John Jackson and John Moren. Approved January 24, 1809. They were proprietors of head-right lands. This act relieved them from some embarrassments they had got into by erroneous and irregular proceedings.7

An ACT for the relief of Thomas Adams. Approved January 25, 1809. He was a justice of the peace, and had solemnized a marriage, not being specially authorised to do so. This act released him from the penalties incurred.8

An ACT for the relief of Richard Wilmott. Approved February 8, 1809. He had paid the State price and obtained a patent for land belonging to another man. This is said to have been owing to a mistake in assigning to him a wrong certificate. This act authorised the patent to be returned and a patent to issue on the proper certificate.9

An ACT for the relief of Charles Quirey and Samuel Hinch. Approved February 9, 1809. Quirey had been sheriff of Jefferson county and Hinch his deputy : by the sudden death of William Sullivan, another deputy, a delinquent list, amounting to about 100 dollars, for the amount of which Hinch was entitled to a credit, had not been brought forward on a settlement. This act allowed a credit therefor.10

An ACT for the relief of Peter Cummins and John N. Lee. Approved January 27, 1810. This act made compensation to Peter Cummins for the expenses he had incurred and the exertions he had made to apprehend William Walker, John Fisher and Adam Barger, who were charged with the murder of John Coffman, a citizen of Indiana, and to John N. Lee for the expenses he had incurred and the exertions he had made in re-taking John Carter, who stood charged with the murder of James Miller, and had broke jail.11

An ACT for the relief of Dolly George. Approved January 18, 1811. She was a widow, poor and nearly blind, in consideration of which the state price of 300 acres of head-right land was by this act remitted to her.12

An ACT for the relief of Andrew Biggs. Approved January 29, 1811. An indictment was exhibited against him in Montgomery county for murder. This act provided for a change of venue to Harrison county.13

An ACT for the relief of Reuben Steivis. Approved January 31, 1811. This act authorised him to be paid out of the treasury for two drums furnished the 8th regiment, in the year 1793.14

An ACT for the relief of Isaac Rayfield. Approved January 28, 1812. He was indigent and a cripple; he had settled on 50 acres or land, and had paid part of the state price : this act released him from the balance.15

An ACT for the relief of Andrew M’Castlin. Approved February 4, 1812. He owned a small tract of land in Wayne county, on which he was digging for salt water. This act permitted him to locate as much unappropriated land as he could within two miles of the place ; price 20 dollars per 100 acres, time of payment four years.16

And perhaps the most poignant of all the private laws in that session:

An ACT for the relief of certain free Persons of Color. Approved February 8, 1809.

WHEREAS a law passed at the last session of the general assembly preventing the emigration of free negroes and mulattoes to this commonwealth, and it is represented to the present general assembly that a number of free colored people with their families did remove to this state and settle in Logan county after the passage of said law, but before the same was promulgated, and the said persons have petitioned for themselves and their families to be relieved from the pains and penalties of said recited act, and that their relations by marriage or otherwise may be permitted to remove and settle in this state : therefore,

Be it enacted by the general assembly, That the before recited persons and their families be and they are hereby released from all the pains and penalties of the before recited act, and their free relations by marriage or otherwise, and moreover permitted to remove to this commonwealth, provided such relations remove themselves and families to this commonwealth before the 25th day of December next, any laws to the contrary notwithstanding.17

There are stories told in the law books, and none more compelling than in those private laws. Don’t overlook them!


  1. John Anthony Caruso, “Kentucky: Struggle for Statehood,” The Appalachian Frontier: America’s First Surge Westward (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003) 339.
  2. Louise Jones, “Researching Kentucky Genealogy – Part 1: Important Dates,” Kentucky Ancestors Online ( : accessed 14 Oct 2015).
  3. See “About Public and Private Laws,” U.S. Government Printing Office ( : accessed 14 Oct 2015).
  4. William Littell, editor, The Statute Law of Kentucky, 4 vols. (Frankfort, Ky. : Robert Johnston, printer, 1814), IV:6; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 14 Oct 2015).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., at 12.
  7. Ibid., at 13.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., at 51.
  10. Ibid., at 60.
  11. Ibid., at 148.
  12. Ibid., at 220.
  13. Ibid., at 250.
  14. Ibid., at 259.
  15. Ibid., at 336.
  16. Ibid., at 374.
  17. Ibid., at 48.
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