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A tip of the hat to friend Nancy

So… yesterday, The Legal Genealogist had some fun outlining some of the various private laws you might be able to find in just one volume of Kentucky statutes, dating from December 1808 through February 1812.

LittellPrivate laws, remember, are laws passed to address some individual or family concern, rather than to address some broad issue of general application, like taxation or roads or voting eligibility.1

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, and the list offered up yesterday was no exception.2

But as I was working to try to get ready to head off today for tomorrow’s Family History Seminar and Book Fair sponsored by the Louisville Genealogical Society, a Facebook friend popped up with a hint about how to find out if your Kentucky ancestor got himself (or even herself) mentioned in those very early Kentucky private laws, compiled and edited by William Littell.

Nancy Kouyoumjian Maxwell pointed out that there is a published index to every one of Littell’s five volumes of those early Kentucky laws.

Prepared by W. T. Smith, the book is A Complete Index to the Names of Persons, Places and Subjects Mentioned in Littell’s Laws of Kentucky3 — and it’s terrific.

First off, it’s got a history of William Littell himself, including the kind of personal details every genealogist loves. It notes, for example, that he was “believed to have been born in New Jersey, about the year 1780,” and likely “came to Kentucky from Indiana about 1804. He was first educated for the ministry, but abandoned that calling, studied medicine and practiced for a short time in Mt. Sterling, Ky. He next turned his attention to the law, and, in consequence of his legal attainments, exhibited mainly in his painstaking work as a compiler and editor, the degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him by Transylvania University in 1810.”4

The indexer went on:

Littell married, January 22, 1816, Martha (Irwin) McCracken, a sister of John M. C. Irwin, of Fayette County, and widow of Elijah McCracken. He was twice married but the name of his wife, by his first marriage, has not been ascertained. He died in Frankfort, Ky., September 26, 1824, survived by his widow and two sons, William, born of the first marriage, and Philander, born of the second. Both were minors and Littell’s will named as their guardians two ministers, one of whom was the celebrated George T. Chapman of Lexington. He died in straitened circumstances, leaving practically all of his property to his son, William, with the result that the General Assembly, in January, 1825, passed a special act for the relief of the younger son. Philander. This act recited that the testator’s “property was not enough to pay his debts, unless sold by a person who has the interest of his estate at heart, who may thus pay his debts, and save something for his infant son.”

Littell was renowned for his eccentricities, and … he was for a “part of his life a man of bad morals.”5

My kind of guy, for sure.

The index itself spans 212 pages, including an appendix, and includes everything from Robert Abell being reimbursed for supplies furnished to frontier guards,6 to Thomas Young being named Trustee of Lewisbourgh-Mason County.7

Bottom line: if you have Kentucky ancestors in the time period covered by Littell’s laws — from the June 1792 legislative session through the December 1816 legislative session — you want to check this book.

And here’s the even better part.

It’s available online.

The index been digitized by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and is online at Internet Archive and at HathiTrust. Another copy is on HathiTrust, digitized by the University of Michigan.

But, you say, it was published in 1931! Surely it’s copyrighted and can’t be so readily available online — at least not legally!

Fear not. You see, a book published in 1931 was copyright protected for a period of 28 years if it was published with notice, and this had the required notice. But at the end of that time, to continue protection for another 28 years, the copyright had to be renewed.8 In other words, in or about 1959, W. T. Smith or his heirs needed to file an application and get the copyright registered for the renewal period.

And he, or they, didn’t. An online check of the Stanford University Copyright Renewal Database shows no renewal registration for Smith’s work.

Which leaves it squarely in the public domain.

Meaning we can use it, and folks can digitize it and put it online, without fear of violating the author’s copyright.

A great resource, and copyright-free.

Hard to beat that.


  1. See “About Public and Private Laws,” U.S. Government Printing Office ( : accessed 14 Oct 2015).
  2. See Judy G. Russell, “An act for the relief of…,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 15 Oct 2015 ( : accessed 16 Oct 2015).
  3. W. T. Smith, compiler, A Complete Index to the Names of Persons, Places and Subjects Mentioned in Littell’s Laws of Kentucky (Lexington, Ky. : Bradford Club Press, 1931).
  4. Ibid., “William Littell,” at vii.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., at 1.
  7. Ibid., at 198.
  8. §23, Copyright Act of 1909, 35 Stat. 1075 (4 Mar 1909).
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