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More than wolves and panthers

So you’re sitting there wondering if The Legal Genealogist is going to spend the whole week looking just at the laws of Orange County, New York.

PigIn fact, I may very well do just that, as I get ready for this Saturday’s spring seminar of the Orange County Genealogical Society at the Goshen United Methodist Church. (Come out and join us!)

Because, you see, not only is it true that Orange County is a very old and very interesting colonial county — Orange County is also a very old and very interesting and very typical colonial county. The conditions its people faced were the conditions that most early colonists faced, both north and south of what became the Mason-Dixon line.

The people there were farmers, carving a life out of the wilderness on the frontier of the New World.

And those beasties — theirs and the ones that endangered both their animals and their families — were very much on their minds, as reflected in the laws of the day.

Yesterday we talked about the predators — the wolves and the panthers (eastern cougars) that were so feared by the settlers that they paid bounties to eliminate them. And eliminate them they did: wolves haven’t even been reported in more than isolated cases in New York in decades and the eastern cougar is considered to be extinct.1

But wolves and panthers weren’t the only four-leggedy beasties that drew the attention of the legislators on behalf of the colonists and settlers and residents of Orange County.

No, as early as 1683, there was a problem with pigs and a law was passed by the Provincial Legislature:

Whereas we have found by dayly Experience Thatt Swine are Creatures that occasion trouble and difference amoug Neighbours and rather prejudiciall than beneficiall to the Province while they have liberty to run att randome in the woods or Townes, they being so obstructive to the raising of Corne in the Province and spoiling the meadows in the respective towns; Bee itt therefore Enacted by the Govern’r Councell & Representatives in Generall Assembly and by the Authority of the same thatt no Inhabitant or Freeholder within this Province and throughout the same Except in ye Colonie off Renseleurs Wicke shall or may Keep any Swine small or great butt whatt hee or they shall keep within their own Land and fence or att least secured by the Owners thereof from tresspessing on their Neighbours and if auy shall be found att liberty, in the streets meadows, or upon any other mans fenced or Inclosed lands after the first day of March next ensuing the date hereof, itt shall be lawfull for any one so finding them, or meeting with them, to kill them or take them up; One third part of such swine, shall go to the Use of the person who shall Kill or take up the same, & the other two thirds to the Constable of the towne or place thatt shall take the same into his Custody, being only accountable to answer one penny pr. pound, or one half of the said two thirds, to bee disposed for the publique use of the Towne.2.

Pretty strict, huh? So strict that, two years later, it was repealed: “by reason of the Strickness thereof It hath been found very prejudiciall and of ill consequence to the Inhabitants of this province…”3 That law left the issue of pigs running loose to the locals.

But by 1708, a specific law providing that “no Swine small or great shall or do run at Liberty in the streets Meadows or undivided or Comon Land or within their Neighbours Feilds or Enclosures upon any pretence or Execuse whatsoever” was passed for the benefit of residents of West Chester, Queens and Richmond Counties, who were allowed to capture and impound any stray beasties and to sell them if not redeemed by the owner on payment of fees and a fine.4 And, in 1722, that act to prevent was extended to include Orange County.5

In 1728, a specific law to prevent damage by swine in Tappan was passed because “Several of the Inhabitants within the Precinct of Tappan and the places contiguous thereto have been and Still are very negligent and remiss about their Swine in Suffering them to go at large without any manner of care or restraint So that they often get into the Neighbouring Cornfields Orchards Gardens and other Inclosures and there doe considerable hurt and damage.”6 That law was continued in 1731.7

In 1735, the lawmakers addressed the need to prevent damage by swine in Goshen, again because “Several of the Inhabitants within the Precinct of Goshen & Places Contiguous thereto, Have been & Still are Very Negligent and Remiss about their Swine in Suffering them to go at Large without any manner of Care or Restraint; So that they often git into the Neighbours Corn Fields Orchards Gardens & other Inclosures and there do Considerable hurt & Damage.”8

But by 1737, the Legislature gave up trying to single out specific areas, and passed an act to prevent swine running at large in all of Orange County.9

And — as if that wasn’t enough — as of 1730, the residents of Orange and other counties weren’t just having to protect themselves and their livestock from wolves. They also had problems with “mischivious Dogs” which, “whenever they take to the Killing of Sheep doe prove more hurtfull and Distructive to Sheep than even Wolves themselves to the Great Damage of the Owner or Owners of Sheep…”10

None of these statutes specifically names any of our ancestors who may have lived in Orange County or the areas surrounding Orange. But each of them tells us something about our ancestors who lived there, doesn’t it? Each tells us about changing conditions, about the animals — and the crops — that were important at the time, about the problems that they faced when enough people started living near each other that their animals started bothering other people’s property.

Four-leggedy beasties were a major part of our ancestors’ lives, and the laws by themselves tell a good bit of that part of their story.


Image: Adapted from St. Nicholas, An Illustrated Magazine 48 (May-Oct 1921): 1003; digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 26 Apr 2016).]

  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Cry wolf,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 26 Apr 2016 ( : accessed 27 Apr 2016).
  2. “An Act to prevent Damages done (by) Swine,” 1 November 1683, in The Colonial Laws of New York from the Year 1664 to the Revolution (Albany: State Printer, 1894), I: 134; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 26 Apr 2016)
  3. “A bill Concerning Swine,” 19 November 1685, in ibid., I: 177.
  4. “AN ACT to prevent Damages by Swine in the County of West Chester, Queens County & the County of Richmond,” 18 September 1708, in ibid., I: 616.
  5. “An Act … to prevent Damages by Swine…,” 7 July 1722, in ibid., II: 95.
  6. “An Act to prevent damages by Swine in the precinct of Tappan and Some other parts contiguous thereto in the County of Orange,” 20 September 1728, in ibid., II: 468.
  7. “An Act to Continue an Act Entituled An Act to prevent Damages by Swine in the presinck of Tappan and some other parts Contiguous thereto in the County of Orange,” 30 September 17312, in ibid., II: 704.
  8. “An Act to prevent Damages by Swine in the Precinct of Goshan & Some other parts Contiguous thereto in the County of Orange,” 8 November 1735, in ibid., II: 916.
  9. “An Act to prevent Damages by Swine in the County of Orange & Some parts of Ulster County, and for repealing all other Acts concerning the Same within the Said County of Orange,” 16 December 1737, in ibid., II: 992.
  10. “An Act to prevent the Destruction of Sheep by Dogs in the City and County of Albany the County of West Chester the County of Suffolk Queens County Kings County Richmond County and Orange County,” 29 October 1730, in ibid., II: 667.
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