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Those pesky in-laws

The Legal Genealogist can just picture it.

Reader Susan Zabolotny is sitting there with a will from 1807, reading every word carefully, when she encounters the reference.

You know — the reference.

The one that says exactly what the relationship is between the now-deceased individual and the person named in the will.

That person who, the will carefully notes, is the decedent’s son-in-law.

And we all know what a son-in-law is. It’s right there in the premier legal dictionaries: “The husband of one’s daughter.”1

Except… except… except…

Except that it didn’t always mean that at all.

The term “in law” absolutely meant a relationship by marriage rather than by blood, but it was used for any relationship by marriage.

SmithSo in 1851 on the English census, 11-year-old Hannah Smith was shown as daughter-in-law and nine-year-old George Smith as son-in-law to David King, the head of the household; the next oldest child Hannah King was age seven.2

Given the ages, we know what the situation is in that household. There’s no doubt the older children were step-children, not in-laws as we know that term today.

Similarly, a 1765 will by widow Sarah Middleton named the son of her “son-in-law” William Middleton as an heir — but William was her step-son, not the husband of her daughter.3

Likewise, the “Quaker records for Nailsworth, Gloucestershire record the death in 1728 of John White, son-in-law of Charles Fowler of Woodchester and son of Elizabeth Fowler his wife. The poor lad was only 10 when he died. He was plainly what we today would call the stepson of Charles Fowler.”4

So in answer to Sue’s question — “could the term ‘son-in-law’ mean something else during this time period?” — yep, it sure could.

More work to be done to nail down the exact relationship, I’m afraid.

Pesky in-laws, anyway.


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1107, “son-in-law.” Accord, John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union, rev. 6th ed. (Philadelphia: Childs & Peterson, 1856), II: 538, “term.”
  2. 1851 England Census, Edlesborough, Buckinghamshire, Class: HO107; Piece: 1756; Folio: 494; Page: 7; GSU roll: 87685-87686; digital images, ( : accessed 18 July 2016).
  3. See A. S. Salley Jr., “Governor Joseph Morton and His Descendants,” South Carolina Historical & Genealogical Magazine 5 (1904): 111-112 n. 19; ; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 18 July 2016).
  4. Peter Carter, comment to “Did son-in-law have a different meaning in mid-19th century England?”, Genealogy & Family History ( : accessed 18 July 2016).
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