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Not the same at all

Yesterday, The Legal Genealogist noted that researcn in Louisiana — and particularly in Louisiana law — posed some unusual challenges.

Because Louisiana’s legal system originated in the civil law tradition and not in the common law tradition, it’s different from the law in many parts of the United States. Even the language — the terminology — is different, starting with calling the local jurisdictions parishes instead of counties.1

And in no respect is Louisiana law and practice more different from the law and practice in common law jurisdictions that in the area of the notary and notarial records.

notaryNow we all know what a notary is, right? I mean, every one of us has had to get a signature verified at some point or another, so we went to a bank or to a drug store, or to some lawyer’s office, and some clerk with a seal came out, made sure we were who we said we were, watched us sign the document, and then countersigned it, stamped it and affixed the raised seal.

And that is usually all the notary, called a notary public, does in a common law jurisdiction.

By definition, the notary in common law states is a “public officer whose function is to attest and certify, by his hand and official seal, certain classes of documents, in order to give them credit and authenticity in foreign jurisdictions; to take acknowledgments of deeds and other conveyances, and certify the same; and to perform certain official acts, chiefly in commercial matters, such as the protesting of notes and bills, the noting of foreign drafts, and marine protests in cases of loss or damage.”2

The typical duties of a common law notary are set by law: “l. To attest deeds, agreements and other instruments, in order to give them authenticity. 2. To protest notes, bills of exchange, and the like. 3. To certify copies of agreements and other instruments.”3

And that is just scratching the surface when it comes to the notary and the notary’s duties in a place like Louisiana, or Quebec, or Puerto Rico, or any other jurisdiction where the dominant legal system comes from the civil law.

In the civil law jurisdictions, “The notary … is a highly trained public official who drafts private agreements into documentary language and then functions as an archivist of the document he or she creates. The properly signed contract executed before a notary public at civil law is an ‘authentic act,’ deemed to be proof of its contents.”4

Those private agreements covered, and cover, everything from marriage contracts to land agreements to wills to guardianship of children. Historically, “citizens in civil law jurisdictions such as France, Spain, Italy, the New World nations of the Caribbean and Latin America, Canada, and Louisiana have visited the notary of their local village, town, or city to execute agreements. Here they entered into contracts to purchase land, borrow money and pledge collateral, make wills and marriage covenants, form partnerships, conduct family meetings, execute building contracts, purchase shop inventory, adopt children, and so on. In New Orleans before the Civil War, they also bought, sold, and emancipated slaves before the notary public.”5

You did, of course, being the avid genealogist you are, catch the key phrase there, right? The “functions as an archivist” part of that description? And given the scope of the notarial records, you can just imagine the goodies that are in those files, can’t you?

And you’re right: they’re amazing.

So where are they now?

From the start of the notarial system in Louisiana until 1867, notaries kept all of their own records and passed them down to whoever was taking over the business when the notary died or retired. The notary “had to have his notarial acts bound at least every second year. He had to maintain an office open to the public during regular hours in a brick building with a tile roof.”6

In 1867, Louisiana passed a law setting up a central repository for notarial records and, instead of passing the records on to a successor, the records of a notary who died or retired were to be deposited in this Notarial Archives. In 1970, the law was changed so that notarial records must be filed as they are created.7

Sounds great, doesn’t it? And the best part is that so many of these records, from the Notarial Archives, have been microfilmed and can be reviewed through the Family History Library and its associated Family History Centers.8 Some few have even been digitized and can be viewed online at 3 a.m. as we sit at our computers in our bunny slippers.

Alas, this is just for Orleans Parish. The City of New Orleans and its environs. And there’s a lot of information online about its research center.

For other parishes, the records — by and large — are still at the Parish Courthouses, and nowhere else. There are a few exceptions: some notarial records have been microfilmed and are available through the Family History Library or at the Louisiana State Archives.9

Complicating the search for records, both in Orleans Parish and other locations, is the fact that the records are organized by notary. So you have to know who the notary was in order to find the records of a particular family. One good way to find the notary is to find a land record in the conveyance books and see who the notary was who handled it for the family. In general, that’ll be the notary who has the rest of the family’s records.

So these aren’t easy records to find, and not easy to use. Early records may well by in French or in Spanish.

Bottom line, however, is that these are critical genealogical records, unlike anything found in a common law notary’s files, and worth the effort to track down.


  1. Judy G. Russell, “The lingo of Louisiana law,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 25 July 2016 ( : accessed 26 July 2016).
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 828, “notary.”
  3. 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. (1856); HTML reprint, The Constitution Society ( : accessed 26 July 2016), “notary.”
  4. The Civil Law Notary,” Orleans Parish Clerk of Civil District Court ( : accessed 26 July 2016).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid. See also Sally K. Reeves, “Glorious New Orleans Notarial Archives Gets New Housing,” Preservation In Print 19 (June 1992): 18-19.
  7. Research Center & Historical Documents: History,” Orleans Parish Clerk of Civil District Court ( : accessed 26 July 2016).
  8. A catalog search at the FamilySearch catalog for Orleans notarial turns up a mere 145 results — representing hundreds and hundreds of reels of microfilm. See generally, “Catalog” ( : accessed 26 July 2016); search terms “Orleans notarial.”
  9. See generally “Parish Clerk of Court Records on Microfilm At the Louisiana State Archives,” Louisiana State Library Handout 15 ( : accessed 25 July 2016).
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