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Great online resource

Our ancestors certainly were concerned about weights and measures. They used them in their daily lives, and cared deeply if the millers and merchants weighed things properly.

So… Did you ever wonder how it came to be that everyone around the world agreed that this is an ounce and this is a pound?

Our ancestors were deeply affected by the spread of disease. Did you ever wonder how it came to be that medical crises like cholera and plague were subject to quarantines and restrictions that people generally understood?

Our ancestors along the Great Lakes may have engaged in friendly disagreements, U.S. on one side, Canada on the other. But there are warships of both nations on those lakes. Did you ever wonder how that came to be?

You don’t need to wonder.

You can find out.

And you can do it fairly easily in a new set of digitized volumes put online by our friends at the Library of Congress.

treatiesWord came this week from The Legal Genealogist‘s favorite law blog — In Custodia Legis, the blog of the Law Librarians of Congress — that the United States Treaty Series, compiled by Charles I. Bevans, Assistant Legal Adviser to the Department of State and published in 1968-1976,1 has been added to the Library’s online digital collection.

This collection includes treaties that the United States signed with other countries from 1776 to 1949. It consists of 13 volumes: four volumes of multilateral treaties (treaties among many nations in which the United States was one participant), eight volumes of bilateral treaties (treaties between the United States and one other nation) and one volume of an index.

And it’s fascinating for any historian — family or otherwise. Precisely the kind of thing we can look to in order to add depth, and breadth, and color to what we write up for our families.

Start with things like the multinational treaty in 1826 among the consul of United States at Algiers and the consuls of Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal, Spain, Sardinia, Tuscany and “the two Sicilies” to share the costs of “building an enclosure around the European cemetery in this city, where the bodies of Europeans are exposed to insults by the public and to damage by the sea.”2

Algiers. 1826. What a history our young nation already had in that part of the world:

European maritime powers paid the tribute demanded by the rulers of the privateering states of North Africa (Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli) to prevent attacks on their shipping by corsairs. No longer covered by British tribute payments after the American Revolution, United States merchant ships were seized and sailors enslaved in the years that followed independence. In 1794 the United States Congress appropriated funds for the construction of warships to counter the privateering threat in the Mediterranean. Despite the naval preparations, the United States concluded a treaty with the dey of Algiers in 1797, guaranteeing payment of tribute amounting to US$10 million over a twelve-year period in return for a promise that Algerian corsairs would not molest United States shipping. Payments in ransom and tribute to the privateering states amounted to 20 percent of United States government annual revenues in 1800.

On September 5, 1795, when the two countries signed the Treaty of Amity and Peace, a few years after the official recognition of the independence of the young American Republic by the State of Algeria (1783), Algeria was among the first countries that recognized the independence of the United States.

The Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century diverted the attention of the maritime powers from suppressing what they derogatorily called piracy. But when peace was restored to Europe in 1815, Algiers found itself at war with Spain, the Netherlands, Prussia, Denmark, Russia, and Naples. In March of that year, in what became the Second Barbary War, the United States Congress authorized naval action against the Barbary States, the then-independent Muslim states of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. Commodore Stephen Decatur was dispatched with a squadron of ten warships to ensure the safety of United States shipping in the Mediterranean and to force an end to the payment of tribute. After capturing several corsairs and their crews, Decatur sailed into the harbor of Algiers, threatened the city with his guns, and concluded a favorable treaty in which the dey agreed to discontinue demands for tribute, pay reparations for damage to United States property, release United States prisoners without ransom, and prohibit further interference with United States trade by Algerian corsairs. No sooner had Decatur set off for Tunis to enforce a similar agreement than the dey repudiated the treaty. The next year, an Anglo-Dutch fleet, commanded by British admiral Viscount Exmouth, delivered a nine-hour bombardment of Algiers. The attack immobilized many of the dey’s corsairs and obtained from him a second treaty that reaffirmed the conditions imposed by Decatur. …3

I don’t know about you, but if I had a sailor in the fleet against the Barbary Pirates in my family tree, I’d add that treaty to my research.

Same with the weights and measures. I had kind of assumed we all had to agree at some point on what an ounce was or a pound, but it’s neat to see it in black and white: an agreement in 1875 to “establish and maintain, at their common expense, a scientific and permanent international bureau of weights and measures, the location of which shall be at Paris.”4

And the same with the measures to stop the spread of disease. Reading the 1903 International Sanitary Convention on cholera and plague is chilling… and you know it impacted any of our ancestors who came here afterwards or who worked at the ports or in the medical field who might have come into contact with diseases like that…5

And with that 1946 agreement between Canada and the U.S. about naval forces on the Great Lakes, too, to the effect that “the stationing of naval vessels on the Great Lakes for training purposes by either the Canadian Government or the United States Government” is okay, as long as each government tells the other what it’s doing in advance.6

Treaties are part and parcel of the laws of the United States7 — and fun to review as part of our legal and family history.

And with this source set now digitized online, there’s no excuse…


  1. Charles I. Bevans, Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America, 1776-1949, 13 vols. (Washington, D.C. : Dept. of State, 1968-1976).
  2. Ibid., “Cemetery in Algiers,” I: 1, PDF online.
  3. Wikipedia (, “Algeria–United States relations,” rev. 5 May 2016.
  4. Weights and Measures,” in Bevans, Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America, 1776-1949, I: 39.
  5. Ibid., “International Sanitary Convention,” I: 359.
  6. Ibid., “Naval Forces on Great Lakes: Interpretation of Rush-Bagot Agreement,” VI: 426.
  7. See U.S. Constitution, Article VI (“This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land”) (emphasis added).
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