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Those legal notices

Time and time again, genealogists are told to make sure they never overlook one key resource in looking for their ancestors:

The local newspapers in the areas where they lived.

legaladsAnd there’s no doubt at all that the news and society and personal and even sports pages of those local newspaper contain nuggets of gold for family research that we should never pass up.

Births, marriages and deaths, at times. Personal notes of comings and goings. Even misdeeds reported when someone ended up in court.

But The Legal Genealogist wouldn’t be The Legal Genealogist without going on to add one more note to this chorus:

Make sure you read the legal notices, too.

Because sometimes those legal advertising columns have even more that we’d like to know than the news columns do.

It’s there that we’ll learn, for example, that an ancestor hadn’t paid his taxes on time, or that a relative was being sued for not paying his debts. It’s there that we’ll learn that the ancestor’s land was being auctioned off for non-payment of taxes or because he couldn’t pay his debts. And it’s there that we’ll find the notice about the foundling child, or the strayed horse.

In those legal notices, there are stories unfolding about real people, real problems, real life.

Let’s look at just one issue of one newspaper on one January day 250 years ago. The newspaper: The Pennsylvania Gazette, published in Philadelphia on Thursday, 15 January 1767.

Turn to page 4 of the newspaper and feast your eyes on the goodies to be found in the middle of the three columns on that page.

Whereas on Saturday the 18th of October last, at Night, a white Female Child, supposed to be about six or seven Months old, dressed in a striped Linsey Gown and Petticoat, with a red under Petticoat, was left at Thomas Montgomery’s, in New London Township, Chester County, by a Person unknown ; and as said Child is become a Town Charge, we, the Overseers of the Poor of the said Town, do hereby promise a Reward of Three Pounds to any Person or Persons that will discover who is the Mother, and who left it at said Montgomery’s.1

Oh, and if that’s not enough, there’s a note at the end after the names of the overseers: “Said Child has the two Toes next the Biggest, on either Foot, growing together almost to the Ends.”2

That’s as close to a birth announcement as you’re going to find in 1767 — and if your family is from Chester County and children in your family have a congenital birth defect involving their toes… well… you might want to take a look at those records.

Just beneath that is the advertisement by Thomas Dungan, senior, that “A strayed COLT Came to the Plantation of the Subscriber, in Warwick Township, Bucks County, on or about the First Day of November last, a two Year old roan Mare, without Marks, has a Star-blaze in her Forehead.”3

Sure nails Thomas Dungan’s feet to the ground in Bucks County, doesn’t it? Next steps, the land and tax records.

Beneath Dungan’s ad, a notice dated 8 January 1767:

Run away from the Subscriber, living in Nottingham Township, Burlington County, an Irish Servant Lad, named John McCullough, of a fair Complexion, 18 Years of Age, about 5 Feet 6 Inches high, with a Scar on his Left Eye-brown, and another on his Nose, has lost one of his fore Teeth; had on, when he went away, a Sheeps grey Jacket, with a Spot of Tar on the Back, a striped under Jacket, Buckskin Breeches, deep blue Stockings, and good Shoes, his Hair short, inclining to red.4

The reward for the boy’s return was 40 shillings, so his master Hugh Newell really wanted him back. And if you’re descended from young John, you now have a lot more information about him than you’re likely to find anywhere else.

A sadder note may have been sounded in the same column just below the reward for young McCullough. The same Hugh Newell noted that “a little Boy, named James Newell, about 12 Years of Age, came into this Country in a Vessel called the Rose, from Belfast, and was bred a Nailor; if any Person can give said Hugh Newell any Account of him, he shall be well rewarded for his Trouble; …”5

You can’t help but wonder what the relationship was between Hugh Newell and James Newell … and if Hugh ever found out what became of the boy.

The next four ads are all land sales on writs of venditioni exponas — meaning the sheriff had already tried to sell the debtor’s goods once and hadn’t gotten a buyer, so now was selling the debtor’s land.6

And I’d want to know, if my ancestors came from that area, that land was being sold by the sheriff:

• In the city of Philadelphia, a three story brick bank house that had been owned by George Fader alias Forten.

• In the Northern Liberties of the city of Philadelphia, a two story brick residential building that had been owned by Adam Stock.

• In the township of Northwales, in Philadelphia County, a residence and 12 acres of land that had been owned by Eleazer Williams.

• In the Northern Liberties of the city of Philadelphia, a number of lots that had been owned by Jacob Stonemitz.

In every case I might find a record in the deed books showing the acquisition of this land — but I’d need the court records suggested by these notices to be able to document what happened to the land in the end.

And then there’s the notice dated December 29, 1766, from John Clayton and Charles Willing, Administrators, telling everyone who owed money to John Behrings, deceased, of the city of Philadelphia, that they had to pay up by February 1 or face a lawsuit.

That gives me an approximate death date for John Behrings — and also puts John Clayton and Charles Willing firmly into the Behrings “FAN club” (friends, associates and neighbors we might also need to research).7

Just one column in one newspaper published on one day in one city — and all those clues to all those stories.

So when doing newspaper research, make sure you’re always checking the legal notices.


  1. The Pennsylvania Gazette, 15 January 1767, p. 4, col. 2; digital images, ( : accessed 12 Jan 2017).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid. And no, I’m not sure what the “bred a Nailor” reference means. A nailor was a person who made nails by hand, but how someone can be bred that way…?
  6. See Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1212, “venditioni exponas.”
  7. See Elizabeth Shown Mills, QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle) (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2012).
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