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Not the same

Dictionary, commentary

A reader recently suggested something that, frankly, hadn’t occurred to The Legal Genealogist.

Maybe sometimes, she suggested, people are confused between Black and Blackstone.



If people can confuse this John Johnson for that John Johanson, even though they’ve been studying the Johnson (and Johanson) families for years, then getting Black and Blackstone confused when they don’t use them often isn’t all that surprising.

So… here’s the essential difference.

When folks in the genealogy world talk about Black, they’re almost always talking about Black’s Law Dictionary.1 It was edited by Henry Campbell Black.

Henry (sometimes called Campbell) was born in Ossining, Westchester County, New York, 17 October 1860.2 His Scottish-born father John Henry was an educated man who was rector of Christ Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, when he fell for a vestryman’s daughter. He and Caroline Campbell, daughter of Francis C. and Jane Campbell, were married in Williamsport on 3 November 1853. John Henry served as rector of churches in New Jersey before accepting a call to St. Paul’s Church in Ossining in 1857.3

The Blacks were in Ossining in 1860,4 but moved to Pennsylvania by 1880.5

Henry — their only surviving child — was educated at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1880 and a master’s degree in 1887. He studied law in Pennsylvania and was admitted to practice there in 1883. But in the late 1880s, he abandoned active practice and Pennsylvania, never to return to either. He and his parents moved to Washington, D.C., where he took up legal writing and editing.6

He was still writing, still editing, practically to the day of his death on 19 March 1927. By that time, he was no longer a lawyer but the “law author and editor of the Constitutional Review.”7

But his enduring legacy to the law, and to genealogists, was his absolutely classic Black’s Law Dictionary. It’s a comprehensive dictionary of legal terms — many of them critical to the records we work with day in and day out — that gives new meaning to the concept of “Gold Standard.” Let me put it this way: if a legal term you’re trying to figure out isn’t in Black’s, then it’s probably spelled wrong.

When folks in the genealogy world talk about Blackstone, however, what they’re referring to is Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.8 This four-volume set was penned by an English jurist, William Blackstone.

William Blackstone is, if anything, even more important to the law and to genealogy than Henry Campbell Black.

Blackstone was born in London on July 10, 1723, fourth son of Charles Blackstone who died four months before William was born. Educated at Oxford, he received his legal training at Middle Temple in London, and was admitted to the bar in 1746. He frankly wasn’t much of a lawyer — he mostly held university lecturing positions until he was elected to Parliament in 1761 and then appointed a judge in the Court of Common Pleas in 1770, a post he held until his death in 1780.9

One of the things Blackstone did — like Black — was write, and the critical thing that he wrote was his four volume Commentaries on the Laws of England. An explanation and examination of the common law, the impact of his work was felt more in America than in England:

The fame of Blackstone in the 19th century was greater in the United States than in Blackstone’s native land. After the American Revolutionary War the Commentaries was the chief source of the knowledge of English law in the American republic. A work that was a textbook in the old country became in the new one an oracle of law. The results of this transposition were not always good, but, fortunately, living law in America was being shaped through local institutions, and the country’s legislators and judges were practical men in spite of the Commentaries. By the late 19th century American legal scholars had begun to escape from Blackstone’s influence, and by the mid-20th century few Americans had read Blackstone even as a classic. Nevertheless, Blackstone is a symbol that American lawyers remember.10

So why do we as genealogists care about Blackstone? Because so much of what he wrote about is part of the law our ancestors lived by. Want to know about marriage and divorce at common law? The Commentaries cover that. How about inheritance and who got what if there wasn’t a will? Yep. That’s there too. Master and servant, parent and child, even criminal law. All there.

So Black wrote a dictionary, Blackstone an explanation of the common law… and both of them should be on a genealogist’s bookshelf.


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891).
  2. Roger K. Newman, editor, The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law (New Haven : Yale Univ. Press, 2009), 49, “Black, Henry Campbell.”
  3. Edward Henry Eckel, Chronicles of Christ Church Parish, Williamsport, PA, 1840-1896 (Williamsport, Pa. : p.p., 1910), 21; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 26 Mar 2017).
  4. 1860 U.S. census, Westchester County, New York, population schedule, p. 125 (penned), dwelling 500, family 708, John Black household; digital image, ( : accessed 26 Mar 2017); citing National Archive microfilm publication M653, roll 880.
  5. 1880 U.S. census, Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, Williamsport, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 71, p. 525D (stamped), dwelling 158, family 179, Caroline Black in J. Henry Black household; digital image, ( : accessed 26 Mar 2017); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 1153.
  6. J.L. Suter, American Biographical Directories, District of Columbia: Concise Biographies of its Prominent and Representative Contemporary Citizens, and Valuable Statistical Data, 1908-1909 (Washington, D.C. : Potomac Press, 1908), 41; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 26 Mar 2017).
  7. “Rites for Dr. Black to be Held Today; Editor of Constitutional Review to Be Buried in Rock Creek Cemetery,” The Washington Post, 21 March 1927; digital image, “Historical Newspapers, Birth, Marriage, & Death Announcements, 1851-2003” database and images, ( : accessed 26 Mar 2017).
  8. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, 4 vols. (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1765-1769); html version, Yale Law School, Avalon Project ( : accessed 26 Mar 2017).
  9. Sir William Blackstone,” ( : accessed 26 Mar 2017).
  10. Sir William Blackstone,” Encyclopedia Britannica ( : accessed 26 Mar 2017).
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