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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

So The Legal Genealogist is getting ready to pack it up.

Not permanently, no.

Just for the weekend.

To the Fairfax Genealogical Society 2017 Spring Conference in Falls Church, Virginia, which gets underway at the Westin Tysons Corner tomorrow afternoon.

I am so looking forward to spending an entire day geeking out on my favorite topic (genealogy and the law — who would have guessed?) and seeing loads of friends. Other presenters include D. Joshua Taylor, Thomas W. Jones, Peggy Clemens Lauritzen, Kathryn Lake Hogan, Sandra Clunies, James M. Beidler, Charles S. Mason, Jr., Sharon Hodges, Karen Mauer Jones, Tina Beaird, Diane L. Richard, Donna M. Moughty, and Char McCargo Bah. Take about a line-up!!

Eight tracks tomorrow afternoon ranging from genealogical evidence to Canadian research and eight more Saturday ranging from the law to African-American slave records — it’s a fabulous conference with loads of vendors and more.

It takes a lot to put together a conference like that — even if you’re just one presenter. In my case, getting ready sent me deep into the early Virginia law books. (A surprise, I know…)

Where I came across the word parcenary and had to look at its kissing cousin co-parcenary.

Now it isn’t the first time I’ve ever seen words like that… but since what I was looking at was the first statutes ever to use such a word in Virginia, I stopped for a minute.

Because I suspect there may be some folks out there for whom the words are — as the tag line says — simply part of that language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, and all confusing.

So what exactly did it mean when, in 1785, the Virginia legislature passed a law that provided:

That henceforth when any person having title to any real estate of inheritance, shall die intestate as to such estate, it shall descend and pass in (parcenary) to his kindred male and female…1

This was a huge change in the law. Before 1785, Virginia followed a system called primogeniture for inheritance of real estate — land2 — and that gave everything not just to the males in a family but to the oldest son.

That primogeniture system was, by definition, “the superior or exclusive right possessed by the eldest son, and particularly, his right to succeed to the estate of his ancestor, in right of his seniority by birth, to the exclusion of younger sons.”3

In other words, the oldest boy got it all, younger sons took only if the older son was out of the picture, and the only way any girl got anything was if there were no boys at all.

Doesn’t sound very fair, does it?

Makes sense, though, in a place like England where land was in short supply and you wouldn’t want estates broken up into pieces that would be too small to support a family in the style to which it had become accustomed.4

Makes no sense in a place like Virginia where land was in abundant supply.

So the Virginians changed the law in 1785 to a much fairer system: parcenary or, as it’s often called, co-parcenary.

Parcenary by definition is “the state or condition of holding title to lands jointly by parceners or co-parceners, before a division of the joint estate.”5 And coparceners were the “persons to whom an estate of inheritance descends jointly, and by whom it is held as an entire estate.”6

And that simply means everybody shares equally. And, under the law, male and female… boys and girls… sons and daughters… equal shares.

The law didn’t take effect until 1787,7 to give everybody notice so that anyone who didn’t like the new system had time to write a will and make whatever disposition of property he wanted.

Before 1 January 1787, if you’re looking at an intestate estate (one without a will), you’re generally looking at what an oldest son got.

But from 1787 on, the system in Virginia if you didn’t leave a will was parcenary: share and share alike.


  1. Chapter LX, Laws of 1785, in William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large … of Virginia… (Richmond: p.p., 1823), 12:138. I should note, for accuracy’s sake, that the original published version of Hening’s says pass in “parency.” Ain’t no such word. Typo. Even back then.
  2. See Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 997, “real estate.”
  3. Ibid., 937, “primogeniture.”
  4. See Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School ( : accessed 30 Mar 2017), “primogeniture.”
  5. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 868, “parcenary.”
  6. Ibid., 275, “coparceners.”
  7. §18, Chapter LX, Laws of 1785, in Hening, The Statutes at Large … of Virginia, 12:140.
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