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Guides to law for general background

The Legal Genealogist loves legal treatises.

Okay, admittedly, The Legal Genealogist is also a law geek, so the idea of being in love with “a systematic exposition or argument in writing including a methodical discussion of the facts and principles involved and conclusions reached”1 — when that treatise focuses on a legal topic — is hardly remarkable.

But treatises have two very big pluses going for them when it comes to genealogy.

First, because these are usually scholarly and/or practical explanations of an area of the law written for lawyers or judges (or both) by a lawyer or a judge (or both), they usually provide a pretty good and reasonably reliable grounding in an area of the law that we often know nothing about and in which we need a basic education.

And, second, at least with respect to treatises written and published before 1923 — the key break-point for American copyright protection2 — they’re often digitized and readily available online.

So if you want to know, for example, all about the justices of the peace in early Ohio — how they were chosen and what their duties were — and to find out about other basic officials like constables and township trustees as an added bonus, you could grab a digital copy of The Ohio Officer and Justices’ Guide, published in Ohio in 1843.3

(You’d never guess, of course, that The Legal Genealogist will be speaking this weekend at the annual seminar of the Hamilton County (Ohio) Genealogical Society, right?)

This particular treatise was written by a judge of the federal court there in Ohio at the time — Humphrey Howe Leavitt was born in Connecticut in 1796, served in the War of 1812, read the law in 1816 and then practiced law in Cadiz, Ohio, going on to serve as a justice of the peace, county prosecutor, state representative, state senator, court clerk and U.S. congressman before being nominated to the U.S. District Court by President Andrew Jackson. He served in the Ohio federal courts from 1834 until his retirement in 1871.4

No question that he had the qualifications to educate us all about these early officials and their tasks!

So… where and how do we find these treatises?

Whenever we need a basic background in a legal topic, we want to look at all three major book digitization services:

Google Books: “Google Books… is a service from Google Inc. that searches the full text of books and magazines that Google has scanned, converted to text using optical character recognition (OCR), and stored in its digital database. Books are provided either by publishers and authors, through the Google Books Partner Program, or by Google’s library partners, through the Library Project.”5

HathiTrust Digital Library: “HathiTrust is a large-scale collaborative repository of digital content from research libraries including content digitized via the Google Books project and Internet Archive digitization initiatives, as well as content digitized locally by libraries.”6

Internet Archive: “The Internet Archive is a San Francisco–based nonprofit digital library with the stated mission of ‘universal access to all knowledge’. It provides free public access to collections of digitized materials, including websites, software applications/games, music, movies/videos, moving images, and nearly three million public-domain books.”7

And to find a particular treatise, we need to put on our thinking caps and consider how to construct a search that will get us to what we need.

My typical search system is topic + location + time frame.

So, for example, in looking for information about justices of the peace in Ohio in the years just after Ohio became a state, my search terms might be justice of the peace Ohio and a date range.

Even without the date range, in this case, that search turns up both the Leavitt treatise that I can read online and a snippet view of a 1932 book on the Justice of the Peace Courts of Hamilton County, Ohio.8

And where a search turns up just too many options, I’ll add the word treatise to the search term to see if that will narrow things down.

So the next time you need to know about a specific legal concept to figure out what your ancestor was doing — maybe he was serving as a justice of the peace, or maybe appearing as a defendant in front of one! — check out the treatises for the time and place.

It’s a great way to get an overall education in the topic.


  1. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 3 Apr 2017), “treatise.”
  2. See Judy G. Russell, “That 1923 date,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 20 Nov 2016 ( : accessed 3 Apr 2017).
  3. Humphrey H. Leavitt, The Ohio Officer and Justices’ Guide (Steubenville, Ohio: James Turnbull, 1843); digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 3 April 2017).
  4. Leavitt, Humphrey Howe,” History of the Federal Judiciary : Judges, Federal Judicial Center ( : accessed 3 Apr 2017).
  5. Wikipedia (, “Google Books,” rev. 2 Apr 2017.
  6. Ibid., “HathiTrust,” rev. 26 Mar 2017.
  7. Ibid., “Internet Archive,” rev. 28 Mar 2017.
  8. Paul Douglass, The Justice of the Peace Courts of Hamilton County, Ohio (Baltimore, Md. : Johns Hopkins Press, 1932.).
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