One-stop-shopping for the law of the Old Line State

The Legal Genealogist is off today, heading south for the Fall Seminar of the Maryland Genealogical Society… but not — for once — to an airport.

No, this afternoon I’ll be behind the wheel, since Maryland is well within driving range from my home.

And the whole way down I’ll be thinking about the amazing Old Line State resources I came across while preparing for this conference.

Including one of the best collections of colonial and state-era laws you’ll ever find.

If you’ve been reading this blog more than, oh, a nanosecond or so, you already know the mantra around these parts: to understand the records, we have to understand the law, and not the law in general but the specific law in effect at the time and in the place where the record was created.

Just as one example, on Ancestry, in the “Maryland, Wills and Probate Records, 1635-1777” collection, there are some records labeled “Balance books of estates after payment to heirs” with the same entry time after time after time. An amount of money “To be Secured and Disposed According to Law.”1

Great.

That’s really helpful, isn’t it?

Just what was supposed to be done with the money after it was secured in order to dispose of it according to law?

To answer the question, we have to find the law.

And Maryland actually makes that pretty easy.

Enter the Archives of Maryland Online, one of the best collections of archival materials of all stripes you’re going to find in an online setting. A resource of the Maryland State Archives, the entry page explains:

The ongoing Maryland State Archives publication series, Archives of Maryland Online, currently provides access to over 471,000 historical documents that form the constitutional, legal, legislative, judicial, and administrative basis of Maryland’s government. Online access enables users to research such topics as Maryland’s constitutions and constitutional conventions’ proceedings, session laws, proceedings of the General Assembly, governors’ papers, and military records. This project allows the Archives to place into electronic form and preserve for future generations records that are scattered among a number of repositories and that often exist only on rapidly disintegrating paper.2

So… with 471,000 historical documents, where do we find the laws?

Two places, both in that column on the left with the menu.

First, a record of the laws adopted by Maryland both as a colony and as a state, in every session of its legislature from 1634-35 all the way through to the regular session of 2016, is set out under the tab in that left menu labeled “Session Laws.”

Well… that’s a bit misleading. The site says it doesn’t really know if any laws were passed in that first session: “The only record of this Assembly is a reference to an act passed on February 26, 1634/35, by a ‘General Assemblie’ at St. Mary’s.”3 And there’s a placeholder for 2016 but, for now, you have to click through to the Legislature’s own website.4

But starting with the Freemen’s Assembly of 1637/38, in almost every case where any action was taken, you can review the Proceedings and Acts of the Assembly — or whatever the official record was called at the time — on the website in searchable text.

And in many but not all cases up through the 1824-1825 session, you can also view the actual digital images of the original published volumes as reproduced from the Archives’ Early State Records Film collection.

That comprehensive presentation of the laws in a one-stop-shopping format is hard to beat.

And the Archives of Maryland Online doesn’t stop there.

Second, it’s often easier to get a handle on the laws once they’ve been organized by topic in what’s called codification: the “process of collecting and arranging the laws of a country or state into a code, i.e., into a complete system of positive law, scientifically ordered, and promulgated by legislative authority.”5 Instead of the inheritance laws being spread out with bits and pieces strewn thorough all the years when the subject came up in session laws, a codification will bring all those bits and pieces together.

So take a look at the set of documents under the link labeled “Codes, Compilations of Laws, Rules and Regulations.”

That’s where you’ll find some of the major collections — codifications — of Maryland law. Not all of these are in searchable, not all are digitized, but some of the key codes are only listed and not available on the site at all.

You’ll find, for example, digital images of William Kilty’s Laws of Maryland, 1799-18006 and Clement Dorsey’s 1840 General Public Law of Maryland,7 but only a reference to Virgil Maxcy’s 1811 Laws of Maryland.8

But having the complete list of just about every code of Maryland law ever put together by anybody gives you a leg up in finding a code version for the time period on digitized book sites like Google Books, HathiTrust or Internet Archive.

So start your Maryland legal research with as close to one-stop-shopping site as you’re likely to find: the Archives of Maryland Online.

Because you still need to know the law to know what the disposition was that the law required.


SOURCES

  1. See e.g. Ac. No. 1099, Balance Book 1, 1751-1755, entry for Estate of William Pugsley, 10 June 1751, Book 1: 1; digital images, “Maryland, Wills and Probate Records, 1635-1777,” Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com/ : accessed 14 Sep 2017), citing Maryland County, District and Probate Courts.
  2. Welcome to the Archives of Maryland Online,” Archives of Maryland Online (http://aomol.msa.maryland.gov/ : accessed 14 Sep 2017).
  3. Ibid., “Session Laws,” entry for Session No. 1, 1634/35.
  4. Ibid., “Session Laws: 2000s,” entry for Session No. 436, 2016.
  5. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 216, “codification.”
  6. William Kilty, editor, The Laws of Maryland (Annapolis : Frederick Green, 1800); digital images, Archives of Maryland Online (http://aomol.msa.maryland.gov/ : accessed 14 Sep 2017).
  7. Clement Dorsey, editor, The General Public Statutory Law and Public Local Law of the State of Maryland (Baltimore: J. D. Toy, 1840).
  8. Virgil Maxcy, compiler, The Laws of Maryland (Baltimore: P. H. Nicklin & Co., 1811).
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