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When do you research the law

It was the last question after the webinar last night, and it was the best.

BCG law webinarThe webinar was part of the Board for Certification of Genealogists’ webinar series,1 in association with Legacy Family Tree Webinars, and the topic was The Law and the Reasonably Exhaustive (Re)Search.

The two points The Legal Genealogist was focusing on were: (1) there’s a difference between searching (looking for that one record that will give us The Answer) and researching (looking at all the records to uncover the complete story of our ancestors); and (2) — repeating the oh-so-common theme around here — to understand the records, we have to understand the law… and not in general but the law of the exact time when the record was created and in the exact place where the record was created.

We looked, during the webinar, at a series of records that — standing alone — might have led us to believe one thing or to one conclusion. And then we looked at the laws that gave us a broader, richer, deeper context for the records that showed us how the records might be telling us another story altogether. Among the examples:

• The 1867 voter registration in Texas that not only told us that the voter had been born in Kentucky, in Texas for 34 years and in Parker County for 11 years, but also — because of the law — that he hadn’t been legally disqualified for any of a number of reasons set out in the statute.2

• An 1849 Wisconsin jury list and the law that told us that the jurors not only had to be white males over age 21 who were citizens, but also weren’t in any of the excluded occupations, like preacher, teacher or fireman.3

• The colonial Pennsylvania inheritance laws that told us the children of the widow had to be her children — and not the children of the husband who had died.4

In every one of those cases we’d have missed critical clues if we didn’t understand the legal context of the records we were looking at.

So, at the very end of the webinar, from Barbara, came this question: “Do you advise that the researcher always look at the law governing a particular record type or only under certain circumstances? If the latter, under which circumstances?”

What a great question.

The simple answer: we always always always have to look at the law. The law gives us the context for the record — explaining why the record was created, the legal purpose it served, the information that the law required to be included. Without those clues, the record may be telling us something more — or different — than we realize.

So my answer, last night, today, and every day: we look at the law every single time for every single record and every single record type. Knowing the legal context of the record is every bit as important to understanding that record in its time and place as knowing the neighorhood in which an ancestor lived to put that ancestor into the context of his time and place.

Great question, and thank you, Barbara, for asking it.

Want to know more? The webinar is free, online, through December 26th, and then available for a fee thereafter as part of the BCG webinar series.5


  1. Note: BCG receives a commission if you register by clicking this affiliate link, and thank you for that! It helps support BCG’s mission of promoting genealogical standards and excellence. If you’re already a webinar subscriber, use this link:
  2. See generally Judy G. Russell, “Recording the vote,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 7 Nov 2016 ( : accessed 19 Dec 2017).
  3. See ibid., “The name on the list,” posted 20 Jan 2016.
  4. See ibid., “The widow’s share,” posted 20 Jan 2016.
  5. I did mention the commission thing with that affiliate link, right? Again, that helps support BCG’s mission of promoting genealogical standards and excellence. If you’re already a webinar subscriber, use this link:
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