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A cheat sheet for federal statutes

It’s such a common issue for genealogists.

We know the name of a critical federal law that impacted our ancestors — what it’s commonly called… and we have absolutely no idea how to find it.

Popular Names TableThe Judiciary Act of 1789, under which the courts were set up where so many of our ancestors were recorded, as jurors, as litigants, as witnesses.

The Homestead Act of 1862, under which so many of our ancestors got land and spread out over the continent.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, under which so many of our ancestors either suffered the slings and arrows of xenophobia, or came to the defense of their neighbors and filed affidavits and other documents supporting their right to remain in this country.

The Expatriation Act, under which so many of our female ancestors lost their American citizenship when they had the audacity to fall in love with and marry men who weren’t citizens.

The Cable Act, which fixed some — but not all — of the problems created by the Expatriation Act.

And these are just a few.

We know that these laws are tucked away in the many volumes of United States laws that were published under the title of Statutes at Large.

But what volume? What page?

Could there possibly be a short form cheat sheet to finding these critical laws?

You betcha.

The Legal Genealogist wouldn’t tease about something like this.

The cheat sheet is called the Popular Names Table, and it helps us translate the name of the statute we do know into the volume and page numbers of the Statutes at Large that we don’t know — but need to get a copy of the law to read. It’s an alphabetical list of federal laws by their popular names, with citations to the Statutes at Large where the laws appear.

You can find one of these tools online, for free, at the United States Code website of the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives. There’s an explanation of the tool here as well, and a downloadable PDF if that’s what works best for you.

And there are other options as well: for example, the Legal Information Institute (LII) of Cornell Law School has a Table of Popular Names with citations to the Statutes at Large, and many of them have hotlinks to an official source for the statute.

There’s a Popular Names Table published in the major versions of the United States Code that you can expect to find in any law library: both the U.S. Code Annotated and the U.S. Code Service.

Using any of these tables, online or offline, you’ll be able to make the translation from statute name to statutory citation quickly.

And using the statutory citation, you can then turn to either the Library of Congress’ wonderful site, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, where you can access volumes 1-18 of the Statutes at Large free online, or the Constitution Society’s collection of downloadable PDF files of the public Statutes at Large volumes 1-130.

So no excuses now. Go find that statute you know the name of … and now know exactly how to find the reference for.


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