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Early laws for early days

Here’s a news flash for you:

Early Pennsylvania cared an awful lot about the waterways and seas.

Yes, in case you’re wondering, The Legal Genealogist is poking around in colonial Pennsylvania laws in looking forward to Saturday’s Family History Conference of the Centre County Genealogical Society in State College, and … well … it’s pretty obvious that those early Pennsylvanians cared an awful lot about the waterways and seas.

In just the first volume of Pennsylvania colonial laws, you can see the pattern emerging:

• Chapter 90 in the Laws of 1683 was entitled “Against taking away boats or canoes” and it socked anybody who took any boat, vessel or canoe without leave with a fine of twice its value. Definitely not fooling around with these critical means of early transportation.1

• Chapter 152 in the Laws of 1683 was entitled “About Buoys in the Delaware,” and imposed a tax of a penny per ton on shipping to set up “necessarie buoyes in this bay & river of delaware.”2

• Chapter 196 in the Laws of 1690 was “About ferry rates,” and set them over the Delaware and other rivers and creeks, ranging from two pence a passenger to four pence for certain animals.3

And that wasn’t nearly all, even in those very early days.

Pennsylvania shipOne of my favorites in this early set was Chapter 62 in the Laws of 1693. It was entitled “Against trusting mariners” and provided that no tavern keeper or other merchant could extent credit to a mariner such that the mariner might be arrested, tossed in jail for debt, and not able to ship out. The only way credit could be extended was if the master of the ship stood surety for the sailor.4

By 1699, Pennsylvania had passed a law “Against pirates and privateers” that was “For the Better and more Speedy Execution of Justice upon such who have Committed Treason Pyracies and Murthers Fellonies and other offences upon the Seas and Shall be Apprehended or Brought Prisoners to this Government.”5

In 1700, a law “Regulating traffic on seas” put into effect a requirement that’s enough to warm the cockles of any genealogist’s heart: it mandated “That every Captain, Master Or Other person or persons taking Charge of any Shipp or Vessel arriving in any port or place within the Limitts of this government Shall, before hee Lands any persons or goods, signify & declare in writting under his or their hands unto the next Justice of peace or Chief Magistrate before hee or they arrive, the Names of every passenger and mariner hee or they bring or have taken on board the said Shipp or vessel during that voyage.”6

And, that same year, the colonial laws reflected that ”it hath been found by sad experience that the coming & arriving of unhealthie vessels att the ports & towns of this province & territories & the landing of their passengers & goods before they have lyen Some time to be purified hath proved verie detrimental to the health of the Inhabitants of this government.”7 Under its terms, “no unheathie or sickly vessels coming from any unhealthie or Sickly place whatsoever shall come nearer than one mile to any any of the towns or ports of this province & territories without bills of health…”8

Cool stuff, huh? Especially if your ancestor was a mariner who shipped in or out of Pennsylvania, or your people lived along the coast, or they could have been affected by these laws or…

So… where can you find these sorts of goodies if you happen to have Pennsylvania ancestors?

In one place, thanks to the Pennsylvania Legislative Reference Bureau and its online publications of Volumes 1-18 of the Pennsylvania Statutes at Large. Its website explains that the Bureau, “an agency of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, has undertaken a long-term preservation and public access project to digitize the laws enacted for the Province and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and published on a periodic basis from 1682 to the most recently completed session of the Pennsylvania General Assembly.”9

And, the site continues, the Statutes at Large “contain public and private laws of the Province and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania through 1809. They hold the earliest provisions for liberty of conscience and other principles of a free society, setting forth significant archival documents and enactments, with references to original sources, prior provisions and review by British Crown and Parliament agencies.”10

The search function on the website isn’t an every-word search — and searches are even more complicated because of colonial spelling: “For example, ‘fellons’ describes modern-day ‘felons,’ and ‘gaolers’ describes ‘jailers.’”11

But browsing through even a single volume for the time when our ancestors lived in early Pennsylvania can tell us so much about what was important to those people.

Like — maybe, just maybe — waterways and seas.

Take a look.

And kudos to the Pennsylvania Legislative Reference Bureau for making the early laws so accessible.


Image: From a sketch by OpenClipArt user Firkin from an 1891 drawing; superimposed over outline of Pennsylvania from Wikimedia commons.

  1. “Against taking away boats or canoes,” Laws of 1683, 1 St.L. 74, Ch. 90; Statutes at Large, Pennsylvania Legislative Reference Bureau ( : accessed 14 May 2018).
  2. Ibid., “About Buoys in the Delaware,” Laws of 1683, 1 St.L. 110, Ch. 152.
  3. Ibid., “About ferry rates,” Laws of 1690, 1 St.L. 137-138, Ch. 196.
  4. Ibid., “Against trusting mariners,” 1 St.L. 177, Laws of 1693, Ch. 62.
  5. Ibid., “Against pirates and privateers,” 1 St.L. 267, Laws of 1699, Ch. 145.
  6. Ibid., “Regulating traffic on seas,” 1 St.L. 285-286, Laws of 1700, Ch. 152.
  7. Ibid., “About sickly vessels coming into this government,” 1 St.L. 300, Laws of 1700, Ch. 169.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Pennsylvania Session Laws,” Pennsylvania Legislative Reference Bureau ( : accessed 14 May 2018).
  10. Ibid., “Introduction to Statutes at Large.”
  11. Ibid.
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