We still want the record

It’s a point The Legal Genealogist makes in a lot of in-person presentations and, on a regular basis, right here in this blog.

Legal lingo can be weird.

As I’ve said, more than once, the language of the law is part Latin, part Greek, part Anglo-Saxon, and all confusing.

And, I should add, part Law French — that “archaic language originally based on Old Norman and Anglo-Norman, … used in the law courts of England, beginning with the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 … (and) continued for several centuries in the courts of England and Wales and Ireland.”1

Law French

But the bottom line for us as genealogists when we’re dealing with so many of these terms is this: it doesn’t matter what it’s called, in what language the term might have originated.

We’d still want the probate records — the wills and guardianships and inventories and loose papers that tell us so much about our families — whether the records were held by a Court of Ordinary,2 an Orphan’s Court,3 a Probate Court,4 a Surrogate’s Court5 or a plain old County Court.6

That’s because it isn’t the name of the court that matters, it’s the function it serves.

And we find that with other kinds of records in unexpected places as well.

Case in point: South Carolina’s Register of Mesne Conveyances.

It’s a term I came across yesterday when preparing for today’s trip to the Palmetto State: I’m one of many speakers at the South Carolina Genealogical Society’s 46th Annual Summer Workshop at the South Carolina Archives in Columbia on Friday and Saturday. Since at least two of my ancestral lines went through South Carolina, I wanted to be ready for any chance I can grab to do some research.

And instead of finding a more typically-named office handling one particular type of record I was looking for in Union County, South Carolina, I found instead the Register of Mesne Conveyances.

So… what’s a mesne conveyance anyway?

You won’t find that phrase in full in the old law dictionaries — you’ll only find the term mesne defined: “Intermediate; intervening; the middle between two extremes, especially of rank or time.”7 And, of course, it’s a term right out of Law French.8

Put it together with conveyance (“The transfer of the title of land from one person or class of persons to another”9), and we begin to see its meaning: “An intermediate conveyance, one occupying an intermediate position in a chain of title between the first grantee and the present holder.”10

Which for a researcher working with South Carolina records means exactly what?

Deeds.

And deed-related records.

All the records related in any way to land transfers and transactions from the moment after the land was first transferred from public ownership (the Crown, the colony, the State) to private ownership and on to today.

Or, at least, to when South Carolina stopped calling the office which handled these things the Register of Mesne Conveyances and started calling it the Register of Deeds: “On January 1, 1998, the name of the office changed from Register of Mesne Conveyances (RMC) to Register of Deeds (RoD). Current office holders, whether appointed or elected, were authorized to keep the name of RMC during their tenure in office, however, after their term, the name is to change to RoD.”11

Now here’s one more example of a situation where it doesn’t matter what it’s called, in what language the term might have originated.

If the records of the land deals of my however-many-great-grandfather Jesse Fore in Union County are in the deed records or the mesne conveyance records, I still want them.

What matters is, I might not find them if I don’t know where to look.

Mesne conveyances, here I come.


SOURCES

  1. Wikipedia (https://www.wikipedia.com), “Law French,” rev. 22 May 2018.
  2. Until 1974, Georgia’s probate court was called the Court of Ordinary. See “Georgia Office and Court of Ordinary, Amendment 4 (1974),” BallotPedia (https://ballotpedia.org/ : accessed 11 July 2018).
  3. Even today, “The Orphans’ Court is Maryland’s probate court.” “Orphans’ Court,” Maryland Courts (https://mdcourts.gov/ : accessed 11 July 2018).
  4. That’s what the court with this function is called in Michigan. See “Michigan Trial Courts: Probate Court,” Michigan Courts (http://courts.mi.gov/ : accessed 11 July 2018).
  5. In New York and New Jersey, the Surrogate handles wills and estates and the Surrogate’s Court hears contested probate cases. See e.g. Wikipedia (https://www.wikipedia.com), “New York Surrogate’s Court,” rev. 12 Aug 2017.
  6. Basic probate jurisdiction rested with the county courts in Virginia until their duties were assumed by the circuit courts. See FamilySearch Research Wiki (https://www.familysearch.org/learn/wiki/), “Virginia Court Records,” rev. 6 Apr 2017.
  7. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 770, “mesne.”
  8. Online Etymology Dictionary (https://www.etymonline.com/ : accessed 11 July 2018), “mesne.”
  9. Ibid., 273, “conveyance.”
  10. Glossaries of BLM Surveying and Mapping Terms, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 2nd ed. (BLM, 1980), 33, “term”; digital image, Internet Archive (https://archive.org : accessed 11 July 2018).
  11. Registers of Deeds,” South Carolina Judicial Department (https://www.sccourts.org/ : accessed 11 July 2018).
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