… or, what was important to our ancestors!

The Legal Genealogist makes no bones about one simple fact.

I’m a law geek. A total unmitigated nerd when it comes to the law and legal history.

I love the way the law teaches us about the history of our country, our states, the states (and colonies) where our ancestors lived.

And one history — and social context — lesson we get from the laws is this: the first laws our ancestors passed when they had a chance tell us what was important to them.

Old law

Think about that for a minute.

If your ancestor was a member of the very first legislature to sit in a colony or a territory or a state, and the very first laws it passed were about water rights and duties to be paid for ship cargoes, you can be pretty darned sure those were critically important in that area — and most likely you’re looking at the laws of a coastal area. Which, of course, can include the area around the Great Lakes.

So it’s always an interesting lesson to see just what was considered important in the early days of any place where I’m researching.

Like, for example, Georgia, where I’ll be speaking Saturday at the Augusta Genealogical Society’s Homecoming.

Now Georgia is a bit of a problem when it comes to the earliest legal research, since it was established as a colony in 17321 but the first set of published laws starts with the laws of 1755 — and it was a limited publication of 49 copies2 which, of course, isn’t digitized anywhere online that I could find.

So the next best thing is the Digest of Laws, which includes everything from colonial documents up to and including the Principal Acts of 1799.3 It includes both the laws still in effect then, and at least the names of those passed but no longer in effect.

And what do we see?

• 1755, Act No. 1: “An Act for regulating the militia of this province, and for the security and better defence of the same.” (Obsolete.) 4

• 1755, Act No. 2: “An Act for stamping, imprinting, emitting, and making current the sum of seven thousand pounds sterling in paper bills of credit…” (Obsolete.) 5

• 1755, Act No. 3: “An Act for inflicting and imposing penalties upon any person or persons that shall publish and declare that the acts of the general assembly of the province of Georgia are not of force.” (Obsolete.) 6

• 1755, Act No. 4: “An Act for raising and granting to his majesty a sum of money to defray the expences of the courts of oyer and terminer, and other contingencies of government.” (Obsolete.) 7

• 1755, Act No. 5: “An Act for ascertaining the interest money in the province of Georgia.” (Obsolete.) 8

• 1755, Act No. 6: “An Act to empower the several surveyors herein after named to lay out public roads in the province of Georgia.” (Obsolete.) 9

• 1755, Act No. 7: “An Act for establishing a market in the town of Savannah, and to prevent forestalling, ingrossing, and unjust exactions in the said town and market.” (Obsolete.) 10

• 1755, Act No. 8: “An Act to prevent fraudulent deeds and conveyances.” (Still in force, with amendments passed in 1768.) 11

Let’s see here… public safety. Paying the bills. Making sure the laws are respected. Setting up surveys for public roads. Getting a market going in Savannah. And making sure the records of the lands of the province weren’t fraudulent.

It all makes sense, doesn’t it? And doesn’t it tell us a lot about what was important in those first days of the first legislature… And you can see the pattern continue:

• Act 9 in 1755 was to pay for repairs for the lighthouse on Tybee Island.12

• Act 22 in 1757 was to establish a town watch — a local police force — in Savannah.13

• Act 62 in 1760 was to require all ships coming in from places that had epidemics to quarantine themselves.14

Of course, it may also make us wonder a bit about conditions in early Georgia when we see some of the other early laws… “An Act for regulating taverns and punch houses, and retailers of spiritous liquors.”15 And, of course, “An Act for preventing and punishing vice, profaneness and immorality, and for keeping holy the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday”…16

But it’s not really ever a matter of what was important to the law… but rather what laws were important to our ancestors.


SOURCES

  1. See “Colonial Settlement, 1600s-1763: Establishing the Georgia Colony, 1732-1750,” Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 31 July 2018).
  2. G. W. DeRenne, compiler, Acts of the General Assembly (Wormsloe, Ga. : p.p., 1881).
  3. Robert and George Watkins, A Digest of the Laws of the State of Georgia… (Philadelphia : R. Aitken, 1800); digital images, Historic Georgia Digests and Codes, Digital Commons, University of Georgia School of Law (http://digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/ga_code/ : accessed 31 July 2018).
  4. Ibid., 43.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 44.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 46.
  13. Ibid., 49.
  14. Ibid., 65.
  15. Ibid., 1757, Act No. 30, at 53.
  16. Ibid., 1762, Act No. 88, at 80.
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