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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

Yes, SLIG is over.

No, SLIG isn’t over.

Both statements are true.

Last week was the full 2019 Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy — 14 classes going on side by side with hundreds of students learning everything from Native American research to African-American research to the skills needed to integrate the law into genealogical research.

This week is the 2019 SLIG Academy — a smaller, more intimate, more geared-to-professionals-and-professional-wannabes set of classes.

But since The Legal Genealogist is teaching again this week, and since more classes mean more time spent preparing for classes… that still leaves time in short supply for the blog again this week.

So… we’ll take a quick look as time allows at the language of the law with more alphabet soup.

And today’s word is denizen.

Letter D 2019

Now we all know that a citizen is a “member of a free city or jural society, (civitas,) possessing all the rights and privileges which can be enjoyed by any person under its constitution and government, and subject to the corresponding duties.”1 And, looking just at American law, it’s an individual “who, under the constitution and laws of the United States, has a right to vote for civil officers, and himself is qualified to fill elective offices.”2

And we know, or should know, that someone can become a citizen by right of birth — a so-called natural born citizen — or through naturalization, the legal process which has the effect “of adopting an alien into a nation, and clothing him with all the rights possessed by a natural born citizen.”3 And no, an alien in this sense isn’t that little green man; it’s a person who’s a “foreigner; one born abroad; a person resident in one country, but owing allegiance to another.”4

What we may not have known is that there’s something in between the status of citizen and the status of alien — and that’s the denizen: under English law, a “person who, being an alien born, has obtained, ex donatione regis, letters patent to make him an English subject,—a high and incommunicable branch of the royal prerogative.”5 And under both English law and in some parts of America such as early South Carolina, “A denizen is in a kind of middle state between an alien and a natural-born subject, and partakes of the status of both of these.”6

Now that’s fun but not very useful, is it? I mean, so what good is being a denizen if you’re still treated to some degree as if you’re one of them flatland furriners out there?

Turns out that the big difference is in land ownership. In many early jurisdictions (and even some places today), you couldn’t own land, sell land or leave land in your will if you weren’t a citizen.7

A denizen, on the other hand, could exercise some land ownership rights, among them the right to buy land, receive land as a specific legacy in a will, hold a life estate in land and even leave land in a will to children, though sometimes only to those born after the alien became a denizen. But a denizen still couldn’t inherit as an heir at law where there wasn’t a will.8

This was a common law concept. Today, a non-citizen’s rights to land are all a matter of statute. Even the word denizen has come to mean more an inhabitant of an area or a person who hangs around a place (the denizens of the local bar, for example).9 But in that early document… watch the meaning.


Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “2019 alphabet soup: D is for…,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 23 Jan 2019 ( : accessed date).

  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 206, “citizen.”
  2. Ibid. “Herself” didn’t have the right to vote when Black was writing his law dictionary, but of course she does now.
  3. Ibid., 802, “naturalization.”
  4. Ibid., 58, “alien.”
  5. Ibid., 353, “denizen.”
  6. Ibid.
  7. See Allison Brownell Tirres, “Ownership Without Citizenship: The Creation of Noncitizen Property Rights,” 19 Michigan Journal of Race and Law (Fall 2013) 1-52; PDF online, Michigan Journal of Race and Law ( : accessed 22 Jan 2019).
  8. See ibid. See also Black, A Dictionary of Law, 353, “denizen.”
  9. See Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 22 Jan 2019), “denizen.”
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