Go ahead… read those laws

So… The Legal Genealogist is poking around some late 18th century and early 19th century Massachusetts statutes to try to get an answer to a reader question.

The answer is taking more time than expected… and it isn’t helping one bit that I’m going down all kinds of rabbit holes because of the contents of some of those statutes.

Down the rabbit hole

Folks, I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again… you have to read the laws.

In particular, the private laws.

Of any and every jurisdiction where your ancestors ever lived.

Private laws are different from the usual statutes we see that impact everybody equally — or are supposed to. Laws that say we all have to pay taxes, or register for the draft, or wear seatbelts, are public laws we’re all supposed to follow.

Private laws, on the other hand, are laws passed specifically for the benefit of individuals, or groups of individuals, or families. They do things like put people on pension rolls even though they can’t prove everything they’re supposed to prove for eligibility. Or grant a divorce when the courts can’t. Or change someone’s name.

There are — oh, roughly — kazillions of these laws in just about every jurisdiction. In Georgia, for example, a printing of the 1873 laws took up 348 pages; only 70 pages were public acts — everything else was a private law or resolution.1

And they are absolutely genealogical gold mines, no matter where you find them.

For example, just down the rabbit holes of one volume of one Massachusetts law book I was looking at this morning:

• Samuel Kendall, who was guardian for Betsy, Jane, Henry, Marin, and Charles D. Pigeon, children and heirs at law of Henry Pigeon, late of Newton, County of Middlesex, yeoman, wanted to sell some real estate and had to have legislative confirmation of his acts.2

• Jonathan Young, Jun., of York was awarded an additional $20 a year for life “in consideration of the loss of am arm while doing military duty … on the 18th day of October, 1797.” He’d been serving as a “Soldier in the Company of Artillery commanded by Capt. Jeremiah Clarke.”3

• Martha Weston, a widow from Plymouth, got the Legislature to excuse her son Isaac, a minor living in Portland, Cumberland County, for not having shown up as a witness in a case. He’d signed a recognizance saying he would show up, and was being defaulted for not doing it. That would have cost him some serious money.4

And in just that one volume of that Georgia law book for 1873:

• John R. Cook, John L. Harris, Warren A. Fuller, John T. Collins and Gustavus Friedlander, of Georgia, and William R. Grace, Joseph Spinney and Wilson Godfrey, of New York, were allowed to incorporate the Brunswick Banking Company.5

• “W. C. Cessna, of the county of Cobb, W. C. Queen, of the county of Habersham, and Samuel Bullock, of the county of Meriwether,” were allowed to work as peddlers without getting a license.6

• The widow of the solicitor general of the Macon Circuit was allowed to draw the salary her husband had earned but not been paid “at the time of his death, on the 28th day of September, 1862.”7

A fair amount of the information set out in the statutes is information that’s hard — sometimes even impossible — to come by otherwise. An exact date of death? Wow.

And some of it just suggests there are leads we need to follow up. Why would a license to peddle not be required by some people? What exactly happened to Jonathan Young that caused him to lose an arm in military service in 1797?

In either case, just reading the law books — and extracting every bit of information they contain — is guaranteed to produce wonderful genealogical information.

Go ahead.

Head on down those legal rabbit holes.

Read those laws.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Down the legal rabbit holes,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 20 March 2019).


  1. Acts and Resolutions of the … State of Georgia, … 1873 (Atlanta : W. A. Hemphill & Co., State Printers, 1873); digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com/ : accessed 20 Mar 2019).
  2. “Resolve on the Petition of Samuel Kendall, Guardian to the Children of Henry Pigeon, Deceased, Confirming Sale at Public Auction of the Real Estate Mentioned,” Acts and Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1804-1805 (Boston : General Court, 1804), reprint 1898, at 285; digital images, Internet Archive (https://archive.org/ : accessed 20 Mar 2019).
  3. “Resolve on the Petition of Jonathan Young, Jun. …,” ibid., at 352.
  4. “Resolve on the Petition of Martha Weston …,” ibid., at 314.
  5. “An Act to incorporate the Brunswick Banking Company,” Acts and Resolutions of the … State of Georgia, … 1873, at 80.
  6. “An Act to allow W. A. Cessna, of the county of Cobb, W. C. Queen, of the county of Habersham, and Samuel Bullock, of the county of Meriwether, in this State, to peddle without license,” ibid., at 307.
  7. “An Act for the relief of Mrs. T. W. Montfort, widow of Theodore W. Montfort, a former Solicitor of this State,” ibid., at 311.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email