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Yes, read them, really

The Legal Genealogist loves it when this happens.

A fabulous question just came in minutes ago in a comment to Wednesday’s post about private laws,1 and I absolutely can’t wait to answer it.

Reader Sylvia Anne Nash had reviewed that post, talking about the goodies to be found in statute books in laws passed to benefit single individuals, groups, families or even businesses, in which the concluding line was: Read those laws.

“So….,” she asked, “When you say we need to read the law books, do you mean that literally, or are these laws/law books available to search online somewhere?”

The answer, of course, is yes.

Yes, I mean it literally.

And yes, many — perhaps most — of these laws/law books are available to search online somewhere.

read the law books

The easy part first: where to look for these online.

Remember that the legislatures published their laws generally after every session was concluded, so that lawyers, judges and just plain folks knew what the legislature had done. These volumes, generically called session laws, are very commonly digitized by the online book services:

Google Books. Its basic search is online at and its advanced search at If you use the basic search, when you first see the results, make sure to click on the Tools link at the top to open a set of tools that will let you narrow down you search, for example by time of publication.

HathiTrust Digital Library. Its basic search is at, and the link to the advanced search is right there on its main page at the link Advanced full-text search.

Internet Archive. Its basic search is at, and the link to the advanced search is right there on its main page at the link Advanced search.

At all of these, you can do a search for a name or a place (or both), see what comes up, and then read the specific part that meets your needs.

But I really do mean it when I say, repeatedly: Read those laws.

Because otherwise we’re all going to miss so much of the legal context of the lives our ancestors lived — the explanations as to why they did what they did when they did it (or, in some cases, refrained from doing something we would have expected them to do). And some facts about their times we might otherwise overlook because it’s not right there with the name or place we’re searching for.

Looking just at the one volume of Massachusetts laws that I was looking at on Wednesday — the Acts and Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1804-18052 — we are talking about 737 pages of laws, Governor’s messages, speeches and more that people at that time thought were important enough to pass or write or deliver and then collect and publish.

Things that might otherwise confuse or confound a researcher years later like:

• The fact that the town of Fall River, Massachusetts, changed its name to Troy in 1804.3

• That a part of what had been an unincorporated part of Kennebec County was annexed to the town of Wayne in 1804, making its inhabitants taxable there.4

• That the town of Emden was created in June 1804.5

• That parishes were still being created and regulated by the legislature in 1804 (and residents taxed for the maintenance of churches and ministers), when the town of Hallowell was divided into two parishes.6

• That, for the first time, every firearm manufactured in Massachusetts had to be proved safe, and every county had to have up to two provers of fire arms.7

• That folks traveling between Williamsburgh and Windsor on the toll road would pay five cents for every man or horse, 12.5 cents for a one-horse carriage, 12.5 cents for every cart or wagon drawn by two horses or two oxen, and 25 cents for every coach, phaeton, chariot or four wheel carriage.8

• That intestate succession — who inherited if a landowner died without a will — was changed in 1805-06 to take effect 1 July 1806.9

And that’s just a tiny fraction of what’s in that one volume covering just two years in one state.

What does this tell us about our ancestors and their lives? So very much to put them into context.

I wouldn’t have thought, for example, about what amounted in part to an established church in Massachusetts at late as the 19th century. Or really considered that firearm manufacture was still pretty new — and pretty dangerous. Or thought about the cost of traveling on toll roads — and whether my folks (inevitably among the poorest) could have afforded to use those roads.

Just reading through the statutes — even leafing through them to get a sense of time and place — can be so very valuable.

Yes, Sylvia.


Read those laws.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Read the law books,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 22 Mar 2019).


  1. Judy G. Russell, “Down the legal rabbit holes,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 20 Mar 2019 ( : accessed 22 Mar 2019).
  2. Acts and Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1804-1805 (Boston : General Court, 1804), reprint 1898, at 285; digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 22 Mar 2019).
  3. Chapter 2, 1804, in ibid., at 5.
  4. Chapter 9, 1804, in ibid., at 16-17.
  5. Chapter 26, 1804, in ibid., at 26.
  6. Chapter 25, 1804, in ibid., at 32-34.
  7. Chapter 81, 1804, in ibid., at 111-13.
  8. Chapter 132, 1804, in ibid., at 204-209.
  9. Chapter 90, 1805, in ibid., at 507-509.
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