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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Greek, part law French, even part Anglo-Saxon. And all confusing.

One week from today, the party begins.

That great gathering of genealogists from all over called the 2019 Family History Conference of the National Genealogical Society gets underway on Tuesday, May 7, in St. Charles, Missouri, with activities for librarians, the Putting Skills to Work session sponsored by the BCG Education Fund, tours of the area — there are still seats available in the Civil War tour and the St. Louis County Library tour — and two all-day seminars focusing on special research topics, an African American Seminar (in which I’m participating) and an Irish Seminar.

The full conference opens on Wednesday, May 8, with an Opening Session focusing on the conference theme, Journey of Discovery: “From Marquette to Lewis and Clark, from Winny v. Whitesides to Dred Scott v. Sandford, from ancestors lurking in the pages of the Territorial Papers to clues lurking deep within our DNA, Americans are on journeys of discovery to find out who we are and where we come from.”

And yes, that’s mine too.

So… sigh… these next two weeks are going to be a bit busy, and that always eats into the time available for the blog.

So we’ll sneak in occasionally as time permits with more legal alphabet soup. We’re up to the Js for 2019, so the word for today is jettison.

2019 letter J

Jettison, by definition, is the “act of throwing overboard from a vessel part of the cargo, in case of extreme danger, to lighten the ship. The same name is also given to the thing or things so cast out.”1

Well, that was easy, wasn’t it? All done, right?

You know better than that.

You see, jettison then gets divided into four categories: flotsam, jetsam, ligan and wreck. And there are different legal consequences depending on which category the jettison gets put into.

Flotsam is the “name for the goods which float upon the sea when cast overboard for the safety of the ship, or when a ship is sunk.”2

Jetsam is a “term descriptive of goods which, by the act of the owner, have been voluntarily cast overboard from a vessel, in a storm or other emergency, to lighten the ship” but only “where goods are cast into the sea, and there sink and remain under water.”3

Ligan is the term used for goods “cast into the sea tied to a buoy, so that they may be found again by the owners.”4

And wreck — well, those are such “goods as after a shipwreck are cast upon the land by the sea.”5

Now the notion is that the ship owner can go back and try to collect up the flotsam, jetsam and ligan, at least within some reasonable time (often a year), after the danger has passed.

But if it’s a real wreck — meaning it’s come ashore and there are no survivors to claim it — then it belonged to the Crown at English common law and — since England is an island country — was a major source of revenue.6

Originally, the Crown got everything just because the ship was lost. That was modified during the reign of Henry I to just the cases were there were no survivors, then under Henry II to any case where no “man or beast should escape or be found therein alive,” and then under Richard I to any case where the owner who perished in the wreck left children or brothers and sisters as heirs.7

It was finally changed by “the statute of Westminster the first” (the first codification of English law under Edward I in 12758) — and this forever-owned-by-a-feline genealogist just adores the way that law was written:

“Concerning Wrecks of the Sea,” the law began, “it is agreed, that where a Man, a Dog, or a Cat escape quick out of the Ship,” then it wasn’t a wreck, and the owner could reclaim the goods “within a Year and a Day.”9

So we begin with jettison … and end up with a cat floating ashore from a shipwreck.

I love the law.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “2019 alphabet soup: J is for…,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 30 Apr 2019).


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 649, “jettison.”
  2. Ibid., 500, “flotsam.”
  3. Ibid., 549, “jetsam.”
  4. Ibid., 721, “ligan.”
  5. Ibid., 1245, “wreck.”
  6. See William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book I : Of the Rights of Persons, 3d edition (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1768), 291-292; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 30 Apr 2019).
  7. Ibid.
  8. See Wikipedia (, “Statute of Westminster 1275,” rev. 6 Dec 2018.
  9. 3 Edw. I. c.4, in Danby Pickering, editor, The Statutes at Large, Vol. I, From Magna Charta to … 1761 (Cambridge : p.p., 1762), 79; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 30 Apr 2019).
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