When speling wazn’t standerd

Reader Austin Gray is struggling with a document from the Laurens District of South Carolina from the early 1800s where one of his ancestors relinquishes her right of dower in a piece of property being sold by her husband.

The hitch: so many of the words in the relinquishment are consistently spelled in ways that are just plain weird.

The Legal Genealogist can’t say the spelling is consistently wrong, because spelling didn’t even begin to be truly standardized in what became the United States until after the Revolution — and it didn’t happen overnight.1

But weird? Oh yes.

And the weirdness starts right at the beginning with the place where the event occurred — Newberry District, South Carolina — and the man who took the relinquishment, a fellow by the name of Providence Williams.

Gray dower

Now let’s back up a second and set the scene.

William Gray, husband of Sarah Gray, wanted to sell a 109-acre tract of land in Laurens District to Abraham Gray for $100. He executed a deed to Abraham for the land on 20 December 1812.2 But there was a hitch in transferring clear title: in South Carolina, as in most areas of the United States, William’s wife Sarah had potential dower rights in that land.

Dower, of course, was the right of a widow to live on and profit from a portion of her husband’s lands on his death.3

But, you say, William was alive, so Sarah didn’t have any rights yet, right?

Almost right.

You see, if Sarah didn’t agree to the sale, then after William’s death she could go to court and try to claim dower in the land William sold. Abraham’s title to the land would have to be fought out then.

And buyers didn’t like the idea of having to fight with widows years later.

So South Carolina law set up a procedure for the wife of a land seller to come before a judge or justice, privately and away from her husband, to say she agreed with the sale — and that ended her ability to claim dower in that land forever.4

And that’s what Sarah was doing. On the 27th of January 1813, she was being questioned near her home in the Newberry District by Providence Williams about whether she agreed to the sale and the giving up of her dower interest so that Abraham Gray would have clear title.5

But oh boy… about that spelling.

Now in fairness it isn’t clear whether the spelling was that of Providence Williams, and copied faithfully by John Garlington, the register of mesne conveyances for Laurens District, when he added it to the deed book in 1815, or whether it originated with Garlington. (The register of mesne conveyances, by the way, was the old name for the Register of Deeds in South Carolina. The name was changed by statute as of 1 January 1998, but any existing official using that title then was grandfathered in until he or she left office.6)

But oh boy… whoever did it has a lot to answer for.

Because you can’t even get into the document without seeing Newberry spelled as “Nubary.” And right after naming Providence Williams, you run into the word “Jestes.” In context, it’s crystal clear that Justice is meant, because the full reference is to Williams as “one of the Jestes of the quorum” — and Providence Williams was indeed a Justice of the Quorum for Newberry District.7

That, by the way, was a kind of senior justice of the peace, without whom the other justices couldn’t act on matters of significance.8

And it goes on from there. Hereby becomes “heareby.” Certify is “sartify.” Whom is “home.” Concern turns into “consarne.” Even Sarah is spelled as “Saray” — which is exactly the way that name is pronounced in that area even today.

So many words have weird spellings in this document that it’d be really really hard to read.

Except for one thing.

South Carolina law set out a recommended form. And you can read that and compare the document… and get most if not all of the words right:

I, F. G. one of the judges of __________ (or justice of the quorum, as the case may be,) do hereby certify unto all whom it may concern, that E. B. the wife of the within named A.B. did, this day, appear before me, and upon being privately and separately examined by me, did declare that she does freely, voluntarily, and without any compulsion, dread or fear of any person or persons whomsoever, renounce, release, and for ever relinquish unto the within named C. D. his heirs and assigns, all her interest and estate, and also all her right and claim of dower, of, in or to all and singular the premises within mentioned and released.9

In the handwritten version, the hand of the law renders Austin’s document very hard to read. But when we find that published printed version, the hand of the law fills in the blanks.

Even when the speling wazn’t standerd…

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “In the hand of the law,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 30 Jan 2020).


  1. See Ellen Holmes Pearson, “The Standardization of American English,” teachinghistory.org (https://teachinghistory.org/ : accessed 30 Jan 2020).
  2. Laurens County, SC, Deed Book K: 99-100, Gray to Gray (1812); digital images, “Laurens County, South Carolina deeds, 1785-1906,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 30 Jan 2020).
  3. See Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 393, “dower.”
  4. See §§ 25-26, Title 179: “Women,” in Joseph Brevard, An Alphabetical Digest of the Public Statute Law of South-Carolina, 3 vols. (Charleston, SC: John Hoff), 2: 350; digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com/ : accessed 30 Jan 2020).
  5. Laurens County, SC, Deed Book K: 100, Sarah Gray relinquishment of dower (1813).
  6. See Caitlin Byrd, “That quirky name is gone from Charleston County’s deeds office,” The Post and Courier, posted 2 Jan 2018 (https://www.postandcourier.com : accessed 30 Jan 2020).
  7. Acts and Joint Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina … 1810 (Columbus SC: State Printers, 1811), 114; digital images, HathiTrust Digital Library (https://www.hathitrust.org/ : accessed 30 Jan 2020).
  8. See Giles Jacob, A New Law Dictionary (London : Nutt & Gosling, 1729), alphabetically organized and unpaginated, “Justice of the Peace” and “Quorum.”
  9. § 26, Title 179: “Women,” in Brevard, An Alphabetical Digest of the Public Statute Law of South-Carolina, 2: 350.
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