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

Note: As we all struggle to come to terms with current events, it may prove helpful to look back at some of our history. Believing firmly that knowing how we got here may help us all see the way forward, The Legal Genealogist will reprise posts that provide historical context.

It’s very hard for The Legal Genealogist — or anyone else here in the 21st century — to come to grips with the reality of the race-based distinctions the law made only a short time ago.


But the simple fact is that the law pigeonholed people into various categories based on the percentage of African ancestry they had, and assigned names to those categories.

The language of the law then reflected those distinctions by having names for those the law regarded as non-white.

And we can’t begin to understand our history as it was reflected in the records of the time if we don’t understand the language that was used.

Terms we may see in records we review in researching our families then may include:

• Demi-meamelouc: a person who was “1/32 black, (issue of) white and meamelouc.”1

• Griffe: a person who was “3/4 black, (issue of) Negro and mulatto.” 2

• Marabou: a person who was “5/8 black, (issue of) mulatto and griffe.”3

• Meamelouc: a person who was “1/16 black, (issue of) white and metis.”4

• Métis or métif: a person who was“ 1/8 black, (issue of) white and quarteron.”5

• Mulatto: “a person that is the offspring of a negress by a white man, or of a white woman by a negro”;6 a person who was “1/2 black, (issue of) white and Negro.”7

• Mustizo: “A name given to the issue of an Indian and a negro.”8

• Octoroon: “a person having one quadroon and one White parent and therefore having one-eighth Black blood.”9

• Quadroon: “A person who is descended from a white person and another person who has an equal mixture of the European and African blood”;10 a person who was “1/4 black, (issue of) white and mulatto”.11

• Sacatra: a person who was “7/8 black, (issue of) griffe and Negro.”12

• Sang-mêle: a person who was “1/64 black, (issue of) white and demi-meamelouc.”13

Words like these are hard to accept. Hard to deal with. But it’s part of our history and we have to know what the words meant when we see them.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Review: a matter of degree,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted date). Originally posted 13 Jan 2015.


  1. John Russell Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms: A Glossary of Words and Phrases Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States, 4th ed. (Boston : Little, Brown, 1877), 422 ; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 12 June 2020). Bartlett added: “…these varieties exist in New Orleans, with sub-varieties; and experts pretend to be able to distinguish them.”
  2. Ibid. See also Dupree v. State, 33 Ala. 380 (Ala. 1859).
  3. Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms, 422.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid. Note however that the word “Métis” is still part of the law and culture in Canada, albeit with an entirely different meaning: historically referencing those with mixed Indigenous and European ancestry, today it refers to a distinct collective identity, customs and way of life, unique from Indigenous or European roots.
  6. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 792, “mulatto.”
  7. Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms, 422.
  8. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 795, “mustizo.”
  9. ( : accessed 12 June 2020), “octoroon.”
  10. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 970, “quadroon.”
  11. Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms, 422.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
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