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For heaven’s sake, look at the law!

Fair warning: The Legal Genealogist is on a rant.

No matter how many times I make one key point, it seems that way too many genealogists just don’t get it.

That point: if we want to understand the records, we have got to understand the law.

look at the law

And — sigh — yes… I’ve said that before.

In 2012, about federal laws and where to find them.1

In 2013, about a debt case in Washington, D.C., and an old writ abbreviated as “casa.”2

In 2014, about the common law as applied in 1831 Tennessee.3

In 2015, abou–

Okay, okay, you get the idea.

But somehow some folks don’t seem to have gotten the message, even when the need to look at not just the law in general but a specific law is practically leaping off the page of the record to grab them by the throat.

If we’re looking at a federal land record and it says, for example, “Pre’n Act, 4th Sept., 1841,” we’d better trot over to the federal statutes for 1841 and see what act of 4 September 1841 is being referenced — and what it says. If we do, we find that somebody who’d settled on federal lands after 1 June 1840 and built a house and improved the land was entitled to priority in buying that land, up to 160 acres. In other words, it was protecting squatters.4

If we’re looking at a military record confirming a soldier from the Civil War to have been an officer and it’s dated much later and says it’s “under the provisions of the act of Congress, approved February 24, 1897,” we’d better find that act of Congress from that date. And if we do, we’ll find that it was a financial deal: the statute was clearing up uncertainty over the ranks of some folks mustered into federal service and making it clear “the heirs or legal representatives of any person whose muster into service shall be recognized and established under the terms of this Act shall be entitled to receive the arrears of pay and emoluments due, and the pension, if any, authorized by law, for the grade to which recognition shall be so extended.”5

So… one more time…

If we want to understand the records, we have got to understand the law.

That means genealogists need to look at the laws. And when the record says it’s under the terms of or in accordance with this particular law, look at this particular law.


End rant.

Well, for today, at least.

Until the next time somebody can’t figure out what a record means, and the answer is right there, in the law.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “When the answer is right there…,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 4 Oct 2021).


  1. Judy G. Russell, “The law as it was: federal,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 28 June 2012 ( : accessed 4 Oct 2021).
  2. Ibid., “When casa is not a house,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 22 July 2013.
  3. Ibid., “The oh-so-common law,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 17 Oct 2014.
  4. “An Act to appropriate the proceeds of the sales of the public lands, and to grant pre-emption rights,” 5 Stat. 453 (1841).
  5. §2, “An Act To provide for the relief of certain officers and enlisted men of the volunteer forces,” 29 Stat. 593 (24 Feb 1897).
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