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… between dower and dowry …

The Legal Genealogist is putting the finishing touches on a presentation about a particular variation in genealogical records of our early female ancestors.

And that reminded me that I keep meaning to explain the essential difference between two critical terms… and keep forgetting to get the darned blog post written and posted.

So, without further ado:

Dower is a term drawn from the English common law, and means “the provision which the law makes for a widow out of the lands or tenements of her husband, for her support and the nurture of her children. … an estate for the life of the widow in a certain portion of the … real estate of her husband, to which she has not relinquished her right during the marriage…”1

In essence, it’s the property a widow takes out of the marriage after the death of her husband in a common law jurisdiction, like the early British colonies in North America and, later, in most of the United States.

Dowry, on the other hand, is a term used mostly in the Civil Law — the legal system in effect in Dutch, French and Spanish colonies — and means “the property which a woman brings to her husband in marriage… the effects which the wife brings to the husband to support the expenses of marriage.”2

In essence, it’s the property a bride brings into the marriage at its outset in a Civil Law jurisdiction, like the colonies of those other European powers and, later, in places like Louisiana, Quebec and elsewhere that incorporated the Civil Law into their legal structures.

Yes, the word “dowry” is used in places that followed the common law, and it was not at all uncommon for a bride in a common law jurisdiction to bring property into the marriage.3

But from a legal perspective, and in terms of the records that might have been created for a genealogist to find, there’s an essential difference.

In a common law jurisdiction, we’ll most often find records for female ancestors in the dower records after the marriage ends due to the death of the husband.

In a Civil Law jurisdiction, we’ll be well-advised to look for records for female ancestors in the dowry and related provisions of the marriage contract before the marriage begins.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “The essential difference,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 21 Jan 2022).


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 393, “dower.”
  2. Ibid., 394, “dowry.”
  3. See generally “Courtship in Early America,” Digital History, University of Houston ( : accessed 21 Jan 2022).
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