Oh, the stories to be told…
The Legal Genealogist has always loved the traditional Scottish prayer:
From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!1
And since we started the week in a beastly fashion,2 let’s keep it up.
And think about what the laws about animals can tell us about our ancestors’ lives and times.
Just as a few examples:
• In 1790 Virginia, in the counties of Harrison, Monongalia, Ohio, Madison, Woodford, Gloucester, Middlesex, Essex, Accomack and Northampton, every male taxpayer had to produce a number of crows’ heads and squirrel scalps … or pay an additional tax.3 The same was true in 1797 Tennessee, where the law allowed any county to impose a tax payable in squirrels or crow scalps.4
• In 1819 Illinois, everybody who had horses, cattle or hogs needed to register an earmark or brand “different from … all his neighbors,” and had to report to the local magistrate if he killed any hogs in the woods.5
• In 1819 Alabama, “every person, who shall kill any wolf or panther in this State, shall receive three dollars for every wolf or panther … not exceeding six months old, and … over the age of six months, five dollars.” 6
• In 1824 Missouri, the law authorized a bounty on wolves, panthers and wildcats, but only if the animal was killed within 10 miles of a settlement.7
• In 1891 Texas, the law authorized a bounty of $1 per dozen for jack rabbits and 50 cents per dozen for prairie dogs. A single coyote was worth 50 cents, and wolves ranged from $1-$2 each.8
Now… in some of these cases, we already know just from the way the law is framed what the problem was. Just what do we think those crows and squirrels were doing in 1790 Virginia or 1797 Tennessee that made them such a nuisance that the law was willing to require the men of the community to wipe them out? Feeding on the crops that were supposed to feed the people, maybe?
And all those bounty laws — which, by the way, persisted even in well-developed areas right into the 20th century. What do we think the problem was there?
It isn’t like we need to do a ton of additional research to figure that out.
Where we’re not sure, of course, or we want more information, we can look to see if the jurisdiction published the journals of its legislature — and whether we can find those journals online in one of the three major digitized book sites: Google Books; HathiTrust Digital Library; and Internet Archive. Just as one example, in the Journal of the New Hampshire Senate for 1829, there are 13 separate entries tracking the debate over a change in the law on the bounties on crows, wolves, bears and wildcats.9
Adding these details to our family histories provides depth and breadth and context.
And we can find in the laws the stories of those beasties of our ancestors’ lives and times.
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Those beastly laws,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 10 Mar 2022).
- There isn’t any official source for this, of course. But you can find it all over the internet. See e.g. “Ghoulies, Ghosties and Long Leggedy Beasties,” Newcastle Castle (https://www.newcastlecastle.co.uk/ : accessed 10 Mar 2022). ↩
- Judy G. Russell, “A different set of vital records,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 8 Mar 2022 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 10 Mar 2022). ↩
- Chapter LVIII (16 Dec 1790), 13 Hening’s Statutes at Large (Richmond: p.p., 1820), 188-189. ↩
- Chapter 4, Laws of 1797, “Wolves, Crows and Squirrels,” in John Haywood and Robert L. Cobbs, compilers, Statute Laws of the State of Tennessee (Knoxville : F. S. Heiskell, 1831), I: 378. ↩
- Act of 23 March 1819, Laws … of the State of Illinois 1819 (Kaskaskia: State Printer, 1819), 218. ↩
- Act of 16 December 1819, Acts of Alabama… 1819 (Huntsville : 1820), 101-102. ↩
- Chapter 178, Laws of … Missouri up to the year 1824 (Jefferson City : Lusk & Son, Printer, 1842), 490-491. ↩
- Act of 11 April 1891, Laws of Texas 1822-1897 (Austin : Gammel Book Co., 1898), 10: 162. ↩
- Journal of the Honourable Senate of the State of New-Hampshire… 1829 (Concord : By Authority, 1829); digital images, HathiTrust Digital Library (https://www.hathitrust.org/ : accessed 10 Mar 2022). ↩