When we examine historic records, it is vital that we evaluate them in the context of the world that created them. One of the most important aspects of doing this is to understand the laws under which these records were created.
The Law Librarians’ Society of Washington, D. C., provides a list of resources for researching laws. Many of the links in “State Legislatures, State Laws, and State Regulations: Website Links and Telephone Numbers,” of course, refer to modern legislation. Yet there are a number of sites that have digitized either images or transcriptions of historic laws as well.
For example, the Online State Resources for Genealogists ebook contains links to the following sources for historic law books, among numerous others:
- Connecticut State Library, “Law and Legislation“
- “Laws of the State of Delaware,” The Delaware Heritage Collection
- Pennsylvania Legislative Reference Bureau
- “Texas Laws and Resolutions Archive,” The Portal to Texas History
You can also discover many historic state statute books that have been digitized by Google Books. The easiest way to find these is to search for “laws [state name]” or “statutes [state name]” directly in Google Books, not from the Google main page. The results will vary depending on what has been digitized for the specific state. Occasionally, once you have discovered the naming pattern for historic statute books in the state–or even the identity of the state printer–during the time period you are seeking, you can find better results by searching specifically by name.
A search for “statutes of Virginia,” for example, produces results for Hening’s Statutes at Large for 1819, 1820, and 1836, and a 1971 supplement, all on the first page of results. Clicking on the name of William Waller Hening in these results produces several books of legal commentary that he wrote, a few volumes of court decisions, and an additional volume of the Statutes at Large from 1823.
Another site to search for digitized books is Internet Archive. Through partnerships with numerous libraries and universities, the collection of books on this site almost rivals Google’s. Recommendations for searching are the same as listed above, with similar results.
For example, a search for “laws of Minnesota” on this site produces 98 results, including volumes of session laws from 1891 and 1915, and general laws from 1866, 1878, and 1889.
To search for federal laws, the Library of Congress has digitized the published U. S. Statutes at Large, as well as various published Congressional debates and proceedings, from 1775 through 1875. These include full-text search capability, on “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U. S. Congressional Documents and Debates,” part of its American Memory digital collection.
Understanding the laws that regulated our ancestors’ worlds is an integral part of researching our ancestors within these worlds. Once we have located the relevant laws, we might discover that the intestate succession laws describing how property was to be distributed bring new meaning to the probate records we have located. We might discover that the tax laws defined the values in the tax lists, when specific property was not described. We might discover that the language at the end of a deed that we dismissed as boilerplate actually had a very well-defined legal meaning, that is necessary to fully understand the record.
There are really no limits to what we might discover once we understand the laws of the past.
For more evidence of this, I recommend reading Judy G. Russell’s blog, The Legal Genealogist. She frequently discusses this very phenomenon.
If you would like to cite this post:
Michael Hait, CG, “Resources for studying historic laws,”Planting the Seeds: Genealogy as a Profession blog, posted 28 January 2013 (https://michaelhait.wordpress.com : accessed [access date]). [Please also feel free to include a hyperlink to the specific article if you are citing this post in an online forum.]