This post was originally published on my former Online State Resources for Genealogy blog. That blog is no longer active, but I am reposting some of the more valuable posts here.
As my friend Judy G. Russell, “The Legal Genealogist,” would surely agree, no study of the past can be complete without studying the laws of the past. The legal systems of most of the British colonies in America were of course based on the English common law system. The most commonly cited source for information on English common law is Sir William Blackstone’s 4-volume Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769) and its many later abridgments. Published just prior to the American Revolution, however, there may be significant differences between the laws in Blackstone’s day and the laws of the earliest American settlements 150 years earlier. The common law was often amended by later colonial statutes in ways quite different in, say, Virginia than in England proper.
According to the introduction to the “Sir Edward Coke Collection,”
Sir Edward Coke, also known as Lord Coke, was a prominent British jurist and politician of the late sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries. He is remembered as, among other things, the author of a four-volume legal treatise titled Institutes of the Lawes of England, which set forth the then-evolving common law of England and which has played a significant role in the development of the common law system worldwide. Lord Coke also generated a 13-volume collection of Reports, which included his commentary on cases he had heard as well as information on prior precedents.
The “Leon E. Bloch Law Library Sir Edward Coke Collection,” presented by the University of Missouri Digital Library, includes digital copies of all four volumes of the Institutes and all thirteen volumes of the Reports. The first volume deals with land tenure, a subject that certainly affects the early colonial settlement of America in profound ways. It begins, “Tenant in fee simple is hee which hath Lands or Tenements to hold to him and his heires for ever.” This concept itself is easily familiar to any with experience in colonial (and later) land records. Volumes two through four focus on “Ancient and Other Statutes” (Vol. 2), “High Treason, and Other Pleas of the Crown and Criminal Causes” (Vol. 3), and “the Jurisdiction of Courts” (Vol. 4).
Finding references of interest is through a “Table” (index) at the end of each volume. Though dealing ostensibly with land tenure, one might be surprised by some of the subjects addressed in Volume 1. Some of the topics appearing in this first volume include “Names,” “Marriage,” and “Inheritance.” Reading Coke’s commentaries on these various subjects may provide great insight into the origins of colonial laws. These discussions should be studied together with the colonial laws of interest for the most benefit to genealogists.
Explore the “Leon E. Bloch Law Library Sir Edward Coke Collection” at http://digital.library.umsystem.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?page=home;c=klc.