The concerns of 1855

So your ancestor was a mayor or a town council member. A local official of some kind around the middle of the 19th century.

Ever wonder just what it was that he — or the town or the city — was supposed to do? What the authority was? What its concerns were?

Or maybe it was just that you had an ancestor who lived in an area making the transition from rural to more urban… and you’re wondering what life was like… what people cared about.

NH4There is a place to look, you know… and, yes, you already know what The Legal Genealogist is going to say.

You need to look at the laws.

Because you’re likely going to find an awful lot of clues to the context of the times in those law books.

As I was getting ready to head off to Manchester, New Hampshire, for tomorrow’s spring seminar of the New Hampshire Society of Genealogists (are you joining us? have you sent your email off to the This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to see if NHSG can hold a space for you?), I came across the job description of an entire city in New Hampshire’s laws… and what a tale it tells.

It seems that on the 29th of June 1855 the town of Dover, New Hampshire, became the City of Dover, New Hampshire.1 Now that may seem pretty much like a distinction without a difference, but remember that New Hampshire has the town meeting form of government in many communities. Cities were and are allowed to govern through mayors and boards of aldermen or selectmen, rather than through the town meeting.2

So… what was the brand-new City of Dover — and its mayor and board of aldermen — supposed to do for its residents? You can read the entire list in the law and boy does it ever tell us a lot about the cares and concerns of the day. Because, the law provided, the city council had the authority to “make, establish, publish, alter, modify, amend, or repeal ordinances for the following purposes among others”:

“1. To restrain and prohibit all descriptions of gaming, and fraudulent devices, and to authorize the destruction and demolition of all instruments and devices used for the purpose of gaming.

“2. To regulate or prohibit the exhibitions of common show men and shows of every kind.

“3. To prevent riots, noises, disturbances or disorderly assemblages, and to restrain and suppress disorderly houses, and shops, and houses of ill-fame.

“4. To compel the owner or occupant of any cellar, tallow chandler’s shop,, soap factory, tannery, stable, barn, privy, sewer or other unwholesome or nauseous house or place, to cleanse, remove or abate the same.

“5. To direct the location and management of all slaughter houses, markets, steam mills, steam engines, black-smiths’ shops, and buildings or places for storing powder.

“6. To regulate the keeping and conveying of gun powder, and other combustible and dangerous materials, and the use of candles and lights in barns and stables.

“7. To prevent encumbering the streets or sidewalks with carriages, carts, lumber, fire-wood, stones, or any other thing what ever, and to prevent the obstruction of sidewalks and bridges, by persons collecting or gathering together, and to regulate the erection of buildings.

“8. To restrain and punish vagrants, mendicants, street beggars and common prostitutes.

“9. To prevent the running at large of dogs, and to authorize the destruction of the same when at large contrary to the ordinance.

“10. To regulate and restrain the rolling of hoops, playing at ball, or playing kites, or any other amusement or practice having a tendency to annoy persons passing in the streets and on the sidewalks, or to frighten teams and horses within said city.

“11. To regulate the ringing of bells, and regulate or prevent the blowing of horns and bugles, and crying goods and other things, therein.

“12. To require all persons to keep the snow, ice and dirt from the sidewalks in front of the premises owned or occupied by them, and to abate and remove nuisances.

“13. To regulate the burial of the dead.

“14. To regulate guaging, the place and manner of selling and weighing hay, packing, inspecting and branding beef and pork, and of selling and measuring wood, lime and coal ; to appoint a suitable person or persons to superintend and conduct the same.

“15. To regulate porters, cartmen and cartage, and hackney coaches, cabs and other carriages and their drivers.

“16. To prescribe the powers, authorities and duties of marshal, assistant marshals, police and watchmen of said city.

“17. To establish, regulate and make public pumps, wells and reservoirs, and to prevent the unnecessary waste of water.

“18. To regulate the grade of streets, and the grade and width of sidewalks ; relative to trees planted for shade, ornament, convenience or use, public or private, and to the fruit of such trees ; relative to sweeping and burning of chimneys ; relative to the bonds to be given by the several officers of said city ; relative to public lamps and lights ; relative to preserving said city from exposure to fire, and to prevent the use of any building, in the compact parts of the city for bakers’ shops, black-smiths’ shops, hatters’ shops, tallow chandlers’ shops, or for any other purposes, which, in the opinion of the city council, shall dangerously expose said city to injury or destruction by fire ; or the erection or use of any building in the compact parts of said city, for any noisy, noisome, or offensive occupation ; for making and regulating public squares and walks for preventing and punishing trespasses on, (or) injuries to public buildings, and in relation to cemeteries, public burial grounds, squares, commons, and other public grounds, and may make any other by-laws, regulations and ordinances, which may seem for the well being of said city, provided they be not repugnant to the constitution and laws of this State, which by-laws, regulations and ordinances, shall take effect and be in force from the time therein limited, without the sanction of any other authority whatever.”3

Now some of these things we might all have thought of — burying the dead, for example, would be a real concern to folks in the towns. But without reading the law, I for one might not have considered just how much of a nuisance those hoop-rollers or kite-fliers might have been in 1855 Dover.

Just reading the list of concerns the City was allowed to address tells me something about life at that time I might not otherwise have known.


  1. “An Act to establish the city of Dover,” 29 June 1855, Chapter 1699, in Laws of the State of New Hampshire, … 1855 (Concord, N.H. : Asa Handley, State Printer, 1855), 1590; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 12 May 2016).
  2. See generally Wikipedia (, “Town meeting: New Hampshire,” rev. 30 Mar 2016.
  3. “An Act to establish the city of Dover,” 29 June 1855, Chapter 1699, in Laws of the State of New Hampshire, … 1855, at 1595-1596.
Posted in Resources, Statutes | Leave a comment

New Hampshire’s bad boys (and girls)

You can tell an awful lot about people and what they were thinking — what they believed, what they aspired to — by reading the laws of the time.

That’s the one thing The Legal Genealogist really hopes every genealogist eventually comes to understand: that we read the laws not just to get the answers to specific genealogical questions about our families, but to get the flavor of the places where and the times when our families lived.

And there can’t be a better example of that than a particular New Hampshire statute, passed in February 1791, that I came across last night while getting ready for Saturday’s Spring Seminar of the New Hampshire Society of Genealogists in Manchester. (There may still be a slot or two — you can email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to see if NHSG can hold a space for you!)

NH3It’s entitled “An ACT for the punishment of idle and disorderly persons, for the support and maintenance of the poor, and for designating the duties and defining the powers of overseers of the poor,” and it was passed 15 February 1791.1

Now the statute has a lot of sections about authorizing the towns to build “a workhouse, in which to set their poor to work,”2 and the maintenance of paupers at town expense,3 and apprenticing poor children.4

But the real story here is the identification of the bad boys (and girls) under the law. The classes and categories of “rogues” and “vagabonds” that industrious New Hampshire did not want loitering about its streets. For the law allowed the towns to build houses of correction for the keeping and correction of these non-contributors to 18th century society.5

And who were these folks, these bad boys (and girls) of 1791? Well, they included:

any rogue, vagabond, lewd, idle or disorderly persons, persons going about begging, or persons using any subtle craft, juggling or unlawful games, or plays, or persons pretending to have knowledge in physiognomy or palmistry, or persons pretending that they can tell destinies or fortunes, or discover by any spells, or magic art, where lost or stolen goods may be found, common pipers, fiddlers, runaways, stubborn servants or children, common drunkards, common night walkers, pilferers, persons wanton and lascivious in speech, conduct or behavior, common railers or brawlers, such as neglect their calling or employment, mispend what they earn, and such as do not provide for themselves or the support of their families…6

Now think about that… and think about what that tells you about those farmers and artisans of the late 1700s. Think about the mindset it reflects — the attitudes and work ethic it incorporates.

And whether our particular family was among those farmers and artisans — or we descend from one of the vagabonds or rogues of the day — this reflection of the time in the laws of the time is part of our family history.


  1. “An ACT for the punishment of idle and disorderly persons, for the support and maintenance of the poor, and for designating the duties and defining the powers of overseers of the poor,” in Constitution and Laws of the State of New-Hampshire (Dover, N.H. : Samuel Bragg Jr., for the State, 1805), 298; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 11 May 2016).
  2. Ibid., at 298.
  3. Ibid., at 299.
  4. Ibid., at 300.
  5. Ibid., at 299.
  6. Ibid.
Posted in Resources, Statutes | 9 Comments

USCIS proposes big fee increase

In genealogy, as in everything else in our lives, There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

And, The Legal Genealogist regrets to report, sometimes lunch gets downright expensive.

As all of us who need records from the United States Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS, formerly INS) are about to see, and in the very near future.

USCISUSCIS has proposed a major increase in its genealogy program service fees and, while the proposal is only in the proposal stage right now, the likelihood that the fee increase won’t happen is somewhere between zip and zero.

So we need to be prepared — and, if we can, to act now, before the fee increase takes effect.

Here’s the deal.

USCIS holds some of the most genealogically valuable records on the planet if we have immigrant ancestors who came to the US or created immigration- or naturalization-related records in the 20th century. These include the Naturalization Certificate Files (C-Files), from September 27, 1906 to March 31, 1956; Alien Registration Forms (Form AR-2), August 1940 to March 1944; Visa Files, July 1, 1924 to March 31, 1944; Registry Files, March 1929 to March 31, 1944; and A-Files, April 1, 1944 to May 1, 1951. See this USCIS page for an overview.

Right now, anybody who needs copies of these records from USCIS can make a request for a records search — a report back from USCIS as to what records it has for an individual and what the document and file numbers are (and we need those numbers to request those particular records). The fee for that document request is currently $20.

Once we have those document and file numbers, we can make a request for a copy of those genealogy records — a C file or an A file, for example — and get it from microfilm with a fee of $20. Or if the records only exist in text form rather than on microfilm, we can get a copy for a fee of $35.

All of those fees, under the proposal filed for public comment by USCIS on May 4th, would go up to $65: $65 for the initial search request; $65 for the copy from microfilm; and $65 for the copy from textual records.

Now that’s a pretty hefty increase — some 225% for the records search and microfilm copy, 86% for the textual copy. And it’s sure to infuriate those who believe that (a) all genealogical records should be free and/or (b) the genealogical records they need should be free, even if everyone else has to pay for them.

But fees at USCIS have remained the same since November 2010 — no fee increases at all. And there isn’t any serious funding provided by Congress for the genealogy program at USCIS. So either the users pay for the service by fees or — and this alternative is unthinkable — the genealogy program at USCIS goes away and we end up waiting until the records are archived at the National Archives (meaning we won’t have access in our lifetimes…).

Now of course this really is just a proposed rule at this point. You can certainly send a comment in to USCIS on the proposed rule and try to convince them it shouldn’t happen. The rule announcement is on the Federal Register website here. We all have another 55 days to tell USCIS what we think of this proposal.

But — seriously — the chances of this not going through even if every last one of us rose up in unison are essentially nil. This fee increase will take place. The rule proposal makes it clear that USCIS thinks the real cost of providing these records is considerably higher, if all administrative costs had been factored in, and that we’re getting a break by holding the increase to the $65 level.

So feel free to comment if you choose… but cover your bets right now. In short, if you’ve been holding back and waiting to make a document search request or waiting to order USCIS records, now is the time to get your request in.

To make a search request to produce any and all records citations for your person — and you can’t order a record without the record citation number — head over to the USCIS genealogy program web request page right now and pay the current $20 fee to get the request in. And note that the page says the request page will be down today (May 11th) between 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. EDT.

If you’re really really lucky — and there are no guarantees here because some search requests have been taking a very long time — you’ll get the records citation report back before the new fees go into effect and you’ll be able to then go ahead and order the records themselves from microfilm or textual record before the new fees take effect. Don’t count on this — I’ve had one search request pending since October 26, 2015, with no response.

But at least act now to make your search request. No matter what happens with the fee proposal, it can’t take effect before the comment period expires on July 5th, and that means you have that long for sure to get a search request for $20 rather than $65.

Posted in General | 1 Comment

New Hampshire statutes

The Legal Genealogist has a mantra — something everyone who’s ever read this blog can probably recite from memory:

If we want to understand the records, we have to understand the law, and not just in the abstract, but at the very time and in the very place where the records were created.

So… where do we find the law?

That’s always a question, and it’s not always easy to answer. There are colonial laws that sometimes were and often weren’t collected and published and then digitized in an easily accessible form. Then in some cases there are territorial laws between the Revolution and statehood. And then the laws of the state.

NH2Sometimes the laws are simply arranged chronologically and published year after year at the end of each legislative term in what are usually called session laws — by definition, the “name commonly given to the body of laws enacted by a state legislature at one of its annual or biennial sessions.”1

Sometimes the laws are compiled into codifications — by definition, the “process of collecting and arranging the laws of a country or state into a code, i.e., into a complete system of positive law, scientifically ordered, and promulgated by legislative authority.”2

And sometimes you have to slog your way through both to answer a particular question.

Even in a place as small, as orderly and as well-governed as the Granite State — New Hampshire — where I’ll be speaking on Saturday to the New Hampshire Society of Genealogists in Manchester — finding the laws can be tough sledding.

But just to give you a leg up if you’re doing New Hampshire research, here’s a guide to the codified versions of Granite State law: a complete list and, if online, where to find every code from the provincial days to just before World War I:

• Albert S. Batchellor, editor, Laws of New Hampshire, Vol. 1: Province Period (Manchester, N.H. : John B. Clarke Co., 1904)

• –, Laws of New Hampshire, Vol. 2: 1702-1745 (Concord, N.H. : Rumford Printing Co., 1913)

• Henry Harrison Metcalf, editor, , Laws of New Hampshire, Vol. 3: 1745-1774 (Bristol, N.H. : Musgrove Printing House, 1915)

• –, Laws of New Hampshire, Vol. 4: 1776-1784 (Bristol, N.H. : Musgrove Printing House, 1916)

The Laws of the State of New-Hampshire (Portsmouth, N.H. : John Melcher, State Printer, 1797)

Constitution and Laws of the State of New-Hampshire (Dover, N.H. : Samuel Bragg Jr., 1805)

Laws of the State of New-Hampshire… 1805 to … 1810 (Concord, N.H. : Isaac Hill, 1811)

The Laws of the State of New-Hampshire (Exeter, N.H. : C. Norris & Co., 1815)

The Laws of the State of New-Hampshire … since June 1, 1815 (Concord, N.H. : Isaac Hill, 1824)

The Laws of the State of New-Hampshire (Hopkinton, N.H. : Isaac Long, 1830)

Revised Statures of the State of New Hampshire … 1842 (Concord, N.H. : Carroll & Baker, State Printers, 1843)

• A compiled volume of the laws from 1842 to 1847 is not available online that I’ve been able to find, but you should be able to locate a hard copy: Laws of the State of New-Hampshire from November Session 1842, to June Session, 1847, Inclusive (Concord, N.H. : Butterfield & Hill, State Printers, 1847). A decent substitute is a slightly later new edition of the 1842 revision, Revised Statures of the State of New Hampshire … 1850 (Concord, N.H. : John F. Brown, 1851)

The Compiled Statutes of the State of New Hampshire (Concord, N.H. : Butterfield & Hill, State Printers, 1853)

The General Statutes of the State of New-Hampshire (Manchester, N.H. : John B. Clarke, State Printer, 1867)

The General Laws of the State of New Hampshire (Manchester, N.H. : John B. Clarke, State Printer, 1878)

The General Laws of the State of New Hampshire (Concord, N.H. : J.B. Sanborn, 1878)

The Public Statutes of the State of New Hampshire (Manchester, N.H. : John B. Clarke, State Printer, 1891)

• William M. Chase and Arthur H. Chase, compilers, The Public Statutes of the Commonwealth of New Hampshire, … 1901 (Concord, N.H. : Edson C. Eastman, 1900)

• –, Supplement to the Public Statutes of the Commonwealth of New Hampshire (Chase edition, 1901), … 1901 to 1913 (Concord, N.H. : Chase & Chandler, 1914)

That should keep you busy for a little while…


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1096, “session laws.”
  2. Ibid., 216, “codification.”
Posted in General, Resources, Statutes | 8 Comments

Forbidden marriages

The date, according to the records, was Thursday, the 25th of April 1799.

The place: the village of Hollis, in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire.

The celebrant: one Eli Smith, a clergyman.

And the bride and groom? Well, they were Smiths, too. The groom was Samuel Smith, and his new bride Margaret Smith.1

And from that information alone, we know something about the familial relationship of Samuel and Margaret — something that could help us figure out their places in their families beyond the mere fact that they married each other.

NH1Well, of course, we know it if we go on to do what The Legal Genealogist was doing last night — poking around in New Hampshire statutes. Yep, just got home from the National Genealogical Society conference in Florida, and I’m already getting ready for the next one. Hope you’re planning to join me and the New Hampshire Society of Genealogists at its Spring Meeting in Manchester on Saturday.

Because those early New Hampshire statutes make it abundantly clear who couldn’t marry each other because they were too closely related to each other.

That “too close” business came in two flavors. You could be too closely related by blood — a concept known as consanguinity: “The connection or relation of persons descended from the same stock or common ancestor.”2

There are even two flavors of consanguinity — lineal (“that which subsists between persons of whom one is descended in a direct line from the other, as between son, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and so upwards in the direct ascending line; or between son, grandson, great-grandson, and so downwards in the direct descending line”) — and collateral (the individuals “descend from the same stock or ancestor; but … they do not descend one from the other”). 3

Or you could be too closely related by marriage — a concept known as affinity: “Relationship by marriage between the husband and the blood relations of the wife, and between the wife and the blood relations of the husband.”4

And, under the dictionary definition, there are even three flavors of affinity: “(1) Direct, or that subsisting between the husband and his wife’s relations by blood, or between the wife and the husband’s relations by blood; (2) secondary, or that which subsists between the husband and his wife’s relations by marriage; (8) collateral, or that which subsists between the husband and the relations of his wife’s relations.”5

And New Hampshire law addressed both. It declared incestuous and criminal the marriage of any man with his father’s sister, mother’s sister, father’s widow, wife’s mother, daughter, wife’s daughter, son’s widow, sister, son’s daughter, daughter’s daughter, son’s son’s widow, daughter’s son’s widow, brother’s daughter, or sister’s daughter.6

And it criminalized and forbade the marriage of any woman with her father’s brother, mother’s brother, mother’s husband, husband’s father, son, husband’s son, daughter’s husband, brother, son’s son, daughter’s son, son’s daughter’s husband, daughter’s daughter’s husband, brother’s son or sister’s son.7

So… assuming of course that the law was followed, is it possible that Margaret was Samuel’s niece? No. She would have been his brother’s or sister’s daughter, and that would have been forbidden.

Could she have been the child of a deceased first wife? No. That would have made her his wife’s daughter, and that would have been forbidden.

Could she have been his first cousin? Yes. There is absolutely nothing in that early law that would have barred a marriage between first cousins.

Cousin marriages weren’t prohibited as late as the Revised Statutes of 1842, as revised through 1850, either.8 Even first cousins could marry legally then in New Hampshire.

But don’t try it in New Hampshire today. By statute approved 24 June 1869, taking effect six months after its passage and continuing in effect to today, a man in New Hampshire may not marry his father’s or mother’s brother’s daughter or his father’s or mother’s sister’s daughter, and a woman there may not marry her father’s or mother’s brother’s son or her father’s or mother’s sister’s son.9


  1. Marriage record, Samuel Smith and Margaret Smith, 25 Apr 1799, Hollis, NH; digital images of handwritten carded entries, “New Hampshire Marriage Records, 1637-1947,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 8 May 2016), citing Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics, Concord.
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 253, “consanguinity.”
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 49, “affinity.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. “An ACT to prevent incestuous marriages and to regulate divorces,” 17 February 1791, in Constitution and Laws of the State of New-Hampshire (Dover, N.H. : Samuel Bragg Jr., State Printer, 1805), 280, 281; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 8 May 2016).
  7. Ibid.
  8. §§ 1-2, Chapter 147, Marriage, in The Revised Statutes of the State of New Hampshire … to June, 1850 (Concord, N.H. : John F. Brown, 1851), 291; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 8 May 2016).
  9. “An Act in Addition to Sections One and Two of Chapter One Hundred and Eleven of the General Statutes, Relating to Marriages,” 24 June 1869, in The Laws of the State of New Hampshire… 1867 (Manchester, N.H. : John B. Clarke, State Printer, 1867), I: 274; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 8 May 2016).
Posted in Legal definitions, Methodology, Statutes | 9 Comments

Happy Mother’s Day all!

It is Mother’s Day here in the United States.

Those of us who are mothers are (with some luck) getting feted by the children and grandchildren. Those of us whose mothers and grandmothers are still alive are (if we know what’s healthy for us) feting our mothers and grandmothers.

And genetic genealogists look at the genes.

Mitochondrial DNA — mtDNA for short — is our most compelling inheritance from our mothers, because it’s the type of DNA we get only from our mothers, and they got only from their mothers, and so on back into the mists of time.1

So it truly is the strongest piece of evidence of our maternal ancestry, and can be used to prove a relationship, as in the Richard III case in 2013,2 or to disprove a relationship or ethnicity.3

So in honor of that wonderful tool of mtDNA, here on DNA Sunday, The Legal Genealogist honors her mtDNA line.

My great great grandmother Martha Louise (Shew) Baird Livingston:


Her daughter, my great grandmother, Eula (Baird) Robertson with Eula’s granddaughter, my mother, Hazel Irene (Cottrell) Geissler:


Eula’s daughter, my grandmother Opal (Robertson) Cottrell with her daughter, my mother, and her daughter, my sister Kacy, and her daughter, my niece Hannah, and son, my nephew Ian.


We have children in yet another generation, but none so far in that direct maternal line… sigh… I keep telling myself that patience is a virtue…

And, by the way, if you’ve been wanting to get your mtDNA tested, today — this very day, Sunday, May 8th, is The Day. There’s a sale through midnight tonight central time at Family Tree DNA: the Family Finder autosomal test and the full mitochondrial sequence, on sale for an astounding $228 total.


  1. ISOGG Wiki (, “Mitochondrial DNA,” rev. 17 Apr 2016.
  2. See Judy G. Russell, “Rewriting history through DNA,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 3 Feb 2013 ( : accessed 7 May 2016), and “And the answer is…,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 4 Feb 2013.
  3. See ibid., “No, no NA,” posted 23 Aug 2015.
Posted in DNA, General | 2 Comments

NGS offers lots on genealogy and law

More than a thousand genealogists are in the process of descending on Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for the 2016 National Genealogical Society conference, which gets underway officially on Wednesday with a keynote address by Connie L. Lester.

NGS2016In “Ordinary People,” Extraordinary Lives, she will tell the story of the men and women who battled the heat, the swamps, and the bugs to establish farms, businesses, schools, and the arts in Florida. More, she’ll tell those lucky enough to be there for this opening session how to find their stories and help us understand what those stories contribute to our understanding of who we are.

After that opening session, there’s so much to choose from! But, of course, this blog is by The Legal Genealogist, so it should come as no surprise that I’m going to focus on the presentations for conference goers that will help us all understand better the law behind the records we find.

Wednesday, May 4:

11:00am: Getting More from Court Records: Order Books, Minute Books, Dockets & Associated Loose Papers, presented by Vic Dunn, CG. “Was your ancestor illegitimate, a ‘gentleman justice’ of the court, a horse thief, or an insolvent debtor? Court records may provide answers and connect generations.”

2:30pm: Chancery Records: The Secrets They Hold, the Families They Reveal, presented by Barbara Vines Little, CG, FNGS, FVGS. “How to locate and work with Chancery records, often including evidence of migration, descriptions of multiple generations of family members, and details of family life.”

4:00pm: What Did Your Ancestors Leave You? Probing into Probate, presented by Christine Crawford-Oppenheimer, MLS.
“Learn about the documents in estate files, their purposes, how to access them, and how they can help you learn more about your ancestors.”

Thursday, May 5:

9:30am: Behind Closed Doors: An Introduction to Plaçage, presented by Beth Ann Stahr, CG, MLS. “The lecture is a historical explanation of the tradition of plaçage, its origins in Saint-Domingue, current notions about arrangements, and sample records regarding these families.” (Note: plaçage was a recognized extralegal system of interracial relationships akin to common law marriages.)

11:00am: Justice of the Peace: Miscellany, Mischief, Marriages, and More!, presented by Diane Florence Gravel, CG. “This lecture introduces a variety of records created by these local judicial/administrative officials. Learn techniques for identifying the justices and locating extant records.”

11:00am: “A Family of Fiends”: An Antebellum Tale of Southern Murder, presented by Jordan D. Jones. “Come hear a case study that proceeds from an eleven-word biography to discover bastardy, murder, and the acquittal of the victim’s brother.”

4:00pm: Separate but Unequal: Slave Laws and their Records, presented by Judy G. Russell, JD, CG, CGL. “North and south of the Mason-Dixon line, laws governed enslaved Americans and slave-owners alike, creating a treasure trove of records for genealogists.”

Friday, May 6:

11:00am: Finding and Using Online Legal Resources, presented by Michael Hait, CG. “This presentation will show how to locate historical laws online to learn about the world in which our ancestors lived and better understand their records.”

4:00pm: Dower and Dowry: Women, Property, & Legal Records, presented by Judy G. Russell, JD, CG, CGL. “Bringing property into marriage or trying to take it out, our female ancestors were governed by laws that generated valuable records.”

Saturday, May 7:

11:00am: The Hidden Gender – Finding Women in Courthouse Records, presented by Janice Lovelace, PhD. “Pre-20th century, women had limited rights. This presentation will look at courthouse records with a slant to finding ‘hidden’ women while addressing race and age.”

2:30pm: It Wasn’t in the Will! Dazzling Discoveries with Probate Records, presented by Diane Florence Gravel, CG. “Get beyond the will book! Learn to uncover and analyze hidden clues of kinship in obscure probate records.”

2:30pm: Laws of the Indies: Spanish Florida Laws and the Records They Produced, presented by Judy G. Russell, JD, CG, CGL. “From town planning to native relations, ‘Las Leyes de Las Indias’ (Laws of the Indies) governed Spanish Florida and created unique records for research.”

And just because…

There are two other must-attend sessions at this conference. The Helen F.M. Leary Distinguished Lecture will be presented by David E. Rencher, AG, CG, FIGRS, FUGA, on Friday at 2:30pm. His topic is a critical one: Ethics in Genealogy – Professional and Personal, where he’ll discuss “the ethics needed in both our professional and personal genealogical research – the need to be true to the science.”

And to learn how about the challenges — and the successess — of records preservation and access, there’s How the Virginia Genealogical Society made Virginia Vital Records More Accessible, Wednesday, May 4, 2016, 4:00pm, presented by Peter E. Broadbent, Jr., JD. “Learn the steps Virginia took to improve public access to vital records, including reducing the closed period to 25 years for marriages, divorces and deaths.”

Posted in General | Leave a comment

All over the map

Take a careful look at the chart below showing the ethnicity estimates of four people based on their autosomal DNA testing. All four were tested at the same company, all four analyzed against the same reference populations.

You can click on the image and look at it in a bigger form to study it better.


Maybe it will help you to see it in a tabular form.

  Person 1 Person 2 Person 3 Person 4
Scandinavia 42% 12% 62% 56%
British Isles 19% 57% 7% 0%
Southern Europe 17% 0% 19% 27%
Eastern Europe 11% 3% 7% 17%
Finland, No. Siberia 4% 7% 0% 0%
Western, Central Euope 2% 12% 0% 0%
Eastern Middle East 4% 0% 0% 0%
Asia Minor 0% 9% 5% 0%

Now ask yourself: what’s the relationship (if any) among these four people?

If you’re thinking maybe they’re not related at all (look at the wide variations across the population reference groups), or maybe person 2 isn’t related to the others (look at that big British Isles component compared to the others), well, that’s exactly why The Legal Genealogist keeps warning that you can’t take these ethnicity estimates as more than an interesting conversation starter.1

Because all four of these people are full blood siblings, definitively established by DNA testing.

These happen to be my own results and those of two of my brothers and one of my sisters. (Stand by for more when I twist a few more arms…)

Now we’ve seen this sort of thing before. I posted about the wide variations among my aunts and uncles who’d tested.2 It’s simply not possible to identify our exact ethnic origins based on our DNA in any way that’s really reliable below the continental level (Europe versus Africa versus Asia, for example).

Let me repeat, one more time, what the limits are of these estimates: these estimates take the DNA of living people — us, the test takers — and compare it to the DNA of other living people — people whose parents and grandparents and, sometimes, even great grandparents all come from one geographic area. Then they try to extrapolate backwards into time. Nobody is out there running around, digging up 500- or 1,000-year-old bones, extracting DNA for us to compare our own DNA to.

So coming up with these percentages in these tests requires this fundamental assumption: that the DNA of the reference populations — those groups whose parents, grandparents, great grandparents and more all come from the same area — is likely to reflect what we might see if we could test the DNA of people who lived in that area hundreds and thousands of years ago.

In other words, these percentages are:

• estimates,

• estimates based on comparisons not to actual historical populations but rather to small groups of people living today, and

• estimates based purely on the statistical odds that those small groups tell us something meaningful about past populations.

It’s fun stuff, for sure.

But they’re called estimates for a reason…

Because I’m person 2 in this image and this chart. And though I don’t look much like the others in terms of ethnicity estimates the other three really are my full blood siblings.


  1. See e.g. Judy G. Russell, “Those pesky percentages,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Oct 2013 ( : accessed 30 Apr 2016).
  2. See ibid., “Admixture: not soup yet,” posted 18 May 2014.
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And relationships too

So all this week The Legal Genealogist has been romping through the laws of the Province and State of New York as they impacted Orange County.

That’s all been, in part, leading up to tomorrow’s spring seminar of the Orange County Genealogical Society at the Goshen United Methodist Church. (Come on out and join us!)

NY.lawsWe’ve looked, together, at some of the ways the statute books themselves can help provide depth and context to the stories of our ancestors’ lives and even clue us in to what stories we may want to spending time tracking down.

We’ve looked, for example, at how and when the borders of Orange County were fixed — and how they changed over the years.1

We’ve looked at the problems that wild animals like wolves and panthers posed to early settlers.2

We’ve looked at the fact that wolves weren’t the only four-leggedy beasties that posted problems: pigs running wild and dogs bothering sheep were also noted in the laws.3

We’ve even looked at the on-again-off-again-on-again celebration of the opening of the Storm King Highway — a major engineering feat in the years leading up to World War I.4

Yes, there are a lot of stories in those statute books.

And, yes, I do realize that the particular stories we’ve been looking at don’t talk about particular individuals.

But, yes, really, there are names that are named in those pages as well and — more than just names — relationships too.

The bread-and-butter of genealogy.

Just one example, if you will. It’s a pair of laws passed just a little more than 194 years ago — they became law on the 16th of April 1822.

A man named Thomas Ellison had died. He was a resident of New Windsor, in Orange County, and his administrator, Thomas I. Delancey, wanted to be able to mortgage and sell some of the real estate owned by the estate to pay debts and support the minor heirs. He also needed to be able to sign off on a land sale Ellison had agreed to before his death but for which he hadn’t executed the deed.

The laws passed that April all those years ago recited that Delancey was not just the administrator of Ellison’s estate, but the guardian of the persons and estates of those minor heirs.

And every last one of them was named in both statutes:

• “Eliza Ann Ellison, John Ellison, Henrietta Ellison, Caroline Matilda Ellison, Emily Ellison, William Ellison, Thomas Ellison, and Charlotte Amelia Ellison, the infant children of Thomas Ellison, late of the town of New-Windsor, in the county of Orange, now deceased.”5

• “Eliza Ann Ellison, John Ellison, Henrietta Ellison, Caroline Matilda Ellison, Emily Ellison, Thomas Ellison, William Ellison, and Charlotte Amelia Ellison, the infant children of the said Thomas Ellison…”6

Not too shabby, getting all the underage children of the deceased with their full names, is it?

But the second statute goes one better. It explains why this man, this Thomas I. Delancey, was chosen as the administrator and as the guardian of the children. Because, it says, “the … petitioner … is the husband of Mary Jane, one of the children of the said Thomas Ellison…”7

Oh, yes, really, there are names that are named in the pages of those statute books, and relationships too.

Convinced you to read them yet?

I thought so…


  1. Judy G. Russell, “Bordering Orange,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 25 Apr 2016 ( : accessed 29 Apr 2016).
  2. Ibid., “Cry wolf,” posted 26 Apr 2016.
  3. Ibid., “Four-leggedy beasties,” posted 27 Apr 2016.
  4. Ibid., “The Storm King,” posted 28 Apr 2016.
  5. “AN ACT for the relief of the Infant Heirs of Thomas Ellison, deceased,” Chapter 227 in Laws of the State of New York, … 1822-1824 (Albany, N.Y. : William Gould & Co., 1825), VI; 240-241; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 28 Apr 2016).
  6. “AN ACT fur the relief of the surviving Administrator, and the Heirs of Thomas Ellison, deceased,” Chapter 229 in ibid., VI: 241-242.
  7. Ibid., VI: 242.
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More stories in the statute books

It was, there can be no doubt, a major feat in civil engineering for its time.

StormKingRunning along the Hudson River in the highlands of Storm King Mountain, the Storm King Highway — a roughly three-mile-long segment of road between the towns of Cornwall-on-Hudson and Highlands in Orange County, New York — wasn’t an easy build.

First of all, it was expensive: the 1913 plan for the highway ran to more than the New York Highway Commission had available. Just to lay out the route for the highway, “surveyors sometimes had to rappel down the mountain’s cliffs to mark the route.” The first contractor chosen to build it went belly-up in a bankruptcy; the second one ran into labor troubles when all the available workmen went off into World War I.1

But when the highway was finally opened to vehicular traffic in 1922, it dramatically shortened the driving distances for residents of the area, and particularly those who worked at the United States Military Academy. And the achievement stood the test of time well enough that the Storm King Highway was “added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 in recognition of its accomplishment in civil engineering.”2

Now that’s a neat little story — and one a genealogist might want to add to a family history if we had folks from those areas in the years leading up to and just after World War I.

But how would we know, today, that this was such a big deal for the people of that time and place?

You already know the answer.

Because you’ve been coming along with The Legal Genealogist this week on a trip through the laws of New York as we look to this Saturday’s spring seminar of the Orange County Genealogical Society at the Goshen United Methodist Church. (Come on out and join us!)

And, it turns out, that’s where you can find out that the town of Cornwall in Orange County was wildly enthusiastic about the opening of the highway — and wanted to celebrate in style. But it didn’t quite have the legal authority to spend money on that sort of thing. It had to go to the Legislature, and so, on the 11th of April 1922, with the approval of the Governor, a bill became law in New York:

The town board of the town of Cornwall, Orange county, at any regular or special meeting, may appropriate not more than five thousand dollars for the purpose of assisting in defraying the expense incident to the celebration in such town of the opening of the Hudson river highway, sometimes known as the Storm King highway, and sometimes known as route number three, from West Point to Cornwall. The money appropriated for such purpose shall be a town charge and shall be assessed, levied and collected the same as other town expenses, and shall be expended under the direction of the town board.3

Of course, there’s more to the story. And doing nothing but reading the law books isn’t going to tell the whole tale.

As would any good genealogist, we’d go to other sources for the whole picture, including the newspapers of the day.

That’s where, for example, we’d find out about the addition of lands to the Palisades Interstate Park of 800 acres along the highway by Dr. Ernest G. Stillman that same year — an act that “puts the Storm King Highway for that distance entirely within park lands.”4

And — sigh — it’s also where we’d find out that the opening didn’t quite go as planned:

Definite announcement has been made at Albany that the Storm King highway which was to have been opened for traffic this summer, will not be opened until next year. Because a contract for a piece of road connecting the new highway with the Cornwall road is to be let soon, it would be impossible for throngs attending the proposed opening celebration to even see the Storm King highway. There is no possible detour at that spot.

The 1922 legislature authorized the appropriation by Corwall of $5,000 to stage the opening celebration on July 4. Subsequently Cornwall, Newburgh and other communities developed a contest to see where the celebration should be staged. It had not been decided by the time the celebration was called off.5

Fortunately, that’s where we can also find out that it didn’t take quite as long as the Highway Department feared: on September 24th, the highway was finally opened to the public. The New York Times reported:

CORNWALL, N.Y., Sept. 24–For the first time since it was completed the new Storm King State Highway, which was blasted through the cliffs on the face of Storm King Mountain in Cornwall, was opened to the public today and hundreds of automobiles passed over it in a few hours.

The rush of automobilists who wished to ride over the fine boulevard on the opening day was so great that Chief of Police William Fee of the Palisades Interstate Park force assigned four patrolmen to regulate traffic.

The new highway, which took seven years to build and cost the State altogether $1,500,000, is regarded as a great feat of engineering. …6

It’s a fun story, for sure… and, of course, like most stories, not one that can be told only from the law books.

But this genealogist, for one, wouldn’t have known there was a story there at all without reading the law books.

Just sayin’ …


Image: Storm King Highway and the historic Hudson River (Newburgh, N.Y. : J. Ruben, 19??); digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 27 Apr 2016).

  1. Wikipedia (, “Storm King Highway,” rev. 22 Jan 2016.
  2. Ibid.
  3. An Act to authorize the town board of the town of Cornwall, Orange county, to make an appropriation for assisting in defraying the expense of the celebration in such town of the opening of the Hudson river highway, 11 April 1922, Chapter 554 in Laws of the State of New York, … 1922, Vols. I-II (Albany: State Printers, 1922), 1281; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 27 Apr 2016).
  4. “Gives 800 Acres to the Palisades,” New York Evening World, 27 July 1922, p.3, col. 1; digital images, ( : accessed 27 Apr 2016).
  5. “Storm King’s Fete Delayed,” Poughkeepsie (New York) Eagle-News, 17 June 1922, p. 5, col. 6; digital images, ( : accessed 27 Apr 2016).
  6. “Storm King Highway Open,” The New York Times, 25 September 1922, p. 14, col. 7; digital images, ( : accessed 27 Apr 2016).
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