Laws change over time. To fully understand documents mentioning your ancestors, you need to understand the laws of the times the documents were created. You will come across a lot of legal documents in genealogy. Usually, they will be laws pertaining to property, inheritance, and marriage, though if your ancestor was involved in some kind of civil or criminal court case, those records, and their associated laws may come into play, too. If you do not understand the laws under which your ancestors were operating when certain records were generated, you won’t understand the full picture of what their lives were like or what they were doing and why.
Sometimes, wills don’t make sense in why an ancestor gave more to some children than to others. Marriage records may not make sense if you don’t know the laws pertaining to marriage and divorce at the time. Property transfer laws can actually help you reveal unknown relationships between people, relationships you would not otherwise have known existed if you did not know the laws pertaining to property transfer where your ancestor lived at the time they lived there. You will also come across a lot of old-fashioned legal terms in these documents, and you need to understand what the terms mean to understand the full story behind the record.
A good thing to remember is that there are local, regional, state, and national laws. There are laws like that now, and there were those same levels of laws during your ancestor’s lifetime. Just like today, laws were constantly changing back then. There are some genealogy books that deal with the legal aspects of genealogy research, though those books usually only deal with state and national laws. They can be very useful for researching laws in existence at various times in the nation and your ancestor’s state.
To discover more about regional and local laws in your ancestor’s area during the time they lived there, you may need to consult the county or local library there, or even the county commission or town (or city) hall. There are usually local law books kept at the local level. You need to find the law books that pertain to the time period you are researching. Librarians and town hall staff members can assist you in finding what you need. If you can’t find the books or information you need in these places, try checking with the town historian, if there is one. Or you can check the state archives for collections of local and regional law books.
To understand old-fashioned legal terms, you can easily look them up online on an as-needed basis. You can also get a book of old and modern legal terms, like Black’s Law Dictionary. That way, you will always have a reference source for old legal terms on hand when you need it. You can use it at home for online research, and carry it with you for research in the field. It is a handy reference.
Once you know the laws you are dealing with in old legal documents of genealogical value, as well as the legal terms that go with them, you will get a more thorough understanding of your ancestor’s life and times. You will also have a much richer understanding of what they were going through in the legal issue, and why. Knowledge of laws and legal terms of your ancestor’s time and place can help you place your ancestor in his or her community and give you the context of their relationships with their neighbors and family. Get this knowledge, and you will be a much better genealogist for it.
Will Moneymaker founded Ancestral Findings back in 1995. He has been involved in genealogy research for over 20 years. The thrill of the hunt, the adventure, and the excitement begin when he started investigating the meaning of his surname. Why I Love Genealogy (And You Should, Too!)