Monday, August 08, 2011

Integrating the law with family history


The first time I studied the probate packet of a man who left a widow with several minor children, I incorrectly deduced she must have been incompetent (perhaps overcome by grief?) if the court assigned a guardian to make decisions about the clothing, schooling and care of those children.

I was completely unaware that during the colonial America time period "a guardian by statute [was] appointed for a child by the deed or will of the father, and who has the custody both of his person and estate until the attainment of full age." If the father died intestate (without a will) the law provides a guardian by appointment of court. See: A law dictionary containing definitions of the terms and phrases... by Henry Campbell Black, commonly known as Black's Law Dictionary. The illustration below is a clip from the online version of the second edition at Google Books, published in 1910. Clicking the image will direct my DearREADERS to page 551 - Guardians.

My understanding of the law was skewed back then by lack of legal education or experience. I had grown up under the mid 20th century experience of the guardian for nurture where the father, or, at his decease, the mother, of a child serves to care for the child until he reaches majority.

I've lately been attempting to explain how the use of a computerized time line of historical events can be useful but only to a point. Then I ran across this comment from Elizabeth Shown Mills on the public Transitional Genealogists Mailing List. Among other things, ESM states "Contrary to the urban legend that leads some applicants astray, context is not just 'adding historical stuff to make the story interesting.' Putting key documents into their context of the laws that created them or the laws that governed our ancestor's activity ensures that those documents are interpreted correctly." See ESM original comments in context:

Along this same line, using a national time line of historical events may be fine when it comes to suggesting military service for a male resident who lived in the area during a war. But generalized time lines won't amount to a hill of beans when it comes to the peculiarities of prevailing law and local customs in the specific places when and where our ancestors once lived.

So how does one get up to speed on the law? If you've got North Carolina ancestors, you are in luck. Helen Leary's North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local HistoryNorth Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History provides explanations of the law, and strategies for finding record groups that may mention your ancestors. It was in this book that I first understood how someone could inherit 1/4 of 1/3 of an estate.

Look for similar work recommend by state, ethnic or regional genealogy societies. In the case of Leary's book, it was published by the North Carolina Genealogical Society. Good recommendation, wouldn't you say? Thanks to my Florida research buddies Audrey Peacock and Barb Shultz for steering me in the direction of Leary's book years ago.

The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, Third EditionOur Just Genealogy meetings in Second Life will shortly feature a monthly review of various chapters of The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, Third Edition by Val D. Greenwood. At our voice chat meetings we will discuss the author's take on the basics of sound genealogical research practices, in addition to looking at his recommendations for generally-used record groups. Be sure to check out our Book Club and other events listed in the Second Life Genealogy Groups calendar at .

The Hidden Half of the Family: A Sourcebook for Women's GenealogyAvoid the drama of fainting widows and starving orphan children by uncovering the context of the laws in effect at the time our ancestors lived. Differences in women's rights are briefly outlined by US state in Christina Schaefer's The Hidden Half of the Family: A Sourcebook for Women's Genealogy.

Our "fleshing out" of an ancestor's life is better based on fact rather than fiction.

Use your imagination for creating colorful bedtime stories for the grandchildren. With the release of the final Harry Potter movie, the world is ready for another J. K. Rowling, but we cannot expect our family histories to materialize with the wave of a magic wand.

What have you found useful when attempting to integrate the prevailing laws and customs into your family history?

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt     :)
Your friend in genealogy.


  1. I'm one of the lucky ones that can use Helen Leary's book and recently purchased a copy. I'm looking forward to the review of the Val D. Greenwood book in SL.

  2. Don't forget google books for help in finding law statutes as well. Indiana has some great resources available on that site and I know several other states are included in the online collection as well.

  3. Really appreciate this post. I practically preach about the importance of understanding the law to understand the records. Thanks for the links. Will try to join SL. I reference Leary's book often but would love to listen in on the Greenwood review.