Friday, June 15, 2012

IGHR Samford Day 5: why law?

On Friday, the final morning at Samford, Claire Bettag's whirlwind yet detailed account of civil law (mainly known in Louisiana in the US, but quite prevalent elsewhere) made me wish either that I had French ancestors or that there were more US states that followed civil law -- what a great source of records!

Overall, Course Six (picture of the week's inhabitants in their natural habitat here, thanks to Sandi Hewlett) gave us a good start on a practical working knowledge of the common-law records we more often deal with. But what is the point, when we could just hunker down and eyeball records without knowing anything about law behind them? After this week I think there are two reasons for genealogists to study law, but I may be missing others:

(1) Legal records that appear in law libraries (that is, records of state appellate and supreme court decisions, and of federal trial, appellate, and Supreme Court decisions) can be a source of direct information about ancestors, and in really difficult cases can be used as another nationwide dragnet to locate them in time and place. They do have limitations. Only a fraction of cases filed are tried, only a fraction of those tried are appealed, only a fraction of those appealed actually complete the appeal, and sometimes not even all of those are recorded and published. When they are published the courts' focus will tend to be on legal principles rather than the facts of the case. And the indexes also can be somewhat difficult to use for our purposes. But when we score a hit it can be a uniquely good one.

(2) The law codes themselves (which come in various forms and flavors) provide a framework for reaching conclusions by deduction, i.e., using indirect evidence. If all we know about an ancestor is that she had to have parental consent to get married in Ohio in 1835, and if we know how to find out the age at which women could legally marry only with such consent, then we have good (not irrefutable) evidence as to when she was born. Without knowing the law we have only a vague guess.

So even dry dusty law books can be part of the process that Dr. Larry H. Spruill eloquently and humorously described at Thursday night's banquet: genealogy as resurrection of the forgotten dead.

Harold Henderson, "IGHR Samford Day 5," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 16 June 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

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