Your Ancestors and the Law, by Juliana Smith

It started with an e-mail from my sister asking for help with a trivia scavenger hunt that my niece was participating in. She needed to find out what food is forbidden to be eaten after 6 p.m. in Newark, New Jersey, without a doctor’s note. After a few tries, I found reference to an odd law that prohibits eating ice cream on Sunday evenings. Of course I couldn’t stop there. Like a child following a butterfly, I strayed from the task at hand (a.k.a., this column) and went off in search of other strange laws.

I learned that here in Indiana, I’m not supposed to bathe in the winter. (Sorry, I’m going to have to be an outlaw on that one!) In Florida, if you tie your elephant to the parking meter, you have to pay the meter. Now I haven’t been to Florida in a while, but is this a problem there? I would think if the police came across an elephant tied to a parking meter, the first question that popped into their heads wouldn’t be, “Hey, did he pay the meter?” And besides, where would they put the ticket? 

And of course, in Idaho, it is illegal to fish from a camel’s back. Consider yourselves warned Idahoans.

The list goes on and on and it got me thinking. My guess is that for the most part, these laws were put on the books many years ago and just never got removed, and that the bath thing goes back to the days when some thought that bathing during the winter was actually dangerous due to the risk of pneumonia. (The reasoning behind the elephant and camel laws continues to escape me.)

There were other laws that affected our ancestors, and in doing so, affect us as we seek out the records that they left. Becoming familiar with the laws of the time can help us be more successful in our searches and not waste time looking for records that don’t exist, or that exist in another place. Let’s take a look:

Immigration Law
Naturalization records are among the most prized records by genealogists. But finding them requires a little knowledge about immigration laws for the time period in which the record was created. Will there be a naturalization record for Great-grandma Rose? Prior to 1922, the answer is probably not, because women derived citizenship from their father or husband (although there were exceptions).

If you don’t find a naturalization record for your ancestor in the Naturalization Index from the National Archives that is available at Ancestry, does that mean your ancestor wasn’t naturalized? No, your ancestor may have been naturalized in a local court and the records may be held at the county level. According to They Became Americans: Finding Naturalization Records and Ethnic Origins,  

“From 1790 until very recently, any individual could be naturalized in a federal court, although most people went to local courts. After 1906, the vast majority of naturalizations took place in federal courts, although some local courts continued to naturalize long after that date.”

A year ago, some of you may remember me writing an article about finding my fourth great-grandmother enumerated in 1870 in the penitentiary at Blackwell’s Island at age ninety-eight. Since it seemed unlikely she was a hardened criminal at that age, I am theorizing that she was there due to some form of insanity. This may have been the result of her advanced age or the fact that most of the family was hat industry. (She may have suffered some degree of mercury poisoning, which was common due to the felting process.)

At any rate, I’ve done some poking around to see if I could find information that would support that theory and I found an Overview of Mental Health in New York and the Nation on the website of the New York State Archives. This paragraph from the site would seem to add some credence to that theory:

“1870s-1880s: Asylums were gradually placed under the authority of Boards of Charities. Institutions housing criminals, the poor, orphans, and the handicapped were also placed under control of these boards. All of these facilities provided custodially oriented care.”

Vital Records
Civil registration is a more obvious example of why it’s important to become acquainted with legalities for an area in which you’re doing research. Clearly you want to be familiar with the dates when civil registration became a requirement. Beyond that there are other records related to births, marriages, and deaths that you’ll want to investigate.

Was a prospective groom required to post a bond to ensure that there was no impediment that would nullify the marriage? Or was a consent affidavit required to be filed by the parents of a young bride or groom wishing to marry?

Deaths created records beyond death certificates. If a body was to be moved from one place to another, often a body transit record was required. These records were typically created both for bodies coming into the jurisdiction for burial, those leaving for burial elsewhere, and even those just passing through. New York was one such location that required a transit record for bodies moving in and out of the city. According to Hidden Sources: Family History in Unlikely Places, a body transit record was created for Abraham Lincoln, whose body passed through New York City on 24 April 1865 on its way from Washington, D.C., to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois.

What Else?
When you’re researching your female ancestors, you’ll want to find out what rights they had. Was your ancestress allowed to file a will? What rights did she have if her husband died? Would she inherit or depend on the charity of her children? For men, what were the requirements for military service? What was required to file a homestead claim?

The answers to these questions and many others like them can be found in reference books that line the shelves of many local libraries. The next time you run up against a brick wall, or can’t locate an ancestor in a group of records in which you expected him or her to appear, do a little digging into the legalities. You may find your dilemma is easily explained by some of the laws of the times.

Has an understanding of laws in the areas in which your ancestors lived helped you in your research? Help fellow readers by sharing your story here on the blog.

If you feel like reading more about silly legislation, I found a funny collection of laws at

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for ten years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e-mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.

10 thoughts on “Your Ancestors and the Law, by Juliana Smith

  1. re: early laws of some states, I think VA and GA were some that give the eldest son his inheritance automatically, whether there is a will or not. Thus, if you find the eldest son’s name missing in a will, don’t assume he is dead. He will get his part automatically.

    Another thing concerning wills – many times the father willed his youngest son the homeplace. That way, it is believed he will stay home and take care of his mother until she dies. JM

  2. I bet the elephant/parking meter law was because the circus industry witered over in Florida. And still may!

  3. Growing up in Miami, there was a house that had been built on a couple of acres (supposedly for Desi Arnez’ parents originally). It had become incorporated into a suburban neighborhood, with a Winn-Dixie grocery store across the street. In their side yard (paddock), they kept an elephant.

    Also, you must remember, Florida is the winter home of Ringling Brothers Barum and Bailey Circus. In the past, I believe it was also the home of other circuses, too, and lots of circus and carney folk retired there. I suspect that finding an elephant on the street in the Sarasota area would not be all that unusual – and if it’s taking up a parking place, then the owner should pay!

    Beside, the climate is just right for elephants.

  4. I wonder how many of these silly laws were repealed decades ago, but, like urban legends, still get passed around as if they were just enacted yesterday. I would like at least one of the “funny law” sites to actually cite the source(s) from which they found the reference — ideally the citation to where a published version of the law can be found.

  5. In 1765 my ancestor was accused of a felony in Halifax Co., Va. In the records there is no identification of the felony. However, he was judged to be sent to Williamsburg to the “General Court” for trial. Since all those records were lost in the Civil war, I thought I would never know the outcome of that trial, although I felt he must have been found innocent, for he was always present in Halifax. However, one day just surfing, I found a web page of Colonial newspapers and there in an issue published in October, 1765 was my ancestor’s name along with others, stating that he had been acquitted! Still do not know know what was the felony…but glad his name had been cleared.

  6. An interesting and ironical peripheral note: According to the Des Moines Register, Iowa is currently anticipating removing questions on Iowa law from the bar exam, passage of which certifies attorneys to practice law in Iowa under the rationale that we have become a global society and, by implication, that competence in and even knowledge of Iowa law is therefore unnecessary.

  7. Re the elephant tied to the parking meter-
    Where would the police put the ticket?
    In the trunk, of course!

  8. A still unresolved question. Up until several years ago, my wife could trace her Emmert ancestry back to Leonhard Emmert (and his older brother John) of Winesburg, Holmes County, Ohio. It was thought that the two had arrived in the U.S.A. and in Holmes County in about 1856. Then we came across a legal transfer of a lot title in Winesburg that required John and his wife of Elkhart Country, Indiana, and Leonhard and his wife of LaGrange County, Indiana, to return to Holmes County to negotiate. That was in 1870, six years after the death of Thomas Emmert. The lot title was transfered to Sophia, the widow of Thomas. Leonhard and John (and their spouses) were listed as the legal representatives for Thomas. Our dilemma is, were John and Leonhard the sons of Thomas and Sophia and was Sophia their mother or perhaps their step-mother? Sophia died 1871. So far we have been unable to establish the relationships for certain.

  9. When searching for death records for some of my ancestors who lived in New Orleans,LA, their obitaries stated that several of them died in places other than New Orleans. At first, I didn’t send for the death certificates from the other states. Later I found them in an index for death records in New Orleans, I promptly sent for them. New Orleans was a large city even years ago, so I found that some records went as far back as 1790. Just because a person died elsewhere, it doesn’t mean there will not be a death record where tha person resided. But that doesn’t mean your ancestor had a death record there. Not all who died had death records. If your ancestor died in a large city, you may be more likely to find a death record in their home city. Maybe you will be lucky & find your ancestors’ records if you check the place where they lived, but he died elsewhere.

  10. Regarding your question about elephants and parking meters in Florida: Florida (Sarasota) has been the home of the Ringling Brothers circus since about 1927. Just a guess, but I’ll bet anything that at some point, while moving the elephants between their site and the train, someone hooked up an elephant to a parking meter while he went in to get a beer and ….

    – HVB

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *