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Legal Aid
6/14/2011
Beat your brick walls by following the law. Our guide reveals how studying old statutes can lead to ancestor answers.
Say you discovered an old letter hinting that your grandmother was divorced before she married Grandpa. Or you found your great-grandfather's naturalization records, but not his wife's. Or you have no idea whether vital records exist for your Colonial Maryland kin. What now?

Hitting the books -- the legal books, that is -- could lead to the answers you seek. From birth certificates to bounty land warrants, there's a law behind just about every official record genealogists use. Laws governed how our ancestors went about petitioning for divorces, applying for naturalization, registering births and deaths, purchasing land, joining the military, and so forth. And the laws your ancestors lived by can give you insight into the historical and social framework of their lives, explain why counties and states have different records and record-keeping practices, and offer clues to where records are located. But you don't have to go to law school to reap these rewards -- just take this quick course in three types of old laws that affected your forebears.

Public affairs
Laws affecting the general population in a jurisdiction are called public statutes or acts. They can be state or federal, criminal or civil. Legislatures use them to create and regulate government offices and agencies -- and in the process, generate records that are useful to genealogists. For example, in November 1781, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia passed "an Act for Ascertaining Certain Taxes and Duties, and for Establishing a Permanent Revenue." Part of this act stated:

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