Laws in Early Virginia

This is your place to add information amd ask questions about Laws in early Virginia. Please send questions and answers to the mailing list. I will post the answers here. Hopefully this can be a resource for us when these questions arise. Jim Burgess

  • Genealogy Terms and Facts
  • Helping Each Other with research Genealogy Terms and Facts
  • Helping Each Other with Genealogy Terms and Facts
  • Thanks to Linda COMSTOCK for her assistance in getting this started.

    The laws of Virginia (as well as 50 of the 51 states, Louisiana is based on Napoleonic Law) are based on English Common Law, that is law derived from the Courts and Parliament of England going back to William the Conqueror. I am not a lawyer, but a legal assistant who has worked almost 30 years in the legal system. Hope you find this helpful. By the way, this is off the top of my head. It's 6 am here and I don't have a Black's at home. If you need further clarification I'll see what I can find at the Indiana University Law Library.

  • What is Black's Law Dictionary -- this is a dictionary of legal terms that can be found in most public libraries. It can be very helpful in defining obscure Latin terms as well as everyday legal terms. In fact, most of the terms listed below can be found there.
  • Regarding the Attorney-in-Fact: When a person signs a Power of Attorney, the person appointed in the Power of Attorney to handle his business affairs on his behalf is referred to as his Attorney-in-fact
  • How old to vote -- generally 21 because 21 was the age of majority

    The laws of Virginia (as well as 50 of the 51 states, Louisiana is based on Napoleonic Law) are based on English Common Law, that is law derived from the Courts and Parliament of England going back to William the Conqueror. I am not a lawyer, but a legal assistant who has worked almost 30 years in the legal system. Hope you find this helpful. By the way, this is off the top of my head. It's 6 am here and I don't have a Black's at home. If you need further clarification I'll see what I can find at the Indiana University Law Library.

    A male began paying a poll tax at age 16. It is not uncommon to see the name of the boy squeezed into the same line with his father's name in this first year and/or second year of his paying the tax. Generally minor sons come in with father to pay the tax and these 16+ boys are in line with their father's payment. It does help prior to 1850 to identify birth order and names of male children.

  • What is Black's Law Dictionary -- this is a dictionary of legal terms that can be found in most public libraries. It can be very helpful in defining obscure Latin terms as well as everyday legal terms. In fact, most of the terms listed below can be found there.
  • How old to vote -- generally 21 because 21 was the age of majority
  • How old to own property -- again, I believe this was 21, just a calculated guess. If you are talking about personal property as opposed to real estate there might not be an age limit. A 12 year old could be willed personal property to be held by a guardian.
  • How old to get married -- no age limit in colonial times. This is something that generally came about during the early 1900s along with compulsory education and the child labor laws.
  • How old to own land -- not sure on this one, but probably 21 the age of majority
  • What are dower laws -- these were laws governing the wife's rights to property following her husband's death. Usually she received 1/3rd of the total property unless the will specified otherwise.
  • Could a woman own land -- Not sure about this one, but if the woman received her 1/3rd of her husband's property, that could include land. My great-great-great-great-grandmother in KY (early 19th century) owned land.
  • How many witnesses required for a will -- generally two men who were neighbors or in good social standing in the community
  • Primogenitor -- this is where all land and property basically went to the eldest male heir. Younger children were usually given their portion or dower and were often dependent on the eldest male for anything else. Hence younger males joined the military, church, law, etc. The elder brother received the farm/estate and this way the property stayed intact and was not split several ways.
  • What is a marriage bond? -- the bondsmen are guaranteeing that there is nothing to impede the marriage, i.e., that neither party is currently married
  • What is a proprietorship -- This is the ownership of some thing, could be a tavern, farm, shop, etc.
  • What is a land patent -- This is a grant of land by the person/organization "owning" the land. The word patent could also refer to a deed.
  • What is a deed -- this is a legal document recorded by county officials giving title to the property.
  • When did we start vital statistics -- first there was the Domesday Book, but following that I'm not sure. I know they were kept informally by churches (marriages, christenings, deaths, etc), but officially the the state and county that usually was in the 1850-60 timeframe.
  • How old to sell land -- probably 21
  • How old to buy land -- probably 21
  • What is a grantor - the seller of real property, the word is also sometimes used in trust indentures
  • What is a grantee - the buyer of real property, also used in trust indentures
  • How were officers selected for the wars. -- from what I've read there were a couple of ways. First, selection by the person who organized the company/brigade, etc.. Some of the qualifications might include social standing in the neighborhood, land ownership, education and maybe some military experience. Second, election to office by the troops which probably included all of the above qualifications.
  • Where there divorces. -- yes!! But they were granted by the state legislature and the circumstances were usually extreme.

    We are missing marriage records-Did they really get married with a ceremony. -- may or maybe not. The marriage might have followed some period of living together because the preacher couldn't get there (circuit riders on the frontier). Or maybe they just lived together without the benefit of marriage -- horrors, not my ancestors :))

  • What is an executor -- this is the person named in a will to take charge of the distribution of the property
  • What is a administrator - similar to an executor, but today it could include a bank.
  • What is intestate -- dying without a will
  • What is a guardian -- generally a neighbor or someone respected in the community who was appointed through a will to protect the property or money of a young child following the parent's death. A guardian could also raise the child if both parents were deceased.
  • How old did you have to be to be a guardian -- probably at least 21
  • What is meant to become of age 18 or 21. -- this is the "coming of age" when you could vote (age 21), own property, take charge of your own money, etc.
  • Church of England policies rules commandments. Any one know about how they affected our ancestors. - don't know about this one, my family were Baptists.
  • This was good mental exercise, I haven't thought of some of these things for quite a while. By the way, I really enjoy the mailing list and the website. You've done a great job. Linda Comstock-Teel

    How old to own property -- again, I believe this was 21, just a calculated guess. If you are talking about personal property as opposed to real estate there might not be an age limit. A 12 year old could be willed personal property to be held by a guardian.

  • How old to get married -- no age limit in colonial times. This is something that generally came about during the early 1900s along with compulsory education and the child labor laws.
  • How old to own land -- not sure on this one, but probably 21 the age of majority
  • What are dower laws -- these were laws governing the wife's rights to property following her husband's death. Usually she received 1/3rd of the total property unless the will specified otherwise.
  • Could a woman own land -- Not sure about this one, but if the woman received her 1/3rd of her husband's property, that could include land. My great-great-great-great-grandmother in KY (early 19th century) owned land.
  • How many witnesses required for a will -- generally two men who were neighbors or in good social standing in the community
  • Primogenitor -- this is where all land and property basically went to the eldest male heir. Younger children were usually given their portion or dower and were often dependent on the eldest male for anything else. Hence younger males joined the military, church, law, etc. The elder brother received the farm/estate and this way the property stayed intact and was not split several ways.
  • What is a marriage bond? -- the bondsmen are guaranteeing that there is nothing to impede the marriage, i.e., that neither party is currently married

    A Marriage bond or license as we know it, required a bond (probably what wouild be called a penalty bond) wherein the groom, or a "security" (the person who lent him the money, or paid the money if it had to be paid) certified that he was in fact going to marry this person. He only lost the money or had to pay it IF he did not go through with the marriage. This is similar to a car loan, in that if you default, your car is the security and the bank gets the car if you fail to pay. Deeds of Indenture were also written in the same sort of manner. A man wanted to lease a house, for instance, and in order to secure the promise of the payment of his rent to the landlord, he would sometimes put up all of his worldly goods as "collateral." Hope this helps you understand "the old ways." Now we buy the marriage license and the county/city gets to keep the money whether we marry or not! Tosca Simms

    There was no money exchanged when Marriage Bonds were posted.. Posting the Bond was simply a Guarantee of the amount of the bond to the State if, for some reason, the marriage proved to be illegal and had to be brought into court.. The same as today when a person posts bond for someone before their appearance in court.. This is a guarantee that the person will appear in court..if not, the bondsman then has to pay the bond.. Sometimes, cash bonds are required but not often... Modern-day "bounty hunters" are employed by professional bondsmen to bring in people who skip out on their bond.. The bondsman will get the trial delayed until they can locate the person and he can be brought to trial.. Saving them the bond money.....I hope this helps some...... G. Lee Hearl Authentic Appalachian Storyteller Abingdon, Virginia

    The only one I have happens to have come from Fauquier County Court House: Know all Men by these Presents, that we William C. Blundell and Jonathan Bradfield are held and firmly bound unto James P. Preston esquire, Governor of Virginia, in the just and full sum of One Hundred and Fifty Dollars, good and lawful money of the commonwealth, to which payment well & truly to be made, to the said Governor or his successors, we bind ourselves, our and each of our heirs, executors and adminstrators, jointly and severally, firmly by these presents. Sealed with our seals, and dated this 21st day of October 1819.

    THE CONDITION of the above obligation is such, that, Whereas there is a marriage shortly intended to be had and soemnized between the above bound William C. Blundell & Mary Massie daughter of Sam'l Massie dec'd of Fauquier county; Now if there be no lawful cause to obstruct the said marriage; then the above obligation to be void, otherwise to remain in full force and virtue.

  • Signed, Sealed, and delivered William C. Blundell SEAL
  • in the presence of Jonathan Bradfield SEAL
  • D. Rodes
  • This one goes on to say: Fauquier County, towit:

    The Clerk of the County Court of Fauquier is hereby authorized to issue a marriage Licence, between my son Wm. C. Blundell (a minor) and Mary Massie daughter of Samuel Massie dec'd and for so doing this shall be the clerk's authority and sufficient Warrent.

  • Given under my hand & seal this 20th day of October 1819.
  • Daniel W. Blundell SEAL
  • TesteThos C. Kelly
  • D. Rodes

    So in this case, William was not yet 21 years old, only 19 as he was born in 1800, and needed his father's permission. And from this, the money was forfeited to the Governor's treasury, only if the marriage did not take place. I guess this helped prevent men from embarrassing young ladies by jilting them! Tosca


  • What is a proprietorship -- This is the ownership of some thing, could be a tavern, farm, shop, etc.
  • What is a land patent -- This is a grant of land by the person/organization "owning" the land. The word patent could also refer to a deed.
  • What is a deed -- this is a legal document recorded by county officials giving title to the property.
  • When did we start vital statistics -- first there was the Domesday Book, but following that I'm not sure. I know they were kept informally by churches (marriages, christenings, deaths, etc), but officially the the state and county that usually was in the 1850-60 timeframe.
  • How old to sell land -- probably 21
  • How old to buy land -- probably 21
  • What is a grantor - the seller of real property, the word is also sometimes used in trust indentures
  • What is a grantee - the buyer of real property, also used in trust indentures
  • How were officers selected for the wars. -- from what I've read there were a couple of ways. First, selection by the person who organized the company/brigade, etc.. Some of the qualifications might include social standing in the neighborhood, land ownership, education and maybe some military experience. Second, election to office by the troops which probably included all of the above qualifications.
  • Where there divorces. -- yes!! But they were granted by the state legislature and the circumstances were usually extreme.
  • We are missing marriage records-Did they really get married with a ceremony. -- may or maybe not. The marriage might have followed some period of living together because the preacher couldn't get there (circuit riders on the frontier). Or maybe they just lived together without the benefit of marriage -- horrors, not my ancestors :))
  • What is an executor -- this is the person named in a will to take charge of the distribution of the property
  • What is a administrator - similar to an executor, but today it could include a bank.
  • What is intestate -- dying without a will
  • What is a guardian -- generally a neighbor or someone respected in the community who was appointed through a will to protect the property or money of a young child following the parent's death. A guardian could also raise the child if both parents were deceased.
  • How old did you have to be to be a guardian -- probably at least 21 orphans ranged to 16 years of age VA during the 1730's?
  • What is meant to become of age 18 or 21. -- this is the "coming of age" when you could vote (age 21), own property, take charge of your own money, etc. Generally speaking 21 was the legal age - however it was 18 for many things and 16 for others. At 16, a man could witness legal documents. At 18-serve in the army or militia - sometimes they took boys down to 16 too. Jury duty at 21, etc.
  • Church of England policies rules commandments. Any one know about how they affected our ancestors. - don't know about this one, my family were Baptists.
  • This was good mental exercise, I haven't thought of some of these things for quite a while. By the way, I really enjoy the mailing list and the website. You've done a great job. The laws of Virginia (as well as 50 of the 51 states, Louisiana is based on Napoleonic Law) are based on English Common Law, that is law derived from the Courts and Parliament of England going back to William the Conqueror. I am not a lawyer, but a legal assistant who has worked almost 30 years in the legal system. Hope you find this helpful. By the way, this is off the top of my head. It's 6 am here and I don't have a Black's at home. If you need further clarification I'll see what I can find at the Indiana University Law Library.
  • What is Black's Law Dictionary -- this is a dictionary of legal terms that can be found in most public libraries. It can be very helpful in defining obscure Latin terms as well as everyday legal terms. In fact, most of the terms listed below can be found there.
  • How old to vote -- generally 21 because 21 was the age of majority
  • How old to own property -- again, I believe this was 21, just a calculated guess. If you are talking about personal property as opposed to real estate there might not be an age limit. A 12 year old could be willed personal property to be held by a guardian.
  • How old to get married -- no age limit in colonial times. This is something that generally came about during the early 1900s along with compulsory education and the child labor laws.
  • How old to own land -- not sure on this one, but probably 21 the age of majority
  • What are dower laws -- these were laws governing the wife's rights to property following her husband's death. Usually she received 1/3rd of the total property unless the will specified otherwise.
  • Could a woman own land -- Not sure about this one, but if the woman received her 1/3rd of her husband's property, that could include land. My great-great-great-great-grandmother in KY (early 19th century) owned land.
  • How many witnesses required for a will -- generally two men who were neighbors or in good social standing in the community

    Primogenitor -- this is where all land and property basically went to the eldest male heir. Younger children were usually given their portion or dower and were often dependent on the eldest male for anything else. Hence younger males joined the military, church, law, etc. The elder brother received the farm/estate and this way the property stayed intact and was not split several ways.

  • What is a marriage bond? -- the bondsmen are guaranteeing that there is nothing to impede the marriage, i.e., that neither party is currently married
  • What is a proprietorship -- This is the ownership of some thing, could be a tavern, farm, shop, etc.
  • What is a land patent -- This is a grant of land by the person/organization "owning" the land. The word patent could also refer to a deed.
  • What is a deed -- this is a legal document recorded by county officials giving title to the property.
  • When did we start vital statistics -- first there was the Domesday Book, but following that I'm not sure. I know they were kept informally by churches (marriages, christenings, deaths, etc), but officially the the state and county that usually was in the 1850-60 timeframe.
  • How old to sell land -- probably 21
  • How old to buy land -- probably 21
  • What is a grantor - the seller of real property, the word is also sometimes used in trust indentures
  • What is a grantee - the buyer of real property, also used in trust indentures
  • How were officers selected for the wars. -- from what I've read there were a couple of ways. First, selection by the person who organized the company/brigade, etc.. Some of the qualifications might include social standing in the neighborhood, land ownership, education and maybe some military experience. Second, election to office by the troops which probably included all of the above qualifications.
  • Where there divorces. -- yes!! But they were granted by the state legislature and the circumstances were usually extreme.

    We are missing marriage records-Did they really get married with a ceremony. -- may or maybe not. The marriage might have followed some period of living together because the preacher couldn't get there (circuit riders on the frontier). Or maybe they just lived together without the benefit of marriage -- horrors, not my ancestors :))

  • What is an executor -- this is the person named in a will to take charge of the distribution of the property
  • What is a administrator - similar to an executor, but today it could include a bank.
  • What is intestate -- dying without a will
  • What is a guardian -- generally a neighbor or someone respected in the community who was appointed through a will to protect the property or money of a young child following the parent's death. A guardian could also raise the child if both parents were deceased.
  • How old did you have to be to be a guardian -- probably at least 21
  • What is meant to become of age 18 or 21. -- this is the "coming of age" when you could vote (age 21), own property, take charge of your own money, etc.
  • Church of England policies rules commandments. Any one know about how they affected our ancestors. - don't know about this one, my family were Baptists.

    This was good mental exercise, I haven't thought of some of these things for quite a while. By the way, I really enjoy the mailing list and the website. You've done a great job.


  • Linda Comstock-Teel
  • Some letters and their meanings.
  • a.a.s. died in the year of his/her age (anno aetitis suae) ( 86 y/o died in year 86)
  • d.s.p. died without issue (decessit sine prole legitima)
  • d.s.p.l. died without legitimate issue (decessit sine prole mascula supesita)
  • d.s.p.m.s. died without surviving male issue (decessit sine prole mascula supersita)
  • d.s.p.s died without surviving issue (decessit sine prole supersita)
  • d.unm died unmarried
  • d.v.p. died in the lifetime of his father (decessit vita patris)
  • d.v.m. died in the lifetime of his mother (decessit vita matris)
  • Et al and others (et alia)
  • Inst present month (instans)
  • Liber book or volume
  • Nepos grandson
  • Nunc Nuncapative will, an oral will, written by a witness
  • Ob he/she died (obit)
  • Relict widow or widower (relicta/relictus)
  • Sic so or thus, exact copy as written
  • Testes witnesses
  • Utl late (ultimo)
  • Ux or vs wife (uxor)
  • Viz namely (videlicet)
  • Women's Rights

    I thought I would share a piece of an article I found, considering a lot of us question wills and land that was left for the wife and family.

    Virginia women gained some control over their property during the antebellum period. Although age-old laws still prohibited married women from owning land and goods in their own right, equity law increasingly allowed women to create separate estates prior to marriage and to challenge restrictive provisions in their husbands' wills. For a variety of reasons, a higher proportion of women than ever before--both white and free black--owned property in the first half of the nineteenth century and controlled its destiny through purchase, sale, gift or bequest. June


    This page last updated July 24, 2005