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How Legal Context Prevents Misunderstood Family Stories:  An Interview with Judy Russell - Treasure Chest of Memories

How Legal Context prevents misunderstood family stories headline graphic

Legal context is critical to understanding the stories of the past. Without it, readers unaware of the legalities of an earlier time period could easily draw incorrect conclusions about family members’ and ancestors’ actions.

That means that including and explaining legal context is key to maintaining accuracy in family storytelling. During RootsTech 2020, I sat down with Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist, and asked her to share some of her best tips.

Accurate storytelling begins with understanding the legal context of research.

Judy explained why our ancestors’ legal context is paramount to passing down narratives which promote understanding.

“To understand the records, you must understand the law in that time and place,” says Russell.  “To understand the value of the data recorded, you need to know the purpose of the document you’re examining.  Once you know that, you’ll understand the consequence of inaccuracy.”

She uses death certificates to illustrate her point. Death certificates were designed to collect information about when and where people died and to record the cause of death. Therefore, that’s the information on the document with the highest bar for accuracy.  Other information collected, such as the reporter’s knowledge of the deceased mother’s maiden name didn’t, by design, have the same standard for accuracy.

Where to Find Legal Statutes

You cannot describe what you don’t know. According to Judy, the first step is to check to see if the state (or province or territory if your story takes place outside of the USA) has an archive of historical statutes. Some states, such as New Jersey, are fantastic and you can find the information you seek with very little digging.

It may be harder in other states. Looking for a 1916 marriage statute in Ohio, I emailed the State Archives. Whereas the recent statutes are online, they were flummoxed on where to find 100-year-old laws. The good news is they promised to look into it. (The bad news is that it’s been months.)

In these cases, Judy recommends the following resources:

Smart Searching Tips

Judy recommends throwing a broad net. “Use all synonyms for statutes in addition to the time period,” she says.  (Law, acts, resolutions, code)

Researching the statues of a place and time can also give you clues for what records do exist, because they spell out what information is to be collected and why.

Taking Readers out of their 21st Century Assumptions

We can’t help applying our own experiences when we read stories. For that reason, a mantle of responsibility falls on storytellers to take readers beyond the world as they know it.

This is particularly true of African American narratives. Even those of us who lived through the civil rights era as white, for instance, are hard put to imagine what times were like for our brown skinned neighbors. Until we read the actual statutes, we can’t fathom the constant threats under which they lived.

Explaining Legal Context Leads to more Accurate Storytelling AND more Riveting Storytelling.

For example, in Understanding Your Roots aka My 7x Great-Grandfather Beat a Horse, I hinted about legal context, but did not spell it out. I wrote:

A close inspection of the Henrico County, Virginia Court Orders (April 1, 1678 – April 17, 1693) revealed that Joseph was often in court. In fact, paging through the book, I wondered if he ever stayed home. He testified to the fairness of the start of a horse race, sat on juries, and witnessed wills. He also testified that “servant” John Crossman was absent from his duties.  And by the time I got to page 146 of the book, I found the horse beating judgement.

I wonder, knowing he was willing to beat a horse, how he felt when John Crossman received 20 lashes on his bare back as punishment for his absenteeism. And how Joseph treated that little five-year-old “Indian boy” he took as his slave in 1678.  Yeah, that was in there too.

After listening to Judy’s advice, I realize that the paragraph above could morph into a compelling story. One that increases understanding. In addition, steeping myself briefly in the laws of Colonial Virginia gave me insight into a world I’m hard put to understand.

Of course, that’s a post for another day. I’m still working on finding statutes for the treatment of horses. After I ferret them out, I’m looking forward to juxtaposing those against the statutes affecting enslaved Africans and runaway servants.

The ending of Joseph Tanner’s story will be much stronger than “I wonder…”

More About Judy Russell

Judy Russell the Legal Genealogist

The Legal Genealogist Judy G. Russell is a genealogist with a law degree who writes and lectures on topics ranging from using court records in family history to understanding DNA testing. On the faculty of numerous genealogy institutes, she is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, from which she holds credentials as a Certified Genealogist® and Certified Genealogical Lecturer℠. Read her award-winning blog at

Your Turn

How Legal Context prevents misunderstood family stories Pinnable graphicHow have you used legal context to enrich your family narratives and promote understanding?

Image Credits: 

  • Headline and pinnable graphic’s underlying image: “Due Process of Law,” by Samuel D. Ehrhart, published 1903 in Puck, v. 54, no. 1399.  Courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-25806
  • Photo of Judy Russell, © Judy Russell, used with permission



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