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Monday, January 18, 2016

Legal Issues and Family History Sources

I immersed myself into genealogy and family history before I became a full-time author. One of the exciting aspects of learning about family history is getting a sense of connection with my own ancestors. One of the great negatives about becoming acquainted with societal conditions and the legal records of past generations is becoming aware of the great injustices perpetrated upon women in the name of providing and protecting them.

This developed my interest in including the true legal conditions of past eras in my historical fiction. The legal condition of women in the past can best be summed up by the first sentence in the book description for The Hidden Half of the Family – A Sourcebook for Women’s Genealogy by Christina Kassabian Schaefer:

By law and by custom, women's individual identities have been subsumed by those of their husbands. For centuries women were not allowed to own real estate in their own name, sign a deed, devise a will, or enter into contracts, and even their citizenship and their position as head of household have been in doubt….”

It goes beyond a desire to be historically accurate. I believe my reading audience which is primarily female needs to understand that the legal rights women have today were gained through a great deal of hardship and hard work. They are not to be taken for granted. And, if we are not diligent, it is possible they could be taken away in future generations either for religious reasons or in the name of men providing for and protecting their families.

I did take one year of law. First year law students are dangerous creatures, especially if they think they have enough knowledge to give legal advice or manage their own legal affairs. As a writer, this education was valuable. It gave me a basic understanding of some of the fundamentals of our legal system. 

In spite of that, I find I gain more practical knowledge about past laws, particularly as they relate to family relations, by studying family history sources. When searching for records about ancestors, some of the best sources are the legal documents still available in many courthouses. To know what the basic laws were in any given era, what documents were generated by marriage, divorce, birth or death, the books I prefer going to are my family history sources.

In my Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series, one of the elements of each book in the series is the legal conditions of the day, particularly as they apply to my heroines. Featured in the first two books, Beth Jessup Dodd, living and married in Ohio, travels to California in an effort to find the husband who deserted her. 

The prologue in the first book, Big Meadows Valentine, sets the tone with Beth’s father, Elmer Jessup, ill with consumption and a firm believer in women being incapable of running a farm or conducting business, refusing to will his farm to his two daughters. Instead, he sells the farm to Jim Dodd with the understanding, memorialized by written contract, that Jim will marry Beth, a portion of the value of the farm will be considered her dowry, Jm Dodd will provide for both his father-in-law until his death and Beth’s little sister, Zelly, until her marriage. He will work the farm and provide security and family for Beth for the balance of her natural life.

To find out if Elmer Jessup had the legal right to do this, I turned to my family history resources, in this case, The Hidden Half of the Family – A Sourcebook for Women’s Genealogy. The following is a comparison of basic legal considerations between Ohio and California. First, Ohio and California had completely different origins in different time periods:

Those differences affected the laws put in place regarding marriage and divorce:

Even though in 1880 Beth, as long as she was of legal age, could have owned the farm if willed to her, her father chose instead to sell the land. Beth was forced—bullied is perhaps the better word—into obeying her father and marrying a man she had never met and did not voluntarily choose because of two circumstances. First, she felt compelled to provide for her father and little sister who, because of her father’s sale of the farm, could be turned out without any means of support if Beth refused to marry Jim Dodd. Second, Beth, at twenty years of age at the time of her marriage, was still underage. Before the law she was considered an infant, and therefore subject to her father who had complete legal control over her.

In addition to the book mentioned above, another of my favorite books detailing family law and the rights (or profound lack of them) of women and children is Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy by Val D. Greenwood. It was in this book I found my information about the status of children under the age of twenty-one.

Once Beth married, she came under the “protection” and control of her husband. With no separate property of her own upon her marriage, she had nothing to call her own. Since she was not of legal age, even her chickens she purchased with childhood birthday gift money were technically the property of her father while she was single. Although her father assured Beth her husband would not interfere with her chickens, the legal truth of the matter was that they were sold as part of the farm and became Jim Dodd's property once Jim Dodd signed the contract to purchase the farm and marry Beth. When Jim Dodd decided to liquidate the farm and return to his mining activities in California, he sold her chickens along with everything else and pocketed the money. Beth had no legal recourse.

In Big Meadows Valentine, Beth realizes her husband has no intention of coming back to Ohio for her once he is set up in California. Knowing he is legally and contractually obligated to provide for her support, she travels to California in search of him. She soon learns that when it comes to governing property and inheritance, the two states have different laws. Here is a comparison:

I have used the comparison charts with the information obtained from The Hidden Half of the Family – A Sourcebook for Women’s Genealogy with the permission of the publisher, Genealogical Publishing Company. For more information on how to order this book, click HERE.

Tidbits of this legal information will be part of all five of the novellas in the Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series. Published by Prairie Rose Publications, Big Meadows Valentine and A Resurrected Heart are available now. The third book in the series, Her Independent Spirit, will be published in the first half of 2016.

Zina Abbott is the pen name used by Robyn Echols for her historical novels. Please visit and follow the Zina Abbott’s Amazon Author Page by clicking HERE.

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Where to find when women gained legal rights @ZinaAbbott Legal Issues & Family History Resources #PrairieRosePub


  1. Robyn,
    What a great post! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Kristy. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Fascinating. I kept thinking about my grandmother who was widowed in 1924 leaving her with three small children to support. Wish I knew more about her rights then. Fortunately her brother gave the family home to her when their mother died four months after her husband did. At least they had a roof over their heads.

    1. Thank you Vella. Younger women often do not always have an appreciation of the inequities within society and before the law that women have dealt with throughout the centuries. Even in my lifetime, I've dealt with my share, but it was nothing like what my grandmother experienced when she was widowed about the same time your grandmother was. I appreciate your comment.

  3. Robyn, Good for you. Most people don't think about women and their rights. As I'm sure you noticed, it's a big thing for me, especially when it comes to my non-fiction writing. Thank you for bringing more information to this topic. Doris McCraw/Angela Raines-author

    1. We have a common interest in this, Doris. Especially since I started my married life as a stay-at-home mom living with then-society's attitude that I should stick to my knitting and let the men take care of the important matters of the world, it is a big thing with me, too. I empathize with our sisters in our past--our female ancestors--who often suffered because of the legal and societal inequities they were forced to live with.

  4. I tried commenting from my cell phone, but lost it in cyber space. This was such an interesting and thorough article. I really enjoyed. My paternal grandmother, Matilda McNeal was an activist for women's right to vote. I'm very proud of her. I wish I could have known her, but she died years before I was born.
    It's so helpful to know these historical truths when writing about women in our stories. It not only helps to make our stories believable, but accurate as well.
    Great article.
    All the best to you, Robyn...