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Rare Book Collection
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Territorial and State Session Laws
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Law on Dowries. Massachusetts (Colony). Laws, Statues, etc. 1672. Law Library of Congress.

bibliographic record

Territorial and state session laws make up the major portion of the Rare Book Collection. They include a large number of early colonial and state marriage, property, and dower laws in their original wording. These laws date from late-seventeenth-century Massachusetts and early-eighteenth-century Virginia. An edition of The General Laws and Liberties of the Massachusetts Colony in New-England, Revised and Reprinted (London, 1675) is one of the earliest.8 A section on dowries states:

It is Ordered by this Court and the Authority thereof, that every Married Woman, (living with her Husband in this Jurisdiction, or other, where absent from him with his consent or through his meet default, or inevitable providence, or in case of Divorce, where she is the innocent party) that shall not before Marriage be estated by way of joynture, in some Houses, Lands, Tenements or other Hereditaments for term of life, shall immediately after the death of her Husband, have Right and Interest by way of Dowry, in and to one third part of all such Houses, Lands, Tenements and Hereditaments. . . .9

These session laws contain a wealth of information about the lives of men and women during the colonial period. Interestingly, the laws on marriage in Virginia in 1722 indicate that a marriage license could be paid for in shillings and pence or in tobacco:

An Act concerning Marriages.

Ministers shall not marry People without License, of thrice Publication of Banes, according to the Rubrick.

. . . . Fees for Marriage Licenses.
s.   l.
To the Government   20   or   200 of tobacco
To the Clerk of the County Court   5   or   50
To the Minister if by License   20   or   100
If by Banes   5   or   50
For publishing the Banes and Certificate   1 s. 6d   or   15

If these Fees be not paid in ready Money, they shall be paid at the Time of Year in Tobacco of the Growth of the Parish where the Feme shall live, and on Refusal of payment be leviable by districts as per Clerks Fees.10

Such laws, written in the script of the colonial period, reveal aspects of colonial life that were important enough to legislate and litigate.

In addition to laws relating to the original thirteen colonies, the Law Library's collection of territorial and state session laws also includes laws of the Hawaiian Islands before 1896, when they were ruled by Queen Liliuokalani, as well as laws relating to Native American Nations, including the Creek, Choctaw, and Cherokee tribal codes. Some of these codes are written in the vernacular script of the tribe. The codes of several tribes show them as strongly matrilineal.

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