LEGAL TERMS and WORD DEFINITIONS
A basic knowledge of early Virginia law and other word definitions can be very helpful when trying to determine the meaning of a particular record. The following are definitions of some of the commonly used legal terms and words used in early Virginia.
abate = an order to suspend or terminate a lawsuit, often due to the death of one of the litigants.
a simpling = collecting wild herbs
ab intestato = died without making a will
administration cum testamento = an administration of an estate granted by the court
when the deceased person has left a will but did not name an executor;
or the person named as executor is incapable of acting, or refuses to act,
administration de bonis cum testamento annexo = administration ordered by the
court when the executor or administrator of an estate has died, leaving
a portion of the estate still unadministered
aft. = after
age of consent = the age at which a person can marry without parental permission
age of contractability = the age below which legal marriages could not be contracted,
whether parents gave permission or not. The common-law age
in North Carolina at one time was 14 for males and 12 for
age of discretion = the age at which persons could choose their own guardians, usually
age of majority = the legal age at which a person could make a contract in his own name.
\(Usually, age 21. This meant that a man could buy land before he was
21, but he could not sell any land until he was 21.)
age of reason = the age at which a child was considered capable of acting responsibly,
usually the age of 7.
ahnentafel = a chart in tabular form with the person at the top numbered 1, his father
numbered 2, and his mother numbered 3. Grandparents are numbered
4,5,6 and 7, etc.
ante = before, by
apoplexy = hemorrhage of a blood vessel in a brain; a stroke
b. = born
bap., bapt., bp. = baptized
barleycorn = when used as a measurement, 3 barleycorns lengthwise equal 1 inch
bason = a misspelling of basin (referring to a bowl) often found in old wills
bef. = before
Benefit of Clergy = This term originated in England when any capital sentence could be
appealed to the ecclesiastical courts. The term was invoked to commute a death sentence
received for one of the many relatively minor crimes that legally warranted it. The use of
"benefit of clergy" was abolished in 1789.
bequest/devise = Personal property is bequeathed; real property is devised.
blue laws = laws which prohibited many activities, particularly on Sundays
b.l.w. = bounty land warrant
bounty land warrant = issued by the Secretary of a state to men who were enlisting
in the military. These warrants enabled the men to exchange them for
land to settle on, or sell them to others. Sometimes heirs of the men
utilized the warrants.
bur. = buried
ca. = circa (around, about)
capius, alias capius, pluries capius = Orders for a sheriff to arrest, confiscate, attach or other-
wise take something from a litigant in a court case. Alias capius was a repeat order when
the first one could not be carried out. Pluries capius was a third try.
chain = 100 links or 4 poles
chancery/equity = Chancery court heard appeals to equity from decisions that had been based
on common law, the unwritten English law based on custom and precedent. Equity was
the legal system aimed at remedying the inflexibility of the common law to provide a fair
and equitable resolution of a dispute. Many chancery suits dealt with excuses for failure
to settle debts. Others were between relatives fighting over a division of property. These
chancery suits have become a prime source for genealogical data. Common law and
equity differed from statutory law enacted by a legislature.
chattal = Movable personal property as opposed to land, buildings and attachments to those
chirugeon = a doctor who performs surgery
cit. = the work cited (citato)
congestive fever = malaria
consort = spouse
Court of Oyer and Terminer = A special county court separate from courts held by justices of
the peace. The literal meaning was "to hear and determine". This was the court that had
jurisdiction over trials of slaves for capital offenses.
cow common = a public common in colonial times where animals were allowed to pasture
cramp colic = an early term that usually referred to appendicitis
C.S.A. = Confederate States of America
d. = died
dau. = daughter
DB = Deed Book
decd. = deceased
disp. = dispensation
dissolution = death/ending
do. = ditto
dock fever = yellow fever
dower = that part of a husband’s real estate given by law to his wife
dropsy= a symptom of a disease where water is retained in body tissues
d.s. = died single
d.s.p. = (decessit sine prole) died without issue
d.s.p.legit = died without legitimate issue
d.s.p.m. = died without male (mascula) issue
d.v.p. = died during his or her father’s lifetime (vita patris – life of father)
d.v.m. = died during his or her mother’s lifetime (vita matris – life of mother)
dtd. = dated
entail = to devise land on a number of persons in succession, i.e. "to my son, and upon his death,
to his son," etc.
enteretitis = inflammation of the small intestines
erisipelas/erysipelas = a febrile (fever) disease accompanied by inflammation of
the skin; also called St. Anthony’s fire
escheat = When a patentee died leaving no legal heir, and if no one had purchased that land from
him, the patented land reverted to the crown or, in Northern Virginia after 1692, to the
Proprietor of the Northern Neck.
extant = currently existing, and not extinct or lost or destroyed, such as an extant will.
fee simple/fee tail = Land held in fee simple could be sold or devised absolutely, without
limitation to any person or heirs. Land in fee tail referred to a landowner who used the
phrase "and the heirs of my body", thus entailing a piece of land to an heir, and the heirs
of that heir, etc. In Virginia, fee tail was eliminated and converted to fee simple as of
October 7, 1776.
feoff = (pronounced "fef") to give or sell a fief to; feoffee = a person granted a fief;
deed of feoffment = transfer of a fief; fief = under feudalism, heritable land held
from a lord in return for service.
flux = an unusually copious flowing of a liquid from the bowels or another organ
freehold = An estate in land held in fee simple, fee tail or for life.
freeholder = defined in 1684 as "a person who holds lands, tenements or
hereditaments for his owne life, for the life of his wife, or for
the life of any other person or persons." \(Hening, comp. Statutes
at Large,III,26.) Subsequent acts redefined the definition to male,
twenty-one years of age or older, with a freehold of twenty-five acres
with a house, or one hundred acres without a house, and excluded
convicted recusants. \(Ibid, III, 172-75, 236-46 IV, 475-78)
freeman = one who is eligible to vote. The date following is the date he was admitted.
furlong = 10 chains or 1/8 mile
Gentleman = a man born into a family of high social standing; a man of independent means who
does not work for a living and usually held public office; in colonial Virginia, a
Gentleman could also be a Planter, as wealth was often determined by the
amount of land a man owned, and the income it generated
glebe = a farm dedicated to the support of the church and placed in the occupancy of
grippe = a viral infection resembling an acute case of influenza
hhd. = hogshead (a large barrel or cask)
hide of land = an obsolete measure of land, usually an amount necessary to support
one family with dependents, or as much land as could be tilled with
one plow in a year, usually 100 acres
House of Burgesses = the lower part of the Virginia legislature
ibid = the same
imprimis = in early wills, this Latin word referred to ‘first’ or ‘in the first place’
indenture = any deed, written contract or sealed agreement. The term derives from a deed or
agreement executed in two or more copies, with their edges correspondingly indented for
I.p.m./Inq.p.m. = an inquest held to determine a deceased’s land holdings. \(Inquisition post
mortem, usually dated by "regnal year", viz. 3 Henry IV….\)
jail fever = typhus
knt/kt. = knight
land patent= a certificate proving permanent ownership of a piece of land which
stated that the purchaser was the first to own the land individually
lic. = license
lung fever = pneumonia
lung sickness = tuberculosis
m. = married
m.(1), m.(2) = married first, second, etc.
Merchant = a person whose business is buying and selling goods for profit; a trader, especially
one in the wholesale trade who deals with foreign countries; a merchant-planter
grew and sold tobacco or other crops
miasma = any malarial type of disease
milk sickness = an often fatal disease caused by drinking the milk or eating the
meat of a cow that had eaten certain poisonous plants
moiety = one half of land or goods; a share of two parts divided
mourning ring = a ring worn as a memorial to a deceased person
M.P. = Member of Parliament
nee = (pronounced "nay") a woman’s maiden surname, i.e. "born"
Next Friend = A person authorized to represent someone who was disqualified to act on his or
her own behalf in a court of law. \(Such as a minor, a married woman, or any mentally
n.i. = no issue
noncupative = a will made by the verbal declaration of the testator, and usually dependent
merely on oral testimony for proof.
OB = Order Book
of the whole blood = a term used in describing the children of a man’s first marriage,
especially his firstborn son
op. cit. = opere citato (the work cited above)
Ordinary = a tavern or inn; stableage was often provided for guests’ animals
patent = an official document conferring a right or privilege, such as land that is
given for headrights. In precolonial days "a patent was conditional upon paying
a quitrent of twelvepence per fifty acres and seating the land. A patent could
lapse if not seated and could escheat upon the death of the patentee intestate
and without ‘heirs of the body’. A second person had to act to obtain the lapsed
or escheated land; therefore, the loss of the land was neither automatic nor
inevitable." (from A Place In Time, Middlesex County, VA 1650-1750 by Darrett
B. Rutman and Anita H. Rutman\)
perch = 5-1/2 yards
pole = 1 rod in linear measure, or 1 square rod in square measure
p./pp. = page/pages
Planter = a colonial or pioneer; the owner of a plantation; one who planted his own land or
someone else’s; some planters were considered Gentlemen because of their social
standing, while others were not
primogeniture = the firstborn of the same parents; the exclusive right of the eldest son to inherit
his father’s estate
prov. = proved, as in the proving of a will
prob. = probated
putrid fever = diptheria
quit-rents= a form of property tax paid annually, sometimes in tobacco or other products.
Quit-rents were paid only in the Northern Neck of Virginia. In pre-Colonial
days, a feudal system of land-ownership existed. A patentee was expected
to pay an annual rent or provide services to the Lord of the Manor. Once the
rent was paid, either in coin or service, the patentee was "quit" of his annual
responsibility. A quit-rent did not have to paid until after a land patent had
been issued. So families often lived on a tract of land for years without
having to pay a quit-rent.
Regnal year = the date most often used in medieval documents, and refers to the number
of the year of the reign of the monarch at the time the document was dated
relict = widow
replevy/replevin = the common law action for the recovery of goods or chattels wrongfully
seized or detained
rod = 5-1/2 square yards or 16.5 feet (same as a pole)
rood = 40 square rods
Rot. (rotatus) = roll/rolls – a term used for many types of early records
seating = clearing, planting and tending an acre of corn, or building a house and running
cattle for a year on patented land
seisin/seizin = the right to possession of estates of freehold. This possession was sometimes
delivered by a common law ceremony in which the seller handed the buyer a twig or
other item from the land.
seized = in possession of land (such as "he died seized of")
ship fever = typhus
sic = used after a word or passage to indicate that it is intended exactly as printed, or to
indicate that it exactly reproduces an original
span = 9 inches
square foot = 144 square inches
square mile = 40 acres
square yard = 9 square feet
tithables = the head of a family was taxed on the number of tithables in his ‘family’.
These included himself, all male white members of his family over 16 years of
age (or such other age as the law at the time dictated) and slaves, both male
and female, over that age
township = 36 square miles
vestryman = a member of a group of men who conducted the business of a parish.
They were elected for life. At the death or resignation of a vestryman, a
replacement was elected by the remaining vestrymen.
Visitation = a form of census-taking; approximately every 30 years between 1530 and
1689, heralds traveled through the shires (counties) of England and Wales,
recording arms and pedigrees of the principal families.
viz = an abbreviation for "namely" (videlicet – Latin\) often found in old documents
WB = Will Book
Some of the above words and abbreviations were contributed by Jeanne Barton, Louise Birchfield, Myra Gormley, Ed Kutz, Felix Earle Luck, Susy Martin, and Sherry Nicol.