Family history researchers eagerly scan documents for clues that will identify an ancestor or prove a connection.
In doing so, they often skip over legalese without pausing to investigate what the words mean, or to appreciate the history of those phrases.
Such is true with the "Signed, sealed, and delivered" terminology that appears in most deeds.
Typical is the last paragraph of an 1855 Georgia deed that reads, "In testimony whereof the said Abraham Tate has hereunto let his hand and seal this the eighth day of October in the year eighteen hundred and fifty five. Signed, sealed and delivered in presence of Oliver C. Wyly."
Following was Abraham Tate's signature followed by the word "seal" in parentheses.
When I first found deeds from my early ancestors I keyed in on the term "seal," visualizing a blob of wax stamped by a signet ring, such as nobility might use. "Was this ancestor an important person?" was my first question.
Seals were created in England several hundred years ago when common folks could not read or write but everyone could recognize a seal belonging to a particular person of importance. Only landed gentry would have needed to put their marks on documents. So the answer to my question is "yes" - if the document were from early England, it would have been marked by an "important" person.
As folks became more educated, recognizable handwritten signatures took the place of seals. In early America, where anybody who wanted land could get it and where the common man often was educated enough to sign his name, there was no real need for seals. Signatures were recognizable and as binding as a seal.
The early seals were impressions on wax affixed to the paper. When the use of wax seals faded, the word "seal" (in parentheses or with flourishes drawn around the word) took its place, or the letters "L.S." - short for the Latin locus sigilli or "place of the seal."
The symbol or word "seal" indicated an assent and deliberate intention for the seller to pass land to a buyer for some monetary consideration.
There will be many times in research when legal language causes the researcher to misinterpret the meaning of a document. That could lead to inaccurate assumptions or explanations as to why an ancestor behaved in a particular way, took specific actions, or failed to act as we would have expected.
That's why it's important to explore meanings rather than skip over unfamiliar words. Going online for simple search engine inquiries usually can reveal enough to answer basic legal questions. Turning to a legal dictionary such as Black's Law Dictionary will provide in-depth definitions. Black's is available in most library reference sections, but every good genealogist should invest in his or her own copy. Used copies do just fine and are available at many online used-book outlets.