In her 1989 NGSQ article, “The Adeustone-Rogers Families of Virginia: Tracing a Colonial Lineage through Entailment and Naming Patterns,” the late Margaret Hickerson Emery provided a definition of the term that was key to solving her genealogical problem:
Fee tail or entailment, as defined by Black’s Law Dictionary, is the encumbrance of property with a fixed line of inheritable succession, limited to certain classes of particular heirs.
While that definition is certainly correct and concise, I needed a bit more help in understanding exactly what the term means. The glossary in Pat Hatcher’s 2016 Locating Your Roots: Discover Your Ancestors Using Land Records includes the kind of definition that genealogists can more thoroughly understand and put to use:
Fee tail: The type of title or ownership in which the title or ownership is limited, defined, or specified by a document created by a previous owner. For example, a will stating “to my son William and then on his death to his son John” creates a fee tail for William, who cannot sell the land. If there were no additional wording, John would hold the land in fee simple and could sell it after he came into possession, if he so chose. If, however, the words “and the male heirs of his body forever” were added, then the land was still entailed, a specific type called fee tail male. Other deed restrictions could be made, such as liquor could never be sold on the property, or the property was transferred only as long as a specified use continued (such as a church or school), or that a cemetery must be preserved.
[Side note: In the terms fee simple and fee tail, the word fee has nothing to do with money or the exchange of it. Instead, it is derived from the medieval term fief and relates to the granting of a freehold. Also, entail is sometimes rendered as in taille.]
Now that we understand the essentials of entails/fee tails and entailment, how do we use that understanding to solve genealogical problems? Let’s take another look at Emery’s NGSQ article.
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