The Anatomy of Notarial Acts

The records of the Clerk of Civil District Court’s Office, which date back to the 1700s, represent the rich history of New Orleans and its diverse communities. Our archives can be used for property, family history, architectural, and landscaping research.

We have highlighted several examples of notarial acts in recent blog posts, and an explanation of what a notarial act is and its various uses should be discussed.

We have previously mentioned that Louisiana is a Civil Law state. In fact, it is the only state in America to operate under Civil Law, which originated in Europe and derives from codified laws of ancient Rome. Civil Law was brought to Louisiana under Louis XIV with the Coutume de Paris (or Custom of Paris),1 which was a set of laws pertaining to property, inheritance, and marriage.2 The Coutume de Paris also established in the Louisiana Territory “… civil government and the enactment of a law for its guidance… From this point of view, the Custom of Paris is the cornerstone of the civil law of Louisiana.”3

A painting of Italian Notary, Giusto Giusti (1406-1483)
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/255368241344131924/

In civil law, notaries can “…draft, prepare, and execute affidavits, acknowledgements, and authentic acts,” just as an attorney might do in Common Law.4 Notarial acts are legal documents, typically financial in nature, and are usually contractual agreements between entities, such as individuals, corporations, or government agencies. Examples of common contracts in the 1700-1800s are property sales, mortgages, leases, emancipations, marriage contracts, and building contracts.

However, notarial acts are not limited to agreements between parties. Notarial acts can serve other purposes such as the executing of a declaration, last will and testament, family meetings, inventory of estate, business incorporations, and marine protests.

The notary serves as a legal arbiter and disinterested third party to record the transaction for the individual or contracting parties. Once the documents were created, the notary would function as an archivist, maintaining his own records until his retirement or death. Then the notary’s records would be passed to a successor. In 1867, the Louisiana Legislature created the Notarial Archives as a central repository for notarial records in the city. Over 100 years later, beginning in 1970, notaries were required to submit notarial acts to the custodian of records (in the office of the Notarial Archives) in order to record and register in Orleans Parish. In 2006, the Louisiana Legislature passed a law in which the Notarial Archives along with the Registrar of Conveyances and the Recorder of Mortgages were to consolidate under the Clerk of Civil District Court’s Office effective January 2009.

Notarial acts housed in the Clerk’s Office date back to the 1730s, and in this particular blog, we will discuss the framework of notarial acts by comparing an act from the French Colonial period with a more contemporary act at the turn of the 20th century. However, it is important to keep in mind that notarial acts are recorded every day in the Land Records Division of the Clerk’s Office, and those, too, will eventually become part of the historical record of the city.

In an example of a French Colonial record, the reader will observe the Succession of Jacques de La Chaise, one of the earliest records in our collection. A succession, the quintessential notarial act during the colonial period, would contain various types of notarial acts within the succession itself, such as inventories and wills. However, it is interesting to note that in post-colonial times, successions are no longer considered notarial acts; rather, they are court pleadings that determine the inheritance of a deceased person’s estate.

Under the Coutume de Paris, the ruling body in Louisiana, known as the Superior Council, was established in the early 1700s.5 The Notaire Royal (or Royal Notary) would be a member of the Superior Council who could also function as a Greffier (or Clerk of Court, indicated by the red arrow in the image below), which further cements the early relationship between the Notarial Archives and Clerk of Court. The role of the Greffier was to record the administration and court minutes of the Superior Council. This included the execution and the signing of documents such as judgments of possession and estate inventories.

Rossard, Michel. 1733 May 15. French Colonial Box 2. Upper page 10990. Signature of Rossard, including title of Greffe as indicated by the red arrow.

In one such example below, Royal Notary and Greffier, Michel Rossard, addressed the actions of one of his clients, Marie-Marguerite Cailly, the widow of Jacques de La Chaise in a written statement of facts known as a procès verbal.

Rossard, Michel. 1735 April 9. French Colonial Box 2. Upper page 10905-10906. Procès verbal.

In the procès verbal, Rossard explained that on April 9, 1735, he awoke from his siesta (or afternoon nap) to the sound of voices coming from his wife’s room. “La dame Veuve de La Chaise” (or Lady Widow de La Chaise) came to his home and demanded that he read to her the “sentence arbitralle,” or the judgment of possession, between her and her children in the succession of her late husband, Jacques de La Chaise. She was distressed by the financial judgment that was rendered by the Superior Council. Rossard went into his “cabinet” (or a room in his house dedicated as his office) to produce the requested document. In her woe while listening to Rossard read the judgment, Madame de La Chaise tore off the bottom of page containing her signature, put it in her mouth, and swallowed it.

In the images of the “sentence arbitralle” below, the reader can identify where the Widow de La Chaise tore off her signature.

Rossard, Michel. 1735 April 5. French Colonial Box 2. Upper page 10895-10896.

The reader may wonder about what has replaced the missing portion. In a standard conservation treatment, a conservator applied a fill once an appropriate paper, color tone, and thickness were identified in order to repair the loss.

The rest of the procès verbal explains that Madame de La Chaise stated that she was not thinking straight, and she had not meant to “cause distress to the declarant [Rossard], who she knew to be an honest man.” She believed that had Rossard handled her court case, she would have a more agreeable outcome. Rossard banned the widow from returning to his home. He wrote the procès verbal in order to seek “reparations for the injury she did” by demanding an injuction by the “Monsieur Le Pro[cureur] général du Roy” (or the King’s Public Prosecutor) to require Madame de La Chaise to pay a fine.

According to doctoral research done by Sue Marasco, Jacques de La Chaise was sent to Louisiana by the French crown in 1722, and shortly thereafter, he began his role in the Superior Council. De La Chaise rivaled with Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, who founded New Orleans and developed the colony of Louisiana. The two men were from opposing political French families, with de La Chaise from France and Bienville from New France (Canada).6 De La Chaise also served as a commissioner for the Company of the West/Company of the Indies.7 The company was created as part of the Mississippi Bubble to develop French territories.8 De La Chaise, as commissioner of the company, was in charge of overseeing the “justice system, police, financial matters and trade.”9

Below is a small sample from the inventory of Jacques de La Chaise’s succession.

French Colonial Box 2. Upper page 10938.

An inventory includes any movable and immovable property belonging to the deceased. In this case, Jacques de La Chaise’s inventory listed “twelve plus barrels of rotten, halved potatoes, the barrels were twelve pounds. A barrel of juice. Twenty plus barrels of Mahi in grain at fifty pounds. Plus for her part and portion of which is entered in the judgment of possession that I have to pay Madame de La Chaise the sum of $885.”

That portion of the inventory totaled at $3,080.

To demonstrate the evolution of the notarial act, an act of incorporation at the turn of the 20th century (1900s) is featured below. An act of incorporation formally and legally documents the creation of an organization and defines the rules and stipulations of said organization.

Vidrine, Eraste. 1912 Jul 13. Vol 13, Act 782

On July 13, 1912, the Trustees of the Isaac Delgado Memorial Fund came before notary, Eraste Vidrine, to incorporate so that they could carry out the codicil of the last will and testament of Isaac Delgado. A codicil includes additions or modifications to a will. The reader may recognize the name as being synonymous with Delgado Community College. Isaac Delgado came to New Orleans from Jamaica in the 1800s, amassed wealth in the sugar and molasses industry, and became recognized for his philanthropic endeavors in education, health care, and the arts.10

The obvious change is the shift from handwritten to typed documents. By this time, English is the standard language. However, notaries would record notarial acts in the language preference of the parties to the act. This is why some records in the collection appear in French, Spanish, German, and Italian. It is also important to note that the legal language of the document has become standardized, beginning with the date of the execution of the act, the notary’s name, who verifies that he is duly commissioned and where he resides.

Another typical feature of a notarial act is an attachment. Attachments are supporting documents of the notarial act itself. The most common types of attachments include mortgage and conveyance certificates, tax certificates, property surveys, board minutes, resolutions, copies of judgment of possessions, and letters. However, attachments are not limited to this list.

The image below displays how attachments are often folded into the act and bound into the volume. This particular example of an attachment is a letter sent on behalf the Board of Administrators to Isaac Delgado, thanking him for his “grand benefaction” to create the Delgado Memorial building to advance the hospital in the areas of surgery and gynecology. The letter serves as an acknowledgement of Delgado’s wishes as indicated in the codicil.

Vidrine, Eraste. 1912 Jul 13. Vol 13, Act 782

Pictured below is one addition to Isaac Delgado’s will, which is made part of the notarial act. Similarly to the inventory in the succession of Jacques de La Chaise, sums of money are listed that Delgado wished to bequeath to various individuals and institutions.

Vidrine, Eraste. 1912 Jul 13. Vol 13, Act 782

Delgado wished to donate a total of $145,000 to friends and family. He also planned to give $100,000 to Charity Hospital in addition to the memorial fund, $100,000 to the Eye, Ear, and Nose Hospital, and $10,000 to the New Orleans Convalescent Home. At the end of page two of the act, the Delgado Memorial building at Charity Hospital is mentioned.

As with contemporary notarial acts, an act of incorporation, such as the incorporation of the Trustees of the Isaac Delgado Memorial Fund, will follow a formulaic format. In this example, Article 1 states the legal name of the organization, and Article 2 gives the names of the initial board of trustees. Article 3 states the objectives and purposes of the organization. In this case, the objective as mentioned was to carry out the will of Isaac Delgado and further explains the intent to “hold property… by purchase or donation for educational purposes…for the benefit” of Charity Hospital and the Isaac Delgado Trades School (now known as Delgado Community College).

Vidrine, Eraste. 1912 Jul 13. Vol 13, Act 782

Finally, the act of incorporation culminates with Articles 4-6, followed by the concluding paragraph, which references that the act was executed on the specified date in the presence of witnesses.

Vidrine, Eraste. 1912 Jul 13. Vol 13, Act 782

The witnesses play an important role in the execution of notarial acts. From the earliest notarial acts well into the 1800s, it was common that one or multiple parties to the transaction were unable to sign their name. The notary would determine that the party was illiterate and would be required by law to read the act aloud, which is still the standard practice. Parties unable to sign their names would sign with a mark. With the signatures of the notary and two impartial witnesses, the act is considered valid.11

To demonstrate an example, on the signature of an act below, the reader will see the mark of Marie Veuve Paris (Widow Paris), better known as Marie Laveau, the prominent voodoo practitioner. In addition to her mark, the signatures include Constance and P.O. Peyroux as the other parties to the act, Auguste Huard and Cyprien Courbe LaDreyere as witnesses, and Louis T. Caire as the notary.

Caire, Louis T. 1839 October 21. Vol 73A, Act 676

It would be remiss not to briefly discuss the most common type of the notarial act: the act of sale. Formulaic in its structure as well, this act of sale was executed by notary, Milton J. Montgomery, on July 26, 1968. Once again, the parties to the act are listed. In this example, Thomas Sherwood sold property to the Dixie Homestead Association. Sherwood was represented by his power of attorney, Henry Dart, III. Also, notice that the language in the introduction of the act is largely the same as the 1912 act of incorporation before notary, Eraste Vidrine, in the previous example.

Montgomery, Milton. 1968 July 26. Vol 129, Act 84

The property is located in the French Quarter, but the legal description on the next page provides precise information about the said property. The district, square, and lot are specified along with the binding streets and the exact dimensions of the property, which are given down to the “line.” Lines are derived from French measurement and are classified as one-eighth of an inch.

Montgomery, Milton. 1968 July 26. Vol 129, Act 84

The legal description will sometimes mention where a survey of the property can be located. Occasionally, the survey is attached to the act as a supporting document, such as in the case with the survey in the act pictured below.

Montgomery, Milton. 1968 July 26. Vol 129, Act 84

Another key piece of information is the acquisition of the property. Notarial acts provide the citation for previous acquisition, which is necessary when someone is researching the history of a property. The information will lead the researcher to the previous owner and allows the researcher to continue linking the property back until they are able to identify the origins of the property or the construction of the building.

Montgomery, Milton. 1968 July 26. Vol 129, Act 84

While there are many other pieces of information, interesting facets, and often complex details involved in notarial acts, we hope that by dissecting the anatomy of notarial acts, our readers and researchers will have a clearer idea of the purposes and structures found within the notarial acts in our collection.

The Clerk’s Office has a rich amount of history found within the notarial acts. If there are any particular interests that you would like to learn about, please contact the Clerk’s Office. We are happy to assist.

Sources:

1. Johnson, Jerah. “La Coutume De Paris: Louisiana’s First Law.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, vol. 30, no. 2, 1989, pp. 145–155. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4232727.

2. https://www.britannica.com/topic/family-law/Economic-aspects-of-family-law

3. Henry P. Dart, “Courts and Law in Colonial Louisiana,” The Louisiana Historical Quarterly, Vol. 4 No. 3. Google Scholar. https://books.google.com/books?id=PkoUAAAAYAAJ&dq=louisiana%20historical%20quarterly&pg=PA260#v=onepage&q=louisiana%20historical%20quarterly&f=false.

4. Professional Civil Law Notaries Association. https://www.pclna.org/

5. https://www.crt.state.la.us/louisiana-state-museum/collections/historical-center/colonial-documents/index

6. Marasco, Sue A. “Remembering the King on the Crescent: Louis XIV’s Cultural Order and the Founding of New Orleans, 1699-1743.” Vanderbilt University, Dec, 2008. https://ir.vanderbilt.edu/bitstream/handle/1803/14073/MarascoDissertation10-06-08_2.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

7. Cowan, Walter G., and Jack B. McGuire. Louisiana Governors Rulers, Rascals, and Reformers. University Press of Mississippi, 2008. https://books.google.com/books?id=Y-0-kmu4vk0C&pg=PA25&lpg=PA25&dq=succession+of+jacques+de+la+chaise+new+orleans&source=bl&ots=G_r84DXc0v&sig=ACfU3U3p6xGjMxtvW5IZzEFzgPdkJkw2Ow&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjZ9NO2rsfvAhWDQs0KHcjgBEw4FBDoATAGegQIBxAD#v=onepage&q=succession%20of%20jacques%20de%20la%20chaise%20new%20orleans&f=false

8. https://www.britannica.com/event/Mississippi-Bubble#ref254124

9. Cowan, Walter G., and Jack B. McGuire. Louisiana Governors Rulers, Rascals, and Reformers. University Press of Mississippi, 2008. https://books.google.com/books?id=Y-0-kmu4vk0C&pg=PA25&lpg=PA25&dq=succession+of+jacques+de+la+chaise+new+orleans&source=bl&ots=G_r84DXc0v&sig=ACfU3U3p6xGjMxtvW5IZzEFzgPdkJkw2Ow&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjZ9NO2rsfvAhWDQs0KHcjgBEw4FBDoATAGegQIBxAD#v=onepage&q=succession%20of%20jacques%20de%20la%20chaise%20new%20orleans&f=false

10. https://www.dcc.edu/about/history.aspx

11. https://www.mandevillenotary.com/single-post/2016/04/28/important-facts-about-notaries-and-notarizations-in-louisiana#:~:text=In%20order%20for%20a%20Louisiana,in%20his%20or%20her%20presence.&text=People%20who%20cannot%20sign%20their,other%20impartial%20witnesses%20are%20present.

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