Notary History

The origins of Notaries can be traced to ancient Egypt — a time when making records official transactions became important to humanity. The following are a few snapshots of how Notaries and notarization played a key role in the development of governments, commerce and organized society:

Ancient Egypt: 2750-2250 B.C.

Ancient Egyptian “sesh,” or “scribes,” were established in the Old Kingdom and were the earliest known chroniclers of official communications in recorded history. Scribes made up an entire level of the ancient Egyptian bureaucracy. Personal letters, official proclamations, tax records, and other documents all went through their hands. The recording of events was so highly valued that Pharaoh Tutankhamen even included writing equipment in his tomb for the afterlife.

Roman Empire: 535

The true ancestors of Notaries were born in the Roman Empire. Many regard history’s first Notary to be a Roman slave named Tiro, who developed a shorthand system which he called notae for taking down the speeches of the famed orator Cicero. Other witnessing stenographers came to be known as notarii and scribae. As literacy was not widespread, the Notary, or “Notarius” as they were called, served to prepare contracts, wills, and other important documents for a fee. As the Roman Empire grew and literacy increased, demand for the Notary also increased.

Order of the Knights Templar: 1099-1307

The Knights Templar were a monastic military order formed at the end of the First Crusade with the mandate of protecting Christian pilgrims on route to the Holy Land. From humble beginnings, within two centuries they had become powerful enough to defy all but the Papal throne, and created the modern system of banking, mortgages and loans. The Clergy of the Order were highly educated and became the critically important Notaries for all Templar business, official documents, orders and proclamations.

Notaries Public in England: 13th and 14th Centuries

Notaries were not introduced into England until later in the 13th and 14th centuries as English common law developed separately from most of the influences of Roman law. Notaries were often appointed by the Papal Legate or the Archbishop of Canterbury, and in those early days many were members of the clergy. Over the course of time members of the clergy ceased to involve themselves in secular business, thus laymen in towns and trading centers began to assume the official character and functions of a modern Notary.

Notaries and the Conquests of Columbus: 15th Century

Notaries accompanied Columbus on all of his voyages to ensure to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that all discovered treasures were accounted for. They witnessed noteworthy acts, like when Columbus first beheld the New World in 1492 by landing on San Salvador Island in the Bahamas.

Notaries in Early America: 1600-1800

In Colonial America, only persons of high moral character were appointed as public Notaries to certify and keep documents safe. Their contributions to colonial life are largely seen as the reason American business became a huge success. For example, in colonial times Notaries were invaluable to trans-Atlantic commerce, as parties on both sides depended on them to be honest third parties in reporting damage or loss to a ship’s cargo. While Notaries were held in very high regard during this time, life for Notaries in early America was anything but easy. Some were even killed for their involvement in authenticating official documents and recordkeeping as conflicting factions fought for control of the New World.

John Coolidge and President Calvin Coolidge: 1872-1933

John Coolidge was born in 1845 and was 78 years old when he came to fame as a Notary Public in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. His son was Calvin Coolidge, was elected Vice President under Warren G. Harding in 1921. When Harding died in 1923, Coolidge was sworn in as the 30th President of the United States by his father – the only president to ever be sworn in by a Notary.

Other Fascinating Historical Facts

Notary Of The Bedchamber. In the Middle Ages, Notaries were sometimes asked to witness the consummation of marriages involving royalty or members of the peerage.

To Be Or Not To Be. There is considerable evidence that Shakespeare once worked for a Warwickshire Notary and later had repeated contact with other English Notaries. It is felt that he drew on these experiences to write such plays as “The Merchant of Venice.”

They Didn’t Trust Columbus. Notaries accompanied Columbus on all his voyages just as they accompanied nearly all early Spanish explorers. The reason: King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella wanted to ensure that all discovered treasures were accounted for. On October 12, 1492, when Columbus first beheld the New World, a Notary named Rodrigo de Escobedo was on hand to document the landing on San Salvador Island in the Bahamas.

Papal Notaries. Notaries were once church officials appointed by the Pope. After Henry VIII separated England from the Church of Rome, the Archbishop of Canterbury commissioned Notaries in England and her American colonies.

Ye Olde Notary. In colonial times, Notaries were invaluable to trans-Atlantic commerce. Before the advent of electronic communication, merchants on both sides of the Atlantic depended on Notaries to be honest third parties in reporting damage to ships or cargo — a notarial act known as a “marine protest.”

First American Notary A Forger. The American Colonies’ first Notary, Thomas Fugill, appointed in 1639 in the New Haven Colony, miserably failed to live up to his duties and was thrown out of office for falsifying documents.

Oui! Je Suis Un Notaire! With the purchase of Louisiana in 1803, an outpost of the French legal system was absorbed into the United States. To this day, Louisiana’s legal system — and its Notaries — are unique, modeled in large part on the Napoleonic Code. Louisiana Notaries have powers similar to those of attorneys.

Hail To The Chief! At the turn of the century, the power of appointing Notaries for the District of Columbia was still delegated to the President of the United States. Notaries were appointed for a five-year term and removed at the President’s discretion. Today, the Mayor of the District appoints its Notaries.

Suffering Suffragettes. Not only could women not vote, but, until the early 1900s, women in America were also prohibited from becoming Notaries. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. held that since there was no record of women holding the office in England, it could not be affirmed that women were capable of being Notaries. Today, more than two-thirds of America’s Notaries are women.

Notary Sojak. In the 1920s and 1930s, a stock phrase in the popular comic strip “Smokey Stover” was “Notary Sojak.” If anyone ever finds out its meaning, let us know.

Breakfast Of Champions. When Wheaties executives asked baseball player Pete Rose to appear on a Wheaties box, he had to sign and swear in the presence of a Notary that he’d eaten the cereal ever since he was a kid.

Draw, Mister! At one time in Tennessee, statutes forbade “known duelists” from becoming Notaries because they were considered individuals of questionable reputation.

Breach Of Faith. In South Carolina, a 127-year-old law requires all Notary applicants to swear allegiance to God. In a case currently before the state’s Supreme Court, an atheist is challenging this requirement.

Don’t Get In His Way. In the classic Hollywood film, “D.O.A.,” the hero played by Edmund O’Brien was a Notary who had two hours to find an antidote to a deadly poison.

Get Real. Although his father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a Notary, surrealist painter Salvador Dali had other aspirations.

Oh, My Papa! Artist-inventor Leonardo da Vinci was also the son of a Notary. To safeguard his ideas, da Vinci perfected the skill of writing backward; one must use a mirror to read his thoughts. Good thing he didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps.

Mark His Words. In 1864, Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) became a Notary Public in Nevada — the only genuine public office to which he was ever appointed. The literary world is ever-grateful he chose not to remain in public service.

Notarygate. Frank DeMarco, Jr., a California tax attorney/Notary was accused of fraudulently backdating forms relating to former President Richard M. Nixon’s donation of papers to the National Archives to beat a tax deduction deadline. After months of controversy, DeMarco resigned his Notary office in June 1970 to forestall an investigation by the state. Evidence of the alleged transaction was sent to the Watergate Special Prosecutor and was but one more incident eroding Nixon’s political support and leading to his resignation from office.

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