The Chicken Oath


While conducting my genealogical research, I will often stumble across odd little snippets of history of which I am largely unfamiliar. They will, in turn, lead me on little side quests as my curiosity requires me to dig deeper.  One such incident came as I was reading through a narrative involving a distant relative, Richard Calvin Tate, the first cousin of my daughter-in-law’s 5th great-grandfather.

I came across this account in The History of Calloway County, Missouri dated 1884. In it I learned that “Mr Tate went to California in 1849, and was engaged for some time in hauling with his six horse wagon. During his sojourn in California, he served on a case in which several Chinamen were witnesses, and they swore to everything but the truth, until the judge had a rooster brought into the courtroom and placed on a table, when a blank expression of dread came over the face of each Chinamen, and after that they swore to the truth.”

Reading that paragraph raised a few unanswered questions in my mind, not the least of which was “what does a rooster have to do with anything?”  I found the answer to that question in The New York Court of Appeals, Records and Briefs (pg 48 and 49). It states that “The recognition of an oath or an affirmation is based upon a recognition of the forms which may be used as imposing a binding obligation upon the conscience… It is more or less common knowledge that a Chinaman does not regard an oath as a binding obligation unless at the time he takes it he cuts off the head of a rooster.”

As I continued to read, I found that there are numerous 19th century records in court documents stretching from California to Canada all allowing the unusual “chicken oath” administered to Chinese witnesses to bind them to the truth.

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