The Library of Virginia has received a grant of $155,071 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support the scanning of the City of Petersburg chancery records, a significant collection for researchers interested in the African American experience, women’s history, and southern labor and business history in the antebellum and post–Civil War periods. The Library of Virginia is one of only 33 institutions to receive a grant in the Humanities Collections and Reference Resources category and one of only two state archives awarded an NEH grant.
The Petersburg chancery causes are comprised of case files from the City of Petersburg Court of Chancery, 1803 to 1912, and consist of 150 cubic feet and include bills of complaint, affidavits, wills, business records, correspondence, and photographs. Prior to 1860 Petersburg had the largest population of freedmen in the Mid-Atlantic states. The records offer social, demographic, and economic details that affected state, regional, and national politics; legal decisions; and institutions. The evolution of Petersburg’s economy from one based on tobacco to one centered on milling and manufacturing can be explored through the chancery records. The importance of Petersburg as a prosperous and diverse city—the state’s largest market town and center of economic activity—is seen in the chancery causes. As a commercial and industrial center as well as a transportation hub Petersburg attracted an unusually large number of free African Americans. By 1860 Petersburg had a population of 18,000 including more than 3,000 free African Americans, half of whom were women. The suits document this aspect of Petersburg’s robust and diverse population as free African Americans, women, laborers, and artisans used the courts to recover debts, settle estates, divorce spouses, assert land ownership, or dissolve partnerships.
A chancery cause is one that could not be decided readily by existing written laws. Decisions were made by a justice or judge, not a jury, and on the basis of fairness, or equity. These justices administered most facets of local government and were the face of government for most people during this period. As justices made decisions based on equity, they expressed social mores and values that governed everyday life in communities. They were appointed, not elected, until 1852, and most were not trained lawyers. Since chancery cases dealt with issues of equity rather than law, they often contain lengthy depositions, similar to oral histories, and can also hold other valuable materials in the form of exhibits submitted to the court. It is not uncommon to find land plats, correspondence, wills, publications, photographs, architectural drawings, and the like as exhibits. As such, these records are vital to genealogists and historians.
This project will provide free online access to all pre-1913 Petersburg chancery causes. The Chancery Records Index is available through the Library’s Virginia Memory Web portal (www.virginiamemory.com). Currently, records from 49 localities can be searched through the index. The scanning project will begin in May 2011 and be complete on April 30, 2012.