Public improvements, military claims, divorce, manumission of slaves, division of counties, incorporation of towns, religious freedom, and taxation are just some of the concerns expressed in the Library of Virginia’s collection of Legislative Petitions to the Virginia General Assembly, 1776 to 1865. In late 2012, the Library partnered with Backstage Library Works in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to digitize the collection straight from the microfilm which was created in-house in 2002. Work has now begun to take the 150,000 digital images, unite them with the database entries constructed on the Library’s searchable website (Legislative Petition Online Database), and make them accessible through Digitool – the Library’s digital asset management system. Thus far, the counties from Accomack through Amelia and Appomattox through Barbour are available (Legislative Petitions on Digitool). Besides the images, these entries in Digitool provide the same information previously available on the Legislative Petition Online Database including the petitioner, date, description, and subjects. The petitions often contain hundreds of signatures and are a useful tool in genealogical research. Frequently, the petitions contain supplementary support documents useful in research including maps, wills, naturalizations, deeds, resolutions, affidavits, judgments, and other items.
There are many noteworthy and valuable documents among the over 1,000 petitions currently digitized. Accomack County alone includes several appeals of freed slaves for permission to remain in the state following their emancipation as required by law. Similarly, there are petitions of slave owners petitioning the Assembly for leave to bring their slaves into the county from neighboring Maryland. Accomack County’s close proximity to the Chesapeake Bay produced petitions concerning changes to the oyster laws especially as they relate to dredging. Several citizens also petitioned the Assembly to establish ferries or packets between Accomack and the ports of Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Hampton. One of the most interesting petitions within Accomack County consists of a printed address of E. P. Pitts to the “People of Accomac [sic] and Northampton Counties.” Pitts, a judge and former state senator, voted against the secession candidate in the Convention and writes defending his decision to relocate his family to Howard County, Maryland, for health reasons during the war.
This is the first of an on-going series of Out of the Box posts highlighting the Legislative Petitions collection. Future posts will announce when new localities become available.
-Craig S. Moore, State Records Appraisal Archivist