Lost 19th Century Rockingham Co. Wills Found at LVA

  Detail of Rockingham County Will Book February 1821-April 1824 (Barcode 1172547), Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

Individuals today wishing to conduct research using Rockingham County court records may encounter a few stumbling blocks. Due to two major events in the locality’s history, Rockingham County is identified as one of Virginia’s Lost Record localities. The first loss of Rockingham records occurred in 1787 when a courthouse fire destroyed primarily wills and estate records. A second and even more devastating loss came during the Civil War.

In June 1864, with the threat of Union troops advancing into the valley, concerned citizens of the county wanted court records (mostly volumes) removed from the courthouse so that the records could not be destroyed. A judge granted permission for these records to be moved to a safer place east of the Blue Ridge.  A teamster and wagon were hired to remove the records, but the wagon was left on the Port Republic-Forge road after a rim was lost and a tire came off. During this delay, Union troops spied the wagon and partially destroyed the records by setting fire to it.  The mother of a Confederate soldier extinguished the fire by carrying water and smothering the fire with green hay just cut from a nearby field.  She retrieved what was left of the records and took them to her home for safekeeping.  The records remained at her home for quite some time, and because the records were not carefully guarded, individuals came and took records related to themselves or their families.  Eventually, what records remained were returned to the courthouse; however, many order books, deed books, will books and fiduciary books were lost or severely damaged by the fire. 

In 2005, a Library of Virginia researcher made a startling discovery—he came across a box of miscellaneous loose and bound documents.  It so happened that this box contained burnt fragments of Rockingham County’s original wills and administrations (including estate inventories and guardians’ accounts) saved from that wagon fire in 1864. The history behind how the Library of Virginia came to acquire these records is found in the locality accession records. The files for Rockingham County date from 1864 to 2010 and offer two possibilities. The first and best possibility is that the records came from Duke University which returned 18,000 items and 121 volumes to the LVA on 22 June 1951 (accession 23707).  The second possibility (accession 25144) is that the records were purchased as part of 1,500 items from the Chesapeake Book Company on 1 April 1960.

Because of the extensive damage to the perimeter of many of the pages and to prevent further loss of valuable information, the more fragile items were sent to the Library’s in-house conservation lab. Pages were encapsulated and returned for the difficult task of historical reconstruction. As a result of the fire damage, pagination and recorded dates were effectively removed. The time consuming task of reconstruction was handed over to one of Local Records Services’ most experienced archivists, Louise Jones. She devised an elaborate scheme for painstakingly researching and reconstructing the original volumes for microfilm purposes.  Her work encompassed various steps to organize the items into will books.  The first step involved taking notes from county order books to determine which documents were recorded on which dates. For pages burnt on all four edges, she determined which side of the page was the spine side.  Next, she looked at the page to see if she could find the name of the deceased and the date the document was recorded.  For pages without dates or names of the deceased, she denoted the type of document and then looked for names and dates within the documents. If the document was an estate sale, she noted the names of the purchasers and compared the names to the list of purchasers in other estate sales. Comparing unique items sold with items listed in inventories helped determine the name of the deceased. For her final step, she compared handwriting, the darkness or lightness of the ink, page size, and the color of the paper or water stains to determine where the page belonged in the will book.

Nine volumes were painstakingly reconstructed dating from 1803 to 1862. Once reconstructed, the original volumes were microfilmed in-house by the staff of OCLC Preservation Service Center (now Backstage Library Works). The nine microfilm reels generated were made available to the public in 2005.  The volumes were then retired to the State Records Center because of their fragile nature.

The Rockingham County Wills and Administrations, 1803-1862 (Microfilm Reels 667-675), are available for research at the Library of Virginia and the Rockingham County Circuit Clerk’s Office. Additional Rockingham County court records can be found in the Lost Records Localities Digital Collection. More information on the digital collection can be found in this previous blog post.

-Callie Lou Freed, Local Records Archivist

Posted by in Chancery Court Blog Posts.

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3 Comments

  1. Pat Turner Ritchie said:
    8 May 2013 at 8:46 pm

    Thanks for the explanation of how the records were preserved. What a lot of work! We Rockingham County researchers will be forever grateful. With permission from the Library of Virginia, the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society (HRHS) digitized the microfilm and later printed out each page. Indexes to the microfilm were made by volunteers and are available at HRHS at Dayton, VA.

  2. Dale said:
    9 May 2013 at 7:09 am

    What a great story Callie! Thank you for sharing it with us.

  3. Nancy N. Seidel said:
    17 December 2014 at 11:55 am

    F. Flavia Converse, my cousin, was a respected genealogist Harrisonburg-Rockingham County. and did extensive work on her family and mine – Bear family. Recently, while working on Ancestry project, a E-Mail was sent from a Roanoke cousin with some of Cousin Flavia’s research. One was a copy of Andrew T. Bear’s will, circa 1841. She apparently had access to “burn records” available locally because she adds her comments at end of will regarding “burn records” and some changes she made. It is fascinating reading.

    I was employed a s a Library Assistant, Cat. Dept., State Library of Virginia …one of the “old ones” Smiles. At the time my married name was Nancy Brett and Helen Scribner was head of the dept. Of that era, Mary Guthrie and Kitty Smith still are living, both in their 90′s. Other staff members are of course living … those marvelous ladies are “the stuff of legends” …. had more info. in their brains than any modern electronic device. Smiles. Nancy NELSON Seidel

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