As the Commonwealth of Virginia’s archives and library, the Library of Virginia provides a wide variety of services to local public libraries and government agencies across the state. For example, the Library’s Local Records Services Branch and Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP), actively work with the commonwealth’s 120 circuit court clerks to help preserve their permanent records. Coordinating CCRP activities statewide necessitates a great deal of time on the road, and staff maintain a very ambitious travel schedule along with the projects that take place in Richmond. Often, we will receive a phone call or email from a clerk seeking advice on preservation grants, transferring records to the archives, or how best to preserve certain records in their office.
Recently we were contacted by Lancaster County Circuit Court Clerk Diane Mumford, who had discovered some old records as she unpacked boxes that had been moved from her old office to the new county Judicial Center. Mumford recognized the age and significance of the documents and contacted the LVA for guidance on caring for the documents and what steps she should take to preserve them. Little excites an archivist (or a researcher for that matter!) more than the discovery of a group of old documents promising new information and avenues for research.
We quickly agreed on a date for us to visit and were pleased to discover upon arrival that among the stash of records was a fairly large group of chancery files dating from the 1840s to the early 1900s. These “lost” files would help fill in a mysterious gap in Lancaster’s chancery collection and will provide researchers access to over 2,000 additional chancery images. These records were added to the collection of Lancaster chancery files we had digitized in 2007 and are now available on the Chancery Records Index (CRI). The discovered boxes also contained additional court records, including loose bonds and commissions with signatures of Patrick Henry, Benjamin Harrison, James Madison, John Tyler, and James Monroe among others.
A quick tour of the record room revealed a number of framed plats hanging throughout the clerk’s office as well as a large “Historic Plats” book containing a number of elaborately drawn plats. A little detective work quickly led to the discovery that many of the plats were related to chancery files that had already been scanned and added to the CRI. Created as exhibits in land disputes, the plats had been separated from their corresponding case files many years prior as a way of providing ease of access for title researchers and other visitors to the clerk’s office. These colorful and ornate plats, created by the county’s surveyors as key pieces of evidence in chancery files, were long presumed lost by archivists.
Given the elaborate nature of the plats, they make for an interesting study that goes well beyond their informational content. The majority of the plats were created by three men: Thomas S. Dunaway, Robert W. Eubank, and Robert Alexander (all three are noted on the documents as county surveyors). The trio obviously invested a great deal of time and talent in creating what was often done in a very simple, often crude manner by other surveyors. The Lancaster surveyors added fine detail, such as colorful flowers and leaves, bodies of water, small and meticulous renderings of homes, and embellishing the compass and edges of documents. It is not clear why the surveyors employed such colorful and detailed flourishes in their work, but now that they have been reunited with the proper case file they can be used for their informational value as well as appreciated as works of art.
After consulting with Ms. Mumford on best preservation practices, she readily agreed to allow us to take the plat book, framed plats, and the loose papers back to the LVA facility for closer inspection. The original plats were removed from the plat book and frames and sent to our in-house conservation lab for cleaning, mending, and stabilization prior to being scanned and reunited with their proper case file. High-resolution color prints were created and inserted into the “Historic Plats” book as well as in the picture frames. Both the plat book and framed plats were returned to the clerk’s office and are readily accessible to researchers. A bound color copy of the bonds and commissions was also created for the clerk’s office while the original chancery case files were processed, indexed, and added to the Chancery Records Index.
-Carl Childs, Local Records Services Director