Category Archives: Chancery Court Blog Posts

- The Mystic Chords of Memory: The Payne Family of Frederick County

Victorian wedding.

It’s often repeated that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[1] I’m starting to think I misunderstood that quote. It seems to be less about the literal repetition of an act, as I once believed, and more about repetition of evaluation. In other words, we react as if it were the first time every time.  Winston Churchill warned that this would usher in “the most thoughtless of ages. Every day headlines and short views.”[2]

While processing different types of records, archivists often come across something that ties the past a bit closer to the present. It might be a graphic description of an adulterous affair in a nineteenth century court document that would make Perez Hilton blush, or a rant on bureaucratic red tape from early twentieth century governor’s correspondence that still rings true today. It is both surprising and oddly reassuring to read a historical document with subject matter that could have been pulled from today’s headlines. The story of the Payne family is just such a tale.

Joseph E. Payne, a prosperous Frederick County farmer, and his wife, Sarah, had eight daughters. The Paynes were one of the oldest families in the area and, according to some newspaper accounts, well respected. Joseph’s death in 1864 and the post-war economy struck a financial blow to the family. While … read more »

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- If The Dead Could Talk: A Patrick County Estate Dispute

Nineteenth century seance.

In 1999, the horror film The Sixth Sense introduced the iconic phrase, “I see dead people,” into pop culture. The film followed the progression from a young boy’s ability to see the deceased to also hearing what they had to say. In the first decade of the 20th century, this unusual talent would have helped resolve a dispute over the last will and testament of a wealthy estate owner.

In 1906, the estate of Richard R. Rakes was the center of attention for two sets of heirs. The first were the children of Rakes’ first wife, Sarah D. Turner, who passed away several years before. To their dismay, Rakes did not leave them an inheritance because he believed they were already well cared for before his demise. The second set of heirs, however, received a much better report.

The surviving widow, Mary Rakes, and her children were the sole beneficiaries of the estate, which included several hundred acres of property, horses, county bonds, evidence of debts, and other assets worth thousands of dollars. The desires of Richard Rakes seemed fairly straight-forward, if it were not for the betrayal of C. P. Nolen—the executor of the estate.

Nolen decided to partner with the children from Rakes’ first marriage to fool the widow Mary into thinking that a different plan existed. Their efforts were successful and resulted … read more »

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- Love Letters in the Archives

Postcard image, undated.

While working on a project involving the Middlesex County Chancery Causes, I noticed a case that was filled with scandal and intrigue.  Middlesex Chancery Cause, 1907-033, Andrew Courtney vs. Mary Courtney is a divorce suit in which both parties accuse the other of adultery. Andrew claimed his wife ran off to Connecticut with a married man named Beverly Smith, and Mary responded by claiming that Andrew was guilty of adultery himself.

As evidence, Mary produced several letters written to her husband by various women, one of which included a lock of hair.  That letter, dated 30 August 1906 from a Miss Ginny Davis, proclaimed “Here is a peice [sic] of my hair look at it and think of me.”

While it is sad to think that some of the love letters that end up in the archives are the result of divorce suits and romance gone wrong in one way or another, it also proves the quest for love is something that is surely timeless.

The Middlesex Chancery Causes, 1754-1912, are available online through the Chancery Records Index on the Library of Virginia’s Virginia Memory site.  The lock of hair reference above has also been scanned.


–Mary Dean Carter, Local Records Archival Assistant… read more »

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- Montgomery County in the Civil War

Editor’s note: This blog post marks the close of the grant-funded Montgomery County chancery processing project (in Civil War terms, the “Last Dispatch”). Thanks to generous support by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), over 200 boxes of Montgomery County chancery are now flat-filed, indexed, conserved, and awaiting digitization. Dedicated LVA staff Sarah Nerney, Regan Shelton, and Scott Gardner, along with assistance from Clerk of the Circuit Court Erica W. Williams and her staff, completed not only the processing of chancery records but the organization and identification of scores of other historical court records. To revisit some of the discoveries made over the course of this two-year project, re-read some of the earlier blog posts. The chancery causes are now slated for digital reformatting. Researchers should contact the Montgomery County Circuit Court Clerk’s office with inquiries regarding access or copies.


Detail, Major R. L. Poor, Report of Survey for location of Supply Depot on New River, 1864. Montgomery County, Chancery Causes, 1864-005, James P. Hammet vs. General John C. Breckinridge, Montgomery County Circuit Court, Christiansburg, Virginia.

When one thinks about the Civil War, usually the first thoughts are about military battles, but there were many battles fought in the courts over resources such as supplies and land. The chancery records in Virginia’s courthouses can provide tantalizing insights into conflicts on the home front. They also reveal how complicated life became in Civil War Virginia as individuals, businesses, and even localities fought each other and the Confederate government to defend their property or what they viewed as rightfully … read more »

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- Not Black and White, But Different Shades of Gray

With examples dating back to the 1750s, Norfolk County chancery causes offer an interesting set of solutions to some of the myriad problems associated with a growing county, especially in the form of injunctions. These were legal remedies filed by plaintiffs hoping to stop or halt a particular action.  The resulting court order would enjoin and restrain the defendant from committing the action. During this process, the plaintiff filing the injunction was required to post a bond, although monetary relief was not usually the end result. Instead, injunctions helped to preserve the status quo in the community and prevent possible injustice. Failure to comply with an injunction resulted in punishment for contempt of court.

The chancery cause Bernard (Barnard) O’ Neill v. Lewis Warrington, et. al., 1840-007, filed in Norfolk’s Circuit Superior Court of Law and Chancery on 27 June 1838, highlights the sometimes complex issues involved in an injunction. Barnard O’ Neill alleged title to 55 ½ acres of land around the town of Portsmouth.  His bill of complaint states that he received a patent for this land from the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1826.  An adjoining property owner sold 60 acres of his property to the U.S. Government in 1828. According to Richmond C. Holcomb, M.D., writing in 1930, the western boundary between O’Neill’s property and this government property had been … read more »

- Education Is A Virtue: Patrick County Chancery Causes

A lack of education and a trusting heart caused many minorities to lose their property in the early 20th century. A perfect example is the case of Ruth Brim, George Brim, Anderson Carter, and Lucy Carter versus William Epperson in Patrick County, Virginia.

The complainants (the Brims and Carters) were described as “uneducated colored people” who lacked understanding and placed too much faith in the defendant, a white man named William Epperson.  The complainants borrowed $600 from the defendant. To secure the loan, the complainants wanted to use their home and tract of property as collateral, essentially promising to hand the defendant their $1,500 homestead in the event that the $600 was not repaid.

This sort of loan arrangement was not unusual. From the defendant’s standpoint, an agreement with the potential of gaining property worth more than twice the loan amount was very promising. For this reason, Epperson agreed to meet with the Brims and Carters to finalize the agreement. Unfortunately, at the meeting, everything took a turn for the worse.

Epperson apparently had a change of heart and decided to view the agreement as an opportunity to take advantage of the complainants. Rather than move forward as planned, he proposed that the complainants temporarily transfer ownership of the property before the $600 loan was given, referring to the new arrangement as “the proper … read more »

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- The Long Wait for Freedom: A Montgomery County Freedom Suit

This is part two of a two part post on a fascinating freedom suit discovered during the Montgomery County Circuit Court Records Project. Part one of the story was published last week.

Wanted ad, 6 August 1842, Connecticut Courant, p. 6.

Flora continued to live with the Charltons, eventually moving to the Seven Mile Tree home built by James Charlton. While there is no further evidence that Flora was able to pursue a freedom suit prior to her death, her narrative served as the basis for suits filed by her daughters and their children. James Charlton’s death in 1825 probably served as the trigger for this series of chancery suits, as Cena and Unis contemplated the possibility that their own families might be broken up and sold away. An 1825 appraisement of James Charlton’s estate indicates that he claimed twenty-one slaves, at least twelve of whom petitioned for freedom. The size and value of Flora’s family had increased since her 1784 arrival in Virginia; by 1825 they were worth over $3,000 dollars.

The series of freedom suits initiated in 1826 would not be resolved until 1853. Cena and Unis sued for their own freedom and by extension that of their children and grandchildren: Andrew, Reuben, Julius, William, Helen, Mary, Tarlton, Matilda, James, and Flora. All of these individuals were designated paupers and represented by counsel. In addition to claiming that their Flora had … read more »

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- Spotsylvania County Chancery Causes Online

Spotsylvania County seal

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images for Spotsylvania County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1812-1913, are now available online through the Chancery Records Index on LVA’s Virginia Memory website. Chancery cases are useful when researching local history, genealogical information, and land or estate divisions. They are a valuable source of local, state, social, and legal history and serve as a primary source for understanding a locality’s history.

Following are a few suits of interest found in the Spotsylvania County chancery collection. Fortune Coleman etc., vs Gdn. of Henry Coleman etc., 1900-016 is a dispute over land and mineral rights of a “colored” family.  In the Petition of Thomas M. Henry, 1906-047, this is a request to access land for development of a multi-county transit system.  Mary Ella Gray vs. James Oliver B. Gray, 1913-006, is a divorce case with an illustrative biblical certificate used as a legal as proof of marriage.

The processing and scanning of the Spotsylvania County chancery causes were made possible through the innovative Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP), a cooperative program between the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Court Clerks Association (VCCA), which seeks to preserve the historic records found in Virginia’s circuit courts.

–Joanne Porter, Local Records Archivist… read more »

- Flora’s Plight: A Montgomery County Freedom Suit

This is part one of a two part post on a fascinating freedom suit discovered during the Montgomery County Circuit Court Records Project. Part two of the story will be published next week.

Slave Sale At Christiansburg (Va) by Lewis Miller.

Women had more to lose in the system of slavery. Saying this is not in any way meant to downplay the pernicious effects of slavery on the lives of men. However, at least in the slave system of the U.S. South, women ensnared within slavery saw their children and, if they lived long enough, their grandchildren caught in a chain of matrilineal descent predicated on the bondage status of the mother. Conversely, if one could prove that a woman was unjustly or illegally forced into slavery, she and her descendants had much to gain. The story of Flora and her daughters, Cena and Unis, makes public the double bind experienced by female slaves in the antebellum South. Their story also reveals the ongoing claims to freedom made by Flora and her family over sixty years, across three states, and throughout multiple counties in Virginia.

Flora, an African American later held as a slave in Montgomery County, Virginia, was born in the late 1750s in either Massachusetts or Connecticut. In the late 1770s Flora married “Exeter, a Negro man of Southwick” [MA], a marriage recorded by Reverend John Theodore Graham on 26 … read more »

- Madison County Chancery Causes Online

Genealogical chart, ca. 1838, Madison County, chancery causes, 1839-004, Joseph Hume vs. Exrs. of Joseph Clark, etc., Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images for Madison County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1794-1912, are now available online through the Chancery Records Index on LVA’s Virginia Memory website. Chancery cases are useful when researching local history, genealogical information, and land or estate divisions. They are a valuable source of local, state, social, and legal history and serve as a primary source for understanding a locality’s history.

Following are a few suits of interest found in the Madison County chancery collection. Exrs. of Robert Beverley vs. Mackenzie Beverley, 1803-003, is a dispute over the estate of Robert Beverley of Blandfield Plantation. Simon B. Chapman vs. John Wright, etc., 1818-002, concerns a contract for substitute militia service during the War of 1812 and discusses some generalities about the war. In Joseph Hume vs. Exrs of Joseph Clark, etc., 1839-004, the court had to differentiate between relatives of Ambrose Clark who were of the “whole blood” and those of the “half-blood.”  A genealogical chart illustrating this differentiation was filed with the suit.

One chancery suit of particular interest is Henry Hill vs. Humphrey Taylor, 1844-008. Hill and Taylor were business partners engaged “in the business of buying slaves in the state of Virginia … … read more »