Category Archives: Chancery Court Blog Posts

- Virginia Untold: The Cullins family of Powhatan County


Original courtesy of Library of Congress.

Two years ago, the Library of Virginia launched Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative, a digital collection aimed at helping researchers break through the “roadblock” that has long impeded African American genealogical and historical research. Virginia Untold, along with other digital collections already available at the Library of Virginia such as the Chancery Records Index Virginia Chronicleand the Legislative Petitions Digital Collection, have brought to light the pre-Civil War experiences of African Americans once hidden in bundles of administrative, estate, property, and court records stored in courthouses, state agencies, attics, basements, and libraries. One example is the narrative of an African American family who resided in Powhatan County in the mid-19th century.

In 1833, John Cullins’s last will and testament was recorded in Powhatan County court. One of the terms listed in the will was the emancipation of a family of enslaved people: a mother, Nancy, and her five daughters, Jane, Sally, Ann, Judith, and America. However, their emancipation was not immediate. Cullins’s will stipulated that the family would remain enslaved until the deaths of John’s two daughters, Polly and Henley. Following their deaths a decade later, Nancy and her daughters finally gained their long awaited freed … except for Jane, who died before receiving her emancipation.

Once emancipated, Nancy and her daughters acquired the surname of their … read more »

- Collateral Damage: An Elizabeth City County Debt Case

Debt collateral usually consists of something prized by both parties. As a temporary form of payment, something of value is offered to hold or use as a lien until the debt is paid. In the mid-1800s, lenders considered enslaved persons to be prime collateral because their ownership represented wealth.  In many cases, however, lenders exploited these debt arrangements to the detriment of the borrower. Enslaved persons used as collateral were often abused or simply sought for their monetary value. Such was the case with Thomas Phillips, a slave owner pressured to leave his enslaved people behind as a surety for unsettled obligations to a creditor named N. C. Giddings.

By all indications, Phillips was a financially upright man who seemed to take full responsibility for his debt. Phillips voluntarily submitted a trust deed in Elizabeth City County (now the City of Hampton) in 1859 to use two enslaved people as collateral. Although the debt value is not given, one might reasonably assume that the amount was substantial given Phillips’s willingness to place his valuable human property in jeopardy. To make matters worse, heightened tension between the country’s northern and southern sections increased the likelihood that authorities could seize these enslaved people, leaving Phillips with little hope of their return.

Upon executing the deed, Phillips attempted to relocate to Richmond, but N. C. Giddings balked at … read more »

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- “Persecuted By His Race”: The Norfolk County Chancery Causes, 1718-1913


Mikro Kodesh synagogue, Berkley, built 1922. Now home to the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Coutesy of Wikicommons.

The information contained in the Norfolk County Chancery Cause 1893-022, Berkley Hebrew Cemetery Association v. Abraham Liebman, et. al., makes for a highly charged and drama-filled story. More importantly, however, the cause provides insight into a diverse community beginning a more organized transition within a region. Jewish immigrants began settling in the Tidewater area in the late 18th century– according to Irwin M. Berent, author of Norfolk, Virginia: A Jewish History of the 20th century. The home of the first Jewish resident of Tidewater is found in Portsmouth, which was established in 1752, incorporated as a town in 1836 and then as a city in 1858. Jacob Abrahams came first to Maryland as a convict from London. He was part of the Ashkenazic faith (a follower of the German/Eastern European ritual of Judaism). Thousands of Jewish families came to London from Germany, Lithuania, and Poland.

The first permanent Jewish resident of Norfolk, Moses Myers, settled in the Berkley section in 1787 and began an immensely successful import-export business. Soon after, the Jewish community in Berkley became known for two significant developments:  the site of the first cemetery for Norfolk-area Jews and the beginning of the “most close-knit Orthodox Russian-Jewish community in all of Tidewater.” Berkeley (sometimes spelled Berkley) is one of the oldest communities in Virginia. It was the county … read more »

- The Fives Battery and the Injured Lynchburg Lott

When processing a collection of old court papers, sometimes archivists have to use their imagination to interpret what was written. The words don’t always make sense in the context of the sentence and we must decide whether the mistake is in the handwriting or in our interpretation. Is it how the word is used (or misused) in the sentence? Or might it be my own personal misunderstanding of the word in the context of the times?

That was what happened to me when I was processing an 1823 Lynchburg chancery case. The injunction suit, Daniel B. Perrow vs. Smith Barnard, etc., was unremarkable. Perrow had rented a house from Smith and William Barnard on Cocke Street in Lynchburg, and by all accounts, the dwelling needed some repairs. Various affidavits indicated that during “wet weather” the house was nearly uninhabitable. The renter and landlord had come to some sort of an agreement about the repairs that were needed, who would pay for them, etc.; that is what the suit was about. The repairs were to be made to the “house and inclosure” in order to make the property “tenantable.” Because of the repairs, a credit or allowance would be given to the tenant.

In the course of reading the affidavits, however, it became apparent that the tenant, Perrow, was doing more than repairing the house.

read more »

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- Beachhead Revisited: Parramore’s Island on the Eastern Shore


Flyer, 1868. Accomack County, Chancery Cause, 1876-038, William McGeorge, Jr. etc. versus Talmadge F. Cherry, etc. Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

In the late 1800s, land speculators became interested in selling islands along the Atlantic Coast to be used as summer resorts. “Parramore’s Island,” a barrier island on the coast of Accomack County, Virginia, was one such island. The island has been identified in its history by various names including “Parramore’s Beach,” Parramore’s Beaches,” “Parramore’s Great Beach,” and “Parramore Island.” Parramore’s Island and Parramore’s Beach were most frequently used.

Dr. Talmadge F. Cherry of Baltimore, Maryland, was interested in buying the island. He received two advertisements and a plat containing information about the island. These documents were used as exhibits in a chancery suit- Accomack County, Chancery Cause, William McGeorge, Jr. etc. versus Talmadge F. Cherry, etc., 1876-038.

J. Henry Ferguson of No. 80 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore, Maryland, sent Dr. Cherry an advertisement that he printed on 15 July 1868. He gave many good reasons to buy the island. A second advertisement consisting of four pages was also given to Dr. Cherry. This document was divided into five sections, titled “NEED OF A GOOD SEA-SIDE RESORT,” “The Opportunity Offered,” “WHAT IS PROPOSED,” “Improvements Needed,” and “Peculiar Advantages as a Summer Resort.” This document provided information about building a summer resort and tried to convince the reader that it should be built on Parramore’s Island.

Dr. Cherry also received a hand drawn plat of the island … read more »

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- Ibby Jane Smith: U.S. Pensioner

Ibby Jane Smith was born in January 1864 in Northampton County, Virginia, the daughter of Leah Smith, also called Leah Jacob, and Seth Smith, also known as Seth Scott. Ibby Jane’s father had served in Company C, 10th Infantry Regiment of the United States Colored Troops. Ibby received a pension from the United States government for her father’s service during the Civil War.  The information about Ibby Jane Smith, her parents, her grandparents, uncles and aunts is found in Northampton County Chancery Cause Harry Fitchett & wife, etc. VS admr. of Ibby Jane Smith (alias Ibbie Jane Smith) etc.1886-003.

The deposition of Jacob Fitchett, the acting Sergeant in charge of the Freedman’s Bureau at Town Fields (near present day Cheriton in Northampton County), tells how Ibby Jane’s mother, Leah, brought her to Town Fields in January 1864 when Ibby Jane was about two weeks old. Leah registered Ibby Jane as the legitimate child of Seth Smith, alias Seth Scott. Leah claimed Seth as her husband because they had lived together as husband and wife.

The deposition of John A. Nottingham, the son of James B. Nottingham, Leah’s former owner, stated that Leah and Seth began cohabiting in 1861 at Dr. George W. Smith’s farm. Dr. Smith, the son-in-law of James B. Nottingham, was the owner of Seth. While living at the Smith farm, Seth went off to … read more »

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- It’s A Virginia Thing: Helping One Native Colleague at a Time

Back in 2010 when I was processing the Nelson County chancery suits, I found a remarkable genealogical chart of the prominent Carter family. From that discovery, I wrote my first Out of the Box blog—A Tree Grows In…Chancery! Now, I am here to testify that not only does lightning strike twice, but in the same place as well. Mary Dean Carter, an archival assistant at the Library of Virginia since 2007, was thrilled about my first revelation related to her father’s lineage.

While helping process the Halifax County chancery in 2014, it was my second discovery though that really hit home for Mary Dean. In the beginning of the project Mary Dean had a simple request, let me know if you come across any suits with these last names: Long, Woodall, Land, Burton, Hudson, or VanHook. These surnames belong to her known relatives residing in Halifax County. In a rather lengthy chancery suit from 1869, Heirs of Jesse (Jessee) Ballow v. Exr of Jesse (Jessee) Ballow, etc., 1869-021, I uncovered relatives on her mother’s side of the family.

With the discovery of another well-preserved genealogical chart, Mary Dean determined that her third great grandfather, Hyram Hudson, was a direct descendant of Jesse Ballow’s sister, Anne. A color coded key is provided for reading the chart. Jesse Ballow died in Cumberland County and … read more »

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- It’s A Virginia Thing: Helping One Native Colleague at a Time

Back in 2010 when I was processing the Nelson County chancery suits, I found a remarkable genealogical chart of the prominent Carter family. From that discovery, I wrote my first Out of the Box blog—A Tree Grows In…Chancery! Now, I am here to testify that not only does lightning strike twice, but in the same place as well. Mary Dean Carter, an archival assistant at the Library of Virginia since 2007, was thrilled about my first revelation related to her father’s lineage.

While helping process the Halifax County chancery in 2014, it was my second discovery though that really hit home for Mary Dean. In the beginning of the project Mary Dean had a simple request, let me know if you come across any suits with these last names: Long, Woodall, Land, Burton, Hudson, or VanHook. These surnames belong to her known relatives residing in Halifax County. In a rather lengthy chancery suit from 1869, Heirs of Jesse (Jessee) Ballow v. Exr of Jesse (Jessee) Ballow, etc., 1869-021, I uncovered relatives on her mother’s side of the family.

With the discovery of another well-preserved genealogical chart, Mary Dean determined that her third great grandfather, Hyram Hudson, was a direct descendant of Jesse Ballow’s sister, Anne. A color coded key is provided for reading the chart. Jesse Ballow died in Cumberland County and … read more »

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- The Old Ball and Chain

In the colonial period, married Virginians had very few legal grounds for divorce. Over the years, though, standards loosened up a bit, and eventually the old justifications of adultery and impotency were joined by reasons such as abandonment, cruelty, or being a fugitive from justice. In 1873, a new justification was added to the list: if either party was sentenced to confinement in the penitentiary. One of least common reasons for divorce, this kind of suit does pop up in chancery from time to time when the spouses of criminal Virginians took advantage of the law to get rid of the old ball-and-chain.

W. H. Bonaparte and Emma G. Lee were married in Hampton in 1888. In January 1889, W. H. was convicted of a felony for transporting a woman named Ruth Tennelle into Hampton for the purpose of concubinage and was sentenced to five years in the penitentiary. Emma filed for divorce in February 1891 and her petition was granted one month later. (Elizabeth City County chancery cause 1891-007 Emma Bonaparte by etc vs. W. H. Bonaparte)

In 1898, Rosalie Mayo and Daniel N. Huffer were united in matrimony. In 1901 Rosalie filed for divorce while pregnant with her second child, stating that her husband had recently been sentenced to one year in the penitentiary for a terrible assault on their little … read more »

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- Old Plats of Pocahontas


Taber Andrew Bain from Richmond, VA, USA - Pocahontas Island (Source: WikiCommons)

Pocahontas Island is a peninsula in the Appomattox River incorporated as part of the City of Petersburg in 1784. The small town became home to a large free African American population following the Revolutionary War. The Petersburg chancery causes contain plats showing lots of land in the Town of Pocahontas. The plats show changes to the town during the early 1800s, as the early African American community developed.

A 1993 tornado had a significant impact on the historic fabric of Pocahontas. However, archeology, historical research, and oral history projects continue to uncover information about this unique community. Plats and documents from the Petersburg chancery causes contribute to that documentation.

Other plats and maps can be found in the Chancery Records Index for Petersburg showing other parts of city, as well as plats for land in Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Greensville, and Prince George Counties.

–Louise Jones, Local Records Archivist… read more »

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