Category Archives: Chancery Court Blog Posts

- A Modern Day Soap Opera in the 19th Century




Some things in life never change.  Seasons, hunger, sleep, and calamity are constants which prove that the world repeats itself. Relationships are no different. For centuries, married couples have promised to remain faithful while one or both secretly desire the affections of another. In the 19th century, the marriage of Mary and William Cox served as an example of infidelity not unlike a modern-day soap opera.

An 1873 bill to the court indicates that the marriage of Mary and William Cox was in distress because of an adulterous lifestyle. Despite three years of marital bliss, Mary accused William of being unfaithful with several women because he no longer wanted to provide for his family. Mary’s accusation also implied that William molested her and the children, abandoned them, and later forced her to rent a place to stay. To satisfy her expenses, Mary works for the landlord before deciding to ask the courts to require William to answer for his actions.

Two court depositions are documented. The first, from George W. Clark, responded to the question of whether he was aware of William Cox’s unfaithfulness. Clark confirmed that he had known the couple since their marriage and that, as a practicing physician, he had discovered that Mary Cox contracted gonorrhea from her husband. Clark even testified that he actually heard William say that he had … read more »

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- A Collection Within A Collection: Bounty Warrants Found In Chancery Causes


Encampment of the convention army at Charlotte Ville in Virginia. Etching from 1789. Library of Congress.

Military bounty land warrants, given by individual states or the Federal Government to reward military service or encourage enlistment, have long been a useful resource for the genealogist, providing proof of service and establishing a person’s whereabouts during a particular time. The Library of Virginia’s chancery causes offer a little known but excellent avenue of exploration on this topic. By providing additional context, the chancery suits concerning bounty land create a broader understanding of the subject. Causes fall into three categories:  contract disputes, estate disputes, and debt.

The interested parties were prominently mentioned in any disagreements where the land rights of the claimant were assigned, or sold. Heirs of the claimant were principal figures in chancery actions when the original claimant died and his heirs filed suit in Virginia for a fair distribution of the claimant’s real property. Much like causes involving debt, these suits resulted in the sale of the disputed property. Examples of both federal and state lands are noted—stretching well beyond the years of the original warrants—in Augusta, Fluvanna, Greensville, Halifax, Middlesex, Norfolk, and Prince Edward counties. Warrants include lands granted during the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812.  In order to acquire the land, the federal warrant had to be surrendered for a patent—usually at a federal land office. With the establishment of a state … read more »

- Modern Love: Two Wrights and a Wrong


Editor's letter, The Ladies' Home Journal, October 1922.

Many a modern day love rat has been outed by a spouse’s discovery of telling photos posted to Facebook or illicit text messages. But what about the cheaters of yesteryear? Were they just as foolish about leaving evidence of their adultery lying around as are the two-timers of our era?

In February of 1920, Edna Wright filed her bill of complaint with the Staunton chancery court requesting a divorce from Frank W. Wright. Edna stated that for the last 18 months her husband had been infatuated with a married woman named Mabel Duffey. The previous year, Mr. Duffey had caught Frank in Mabel’s bedroom; at the time, both admitted to the charge of “criminal intimacy” or adultery. Edna agreed to take her husband back after he promised to cease his activities with Mabel. However, the lure of Mabel as forbidden fruit was apparently just too strong. At some point between being caught in the act and Edna’s filing for divorce, Frank “appears to have cast aside all restraint in regard to his marital obligations and to have abandoned himself to a sexual desire for said Mrs. Duffey and makes no denial and makes no excuse for his connection with her.” At this point Edna played her trump card: she had written and photographic evidence.

The deposition of Staunton police chief S. B. Holt relates the … read more »

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- A Disregard of Freedom: Burwell versus Pilson’s Administrators


Illustrated London News, A Slave Auction in Virginia (February 16, 1861).

What does it mean to be free? Some might define freedom as having no obligations to a particular thing or person. A free person cannot be owned by anyone, or forced to do anything they do not want to do. However, in Patrick County, Virginia, amid the conclusion of the Civil War, freedom had an entirely different meaning.

The dispute in the chancery cause William A. Burwell vs. Adms. of Richard Pilson, 1871-011, concerns two slaves in Patrick County who were sold as part of the estate of the late Richard Pilson. The purchaser, William A. Burwell, used an estimated $2,800 secure bond to purchase the slaves at a public auction in June 1865. The bond signified a promise to pay before the end of a 12-month period. Burwell’s transaction was not uncommon. Slaves were often bought and sold as part of estates, even throughout the Civil War. However, the interesting part of this transaction was that the war was quickly coming to an end.

Confederate troops under General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Union forces in April 1865—two months before Burwell’s purchase. This surrender afforded enslaved men and women the right to freedom under President Lincoln’s historic Emancipation Proclamation and the document known as the “Alexandria Constitution,” which governed Virginia during the early years of military occupation. These actions had … read more »

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- 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. www.weirdlectures.com

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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