Category Archives: Chancery Court Blog Posts

- 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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- 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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