The Surry County Chancery Causes, 1785-1922 (bulk 1806-1917), contain valuable biographical, genealogical, and historical information and document a broad spectrum of citizens of Surry County—rich and poor, black and white, slave and free. Following are a few suits of interest found in the collection.
Chancery Cause 1830-037, Mary Pettway, etc. vs. Admr. of John Pettway Judkins, etc. is an estate settlement suit. John Pettway Judkins died without a will; therefore, the court had to determine who all was related to Judkins in order to ensure they received their fair share of his estate, including slaves. The suit contains a list of Judkins’ relatives showing how they were related to him.
Chancery Cause 1869-002, Enna (or Rosenna) Rowena Messersmith by etc. vs. Joseph M. Messersmith is a divorce suit that had its origins in the Civil War. Joseph served in a local Surry County unit attached to the 13th Virginia Regiment. He and Enna were married on 23 September 1862 in Surry County while Joseph was on a short furlough. Emma rarely saw her husband over the next two years. Enna informed the court that she last saw her husband in January 1864 in Petersburg. She learned from someone who served with Joseph that in the spring of 1864 Joseph went AWOL and was believed to have fled to western Virginia. Enna told … read more »
The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images for the Middlesex County Chancery Causes, 1754-1912, are now available online through the Chancery Records Index on the LVA’s Virginia Memory site. Because they rely so heavily on the testimony of witness, chancery causes contain a wealth of historical and genealogical information and are especially useful when researching local, state, social, or legal history. They often contain correspondence, property lists (including slaves), lists of heirs, and vital statistics that are especially helpful in documenting the African American experience, family history, and Southern business and labor history. Following are a few suits of interest found in the collection.
The Middlesex County chancery causes contain many suits illustrating the experiences of African Americans in the tidewater region. In Simon Laughlin vs. Jacob Valentine, 1773-005, Laughlin sues for the recovery of funds he spent on boat and horse hire while traveling to a prison in Snow Hill, Maryland, looking for a runaway slave. In 1858, Elizabeth Thornton initiated two suits in attempt to get rid of unwanted slaves. In Elizabeth Thornton vs. Margaret Thornton, 1858-012, Thornton claimed that Jane had a “very bad disposition” and had become “almost worthless.” Jane supposedly was a “very bad girl, a notorious rouge,” and “very idle.” After successfully selling Jane, Thornton then sought to get rid … read more »
When creating a who’s who list of the early days of film, the list is dominated by men – Cecil B. De Mille, D. W. Griffith, Louis B. Mayer. But there was an obscured hero of cinema’s early years making film alongside those males – Alice Guy-Blachè. In 1896, Guy-Blachè became the first female director, screenwriter, and producer. Regardless of gender, Guy-Blachè left a legacy of innovation in film. Her 1896 release, The Cabbage Fairy, was one of the first narrative films ever made. Guy-Blachè experimented with hand-tint colorization and even directed with one of the first sound machines decades before The Jazz Singer was released in 1927. Among her 22 feature-length films was The Lure—a film that made an impact on the city of Winchester by sparking a censorship debate, a conflict that found its way to the local courts in the fall of 1914.
The Lure, adapted from a play by George Scarborough, follows the lives of two young women lured into prostitution and enslaved in a house of ill repute. One young woman is enticed away from a fashionable dancing school by a dashing stranger. The other young woman, working in a department store to support an invalid mother, is lured by the promise of “easy night work.” The two ladies are shown being mistreated and suffering forced … read more »
Isaac D. Simkins, born on 13 January 1775, left Northampton County at age 21 to go to sea. Like many people leaving home on a sea voyage, he wrote his will before departing in June 1796. He asked that his body be decently buried and lent his mother, Anne Simkins, £300 from his estate for her natural life. After her death, the remaining part of his estate would go to his brother, John Simkins, and his heirs. The will, recorded on 10 July 1797, became a point of contention in the Northampton County Chancery Cause Walter C. Gardiner & wife, etc. vs. John Simkins, 1813-008.
In an otherwise mundane estate dispute, the cause of Isaac Simkins’ death was a fascinating side-note. In a deposition, Isaac’s brother, Arthur Simkins, revealed that Isaac had been “impressed by a British Man of War” and died shortly afterwards.
The war between Great Britain and France began in 1793 and continued until 1815. The British Navy used a brutal form of punishment called “flogging” on their sailors, prompting many British sailors to escape to American vessels. Some joined the United States Merchant Marines and others joined the United States Navy. The British Navy used the excuse of looking for their deserted sailors as a right to board American merchant vessels to look for the deserters and contraband. The British … read more »
Has this ever happened to you? You sit down to watch TV but cannot find the remote control, you need to go somewhere but cannot find the keys, you need to make a call but cannot find your phone. You proceed to dig under couch cushions, examine the pockets of recently worn clothes, or use a different phone to call your cell phone. After a diligent and exasperating search, you find what you lost but it in a place where you least expected. A couple living in Rockbridge County in the 1880’s experienced a similar scenario. In their case, they needed the court’s assistance to find the missing item. Their search can be read in Rockbridge County Chancery Cause 1887-038, Petition of William F. Pierson and wife.
Charles J. Brawley departed this life on 10 June 1886 and was buried in a cemetery in Collierstown, Virginia. After the funeral, it came time to divide up Brawley’s vast estate among his beneficiaries. But there was a problem—no one knew where Brawley’s last will and testament was. Acquaintances and family members of Brawley had little doubt that he had written one. They had conversations with Brawley prior to his death that led them to believe he had written his will. One gentleman said that Brawley had named his son-in-law, William F. Pierson, the executor of … read more »
In court documents from Lunenburg County Chancery Cause 1856-042, the petition of Araminta Frances reveals an interesting and life-changing request. On 10 March 1856 Araminta Frances, a free woman of color, petitioned the court asking to be enslaved.
Araminta was once the slave (along with at least two others) of James G. Richardson. Richardson’s last will and testament, probated 9 December 1850, left the majority of his estate, including finances, property, and slaves, to his daughter, Sarah A. Richardson, two nephews, and friend John L. Coleman. The provisions for the slaves were clearly spelled out. One negro male slave, Cezar, was to go to James G. Richardson’s nephew, James R. Walker, and John L. Coleman “to be taken care of by them and to be paid to him [Cezar] yearly by them the full amount of his yearly value.” Richardson also stipulated that “my negro child Virginia and Minty’s [presumably Araminta] child yet unborn” should be emancipated and receive the sum of $500 each or $1,000 if his daughter Sarah should die without issue. Minty (or Araminta) would be emancipated should his daughter, Sarah, die without having married. A copy of James G. Richardson’s will was included with the petition as supporting documentation for Araminta’s case.
Also included in the case was a bill passed by the General Assembly on 20 December 1855 allowing Araminta … read more »
The Library of Virginia’s Local Records Services branch, in partnership with the Montgomery County Circuit Court Clerk, was recently awarded a 2-year grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) to support the processing of the Montgomery County Circuit Court Records Collection, 1777-1912. The grant provides for the processing and indexing of the Montgomery County Chancery Causes with an eye toward future digitization as well as the creation of electronic finding aids for the remaining loose historical court records found in the clerk’s office in Christiansburg. The project will utilize a new strategy for the LVA in that all work will be completed by professional archivists in the clerk’s office rather than at the Archives in Richmond.
The NHPRC recognized the national significance of the Montgomery County court records as the county was ideally situated on routes west to experience the travel and migration of people seeking opportunity, land, and adventure in the West. These court records also illuminate the lives of numerous under-documented populations and have national significance for researchers interested in the African American experience, women’s history, westward migration, and southern labor and business history in the antebellum and post-Civil War periods.
In their current state, the Montgomery County chancery records are only known and utilized by a select few historians and humanities researchers. When completed the Montgomery County Chancery Causes … read more »
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 … read more »
The Library of Virginia, in partnership with the Rockingham County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office, is pleased to announce that the indexing and digitization of Rockingham County’s historic chancery causes is now complete and available online through the Chancery Records Index on the LVA’s Virginia Memory site.
The RockinghamCounty chancery collection covers the years 1781 to 1913 and are a valuable source of local, state, social, and legal history. They often contain correspondence; property lists: including slaves; lists of heirs; and vital statistics that reveal detailed stories that help tell the story of Virginia. Cases contain useful biographical, genealogical, and historical information and document a broad spectrum of citizens—rich and poor, black and white, slave and free. (See this earlier blog post for a description of interesting suits covering the issue of slavery found in the chancery causes for the years 1781-1893.)
In addition, the economic boom of the 1880s, and subsequent bust that followed the Panic of 1893, plays out in the chancery causes. Suits 1903-128 and 1909-088 contain prospectuses laying out the grand plans of two land improvement companies that became casualties of that financial downturn. The schemes for new towns, grand hotels, and railroad lines in RockinghamCounty and other parts of the Valley collapsed along with the railroad and banking industries of the U. S., and the creditors and shareholders of the … read more »
Individuals today wishing to conduct research using Rockingham County court records may encounter a few stumbling blocks. Due to two major events in the locality’s history, Rockingham County is identified as one of Virginia’s Lost Record localities. The first loss of Rockingham records occurred in 1787 when a courthouse fire destroyed primarily wills and estate records. A second and even more devastating loss came during the Civil War.
In June 1864, with the threat of Union troops advancing into the valley, concerned citizens of the county wanted court records (mostly volumes) removed from the courthouse so that the records could not be destroyed. A judge granted permission for these records to be moved to a safer place east of the Blue Ridge. A teamster and wagon were hired to remove the records, but the wagon was left on the Port Republic-Forge road after a rim was lost and a tire came off. During this delay, Union troops spied the wagon and partially destroyed the records by setting fire to it. The mother of a Confederate soldier extinguished the fire by carrying water and smothering the fire with green hay just cut from a nearby field. She retrieved what was left of the records and took them to her home for safekeeping. The records remained at her home for quite some time, and because the … read more »