Category Archives: Chancery Court Blog Posts

- Apocalypse Not


Title page of the pamphlet written by Nimrod Hughes warning of the end of times in 1812, Library of Virginia Special Collections Call Number BT875.H8 1811. (Image used courtesy of Library of Virginia Special Collections.)

Since the apocalypse of 2012 was a no-show, I decided to bring a little doomsday out from the archives to celebrate the start of the New Year. Fretting over the Mayan calendar was the apocalypse du jour of 2012, but back in 1812, the doomsday prophecies of Nimrod Hughes created quite the stir in Southwest Virginia.

Nimrod Hughes came to our attention here in Local Records Services during the processing of the Roanoke County chancery causes. In an estate dispute, Fanny R. Johnston, etc. vs. Executor of Nathaniel Burwell, etc., 1880-044, Nathaniel Burwell stands accused of selling and hiring out slaves inherited by his wife Lucy from her father, Charles Carter. According to their marriage contract, any profits from a sale were to remain with Lucy Burwell’s dower, but Nathaniel Burwell allegedly sold the slaves for his own benefit to purchase some land. The outcome of the case hinged on the date the land was purchased, and here is where Nimrod Hughes comes into the story. Many of those deposed in the chancery cause remembered the date of purchase because it occurred on 4 June 1812—the day Hughes declared would see the destruction of mankind.

Confined to Abingdon prison on 4 June 1808 for a crime he “detested” and claimed to be completely innocent of, Nimrod Hughes spent the ten months and nine days … read more »

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- The Correct Answer Is, “I Do”



The Ebony Bridal -- Wedding Ceremony in the Cabin, engraving from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 19 August 1871. (Image used courtesy of Library of Virginia Special Collections.)

“It was a hot summer day on August 5, 1865, when George Kiner and Diana Bumgardner arrived at the courthouse in Augusta County, Virginia, to apply for a marriage license. They brought with them an order from Capt. John Collins, Provost Marshall, directing the court to issue the license as ‘they being in all respects entitled to such license.’ While there were other couples that day applying for marriage licenses, George and Diana were the only couple with such an order. This was indeed a historical event as they were the first African American couple to be issued a marriage license in Augusta County.”

-African American Marriage Index 1865-1899, Augusta County, Virginia

At first glance the story of George Kiner and Diana Bumgardner is one of love triumphing over the tragedies of slavery and war. But documents found in the Augusta County Chancery Causes reveal not a lovely wedding born of true love, but a shotgun affair with a groom forced to the altar at gunpoint. In his bill for divorce filed in the Augusta County courts in February 1866, George Coiner (the predominant spelling in court documents was Coiner, but Kiner and Koiner were also used) painted a less than idealistic picture of his wedding day. George Coiner, a former slave, was working in a field when two armed soldiers, one white and the … read more »

- You Have No Right: Jane Webb’s Story


Slave Woman and Child, undated. (Image used courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.)

The colonial era Northampton County court records tell a fascinating story of a woman named Jane Webb. Born of a white mother, she was a free mulatto, formerly called Jane Williams. In 1704, Jane Webb had “a strong desire to intermarry with a certain negro slave … commonly called and known by the name of Left.” Webb informed Left’s owner Thomas Savage, a gentleman of Northampton County, of her desire to marry Left and made an offer to Savage. She would be a servant of Savage’s for seven years and would let Savage “have all the children that should be bornd [sic] upon her body during the time of [Jane’s] servitude,” but for how long the children were to be bound is not clear. In return, Savage would allow Jane Webb to marry his slave, and after Jane’s period of servitude ended, Savage would free Left. Also, neither Savage nor his heirs could claim any child born to Jane Webb and Left after her period of servitude. Savage agreed to Jane Webb’s offer, and an agreement was written and signed by both parties.

Jane Webb fulfilled her part of the agreement and served Savage for seven years. During that time, she had three children by her husband Left—Diana or Dinah Webb, Daniel Webb, and Francis Webb. After she completed her term of service in 1711, … read more »

- Lee Co. Chancery Goes Digital!


First issue of Emory and Henry College's the Emory and Henry Casket, John Slack vs. John W. Carnes, etc., Lee County Chancery Cause 1882-052.

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images for Lee County Chancery Causes, 1857-1912, are now available on the Chancery Records Index. Because they rely so heavily on the testimony of witnesses, chancery causes contain a wealth of historical and genealogical information and are especially useful when researching local, state, social, and legal history. The Lee County chancery collection offers a glimpse of life in Lee County during the 19th and early-20th centuries by documenting the African American experience, women’s history, Southern business and labor history, and the impact the railroad’s arrival had on a region. Following are a few suits of interest found in the collection.

Lee County chancery causes contain several suits illustrating the experiences of women in the westernmost part of the commonwealth. In Mary V. Pennington by etc. vs. M. C. Parsons, etc., 1887-019, Mary Pennington sought to gain control over land gifted to her by her father. The land was being sold by her husband, William Pennington, who had become “indebted and greatly embarrassed.” In 1907, Elizabeth Smith faced a similar dilemma. Elizabeth R. Smith vs. J. K. P. Legg, etc., 1907-045, protested the sale of Smith’s land sold for a set of blacksmith tools. Elizabeth Smith did not agree to the sale, but her husband, Samuel L. Smith, “commenced … read more »

- “Dead! And Never Called Me Mother!”


Movie poster for the 1931 film adaptation of East Lynne, starring Ann Harding and Clive Brook and directed by Frank Lloyd.

“Jugglery, slight of hand [sic], comic concerts, and songs” brought the congregation of Centenary Methodist Church and members of the Sons of Temperance, Pendleton Division No. 22, to the Lynchburg courts in 1881. In Peleg Seabury, etc. vs. E. A. Emerson, etc., 1881-030, the plaintiffs and defendants argued over the proper use of Halcombe Hall. Congregation members complained that the hall was rented out and “filled up for a public exhibition house, for theatricals, and concerts,” but the Sons of Temperance deny any intention of allowing it to be used for a “demoralizing tendency.”

The church purchased Halcombe Hall to promote the “cause of temperance” and objected to its use for such entertainments – especially the play, East Lynne, performed there by the Fay Templeton Star Alliance. The Sons of Temperance countered that East Lynne had “frequently been performed in said hall before the intelligent people of this city who have never pronounced it demoralizing” and that the “performance is of an elevating and refining tendency, and will not injure the morals of any, not even of those whose morals are unhealthy and have a natural demoralizing tendency.”

So what was this play that caused such concern in Lynchburg? Was it so very demoralizing? The play, based on a popular English sensation novel of 1861 written by Ellen Wood, saw many … read more »

- July 4th Contest Decided in Local Court


High diver Beatrice Kyle (1902-1970) standing by a fire engine at the Society Circus held at Fort Myer, Virginia, 25 April 1924. (Image public domain/Press photograph from the National Photograph Company Collection at the Library of Congress)

The chancery causes we encounter usually involve disputes over lands, estates, and businesses, but occasionally we stumble upon cases that can only be categorized as bizarre. One such oddity found in the chancery collections is a dispute over the winner of a contest held during Harrisonburg’s Fourth of July celebration in 1893. There are many traditions involved in marking the independence of the United States – hot dogs, baseball, parades, and, of course, fireworks. The Harrisonburg celebration included among those traditions a hose contest participated in by local fire companies.  However, the outcome of this particular Fourth of July diversion was not  resolved until two years later in the Rockingham County chancery court when Hose Company No. 4 brought suit against Hose Company No. 1, Hose Company No. 2, and the Harrisonburg Guards, who hosted the event (Rockingham County Chancery Cause 1895-043).

For the hose contest, squads of fifteen men from each of the companies were to start from a given point, run a distance of 100 yards with their hose carts on which was to be reeled 200 feet of hose, unreel and disconnect 150 feet of hose, fix a nozzle upon one end of the hose, connect the other end with a fire plug, and “throw water.” A prize of $30.00 was to be given to the company whose squad accomplished the test … read more »

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- Augusta Co. Chancery Reveals Pioneer Stories of Western Virginia


Letter to the editor of an unkwown newspaper written by a young lawyer requesting to write a weekly column on the history of Augusta County, Augusta County Chancery Cause 1842-042.

“In the time worn and musty old folios long since filed away in our public offices, there is many a fact recorded that has occured [sic] under the personal observation of no one now living; and which if placed within the reach of the public, would go farther to give us a knowledge of the manners, customs, and character of the pioneers of Augusta County than all the histories that have been written on our native state.”

These words were written by a young lawyer who was researching court records filed in the Augusta County courthouse in the early 1830’s. He was amazed by the amount of history found in the old court papers. He discovered stories about the first settlers of western Virginia and the many obstacles they encountered in their efforts to start a new life in an untamed wilderness. He read about events that happened during the French and Indian War and Revolutionary War. The young lawyer came across suits in which the litigants talked about their migration down the Shenandoah Valley from western Pennsylvania to Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia. Mesmerized by what he was reading, the young lawyer wanted to make his discoveries in the court records available to the public, and so, he wrote a letter to the editor of an unidentified newspaper requesting a weekly column in which he … read more »

- You Are Not The Father


Photograph of Josephine Kelly's son submitted as evidence to prove that the baby's father must be an African American, Prince George County Chancery Cause 1893-001, Thomas P. Kelly vs. Josephine Kelly.

The Prince George County chancery causes are filled with numerous divorce cases involving cheating spouses and adulterous affairs, but in the case of Thomas P. Kelly vs. Josephine Kelly, 1893-001, there is also a bit of baby daddy drama. The divorce suit involves Norfolk native Thomas Kelly, who had been for many years enlisted as a machinist in the United States Navy. During the year 1888, Thomas Kelly was stationed on board the monitor fleet lying at anchor at City Point in Prince George County.  There he met Josephine Hodges, who was sixteen years of age.  As Kelly would later testify in the chancery cause, their relationship began as a friendship and culminated in intimacy. Kelly confessed  that he had sexual intercourse with her on or about the 17th day of June 1888 and also with more or less frequency from that date until he was transferred with the fleet to Richmond in October of the same year. 

About the first of January 1889, Thomas was informed that Josephine was pregnant and that her condition was attributed to him.  Her friends and her mother’s friends, including the pastor of her church, made repeated and urgent endeavors to have Thomas agree to marry her, but as there had been no promise of marriage and no undue advantage taken by him, he refused to comply … read more »

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- Petersburg Chancery Digital Project Now Complete


Plat showing the Virginia Passenger and Power Company's leased, operated, and independent lines in the cities of Richmond and Manchester, Petersburg Chancery Cause George E. Fisher for etc. vs. Virginia Passenger & Power Co. etc., 1907-055.

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce the completion of the Petersburg chancery causes digital project. The scanning project was funded by the Circuit Court Records Preservation Program along with a $155,071 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The collection has been digitized from 1787 through 1912 and the images added to the Chancery Records Index. The most recently added suits cover the years 1889-1912.

The following are a few suits of interest found in the newly added Petersburg chancery digital images. 

In chancery cause 1907-055, George E. Fisher, for, etc. vs. Virginia Passenger & Power Company, etc., the plaintiffs ask the court to take over the floundering Virginia Passenger & Power Company in order to protect their financial stake in the business. The suit contains numerous exhibits including plats (images 616, 2030, 2032), minutes from board of directors’ and stockholders’ meetings (images 1878 and 1673). In 1908-034, John F. Crowder, etc. vs. Eli Tartt, etc., the suit stems from the unhappiness of the First Baptist (Colored) Church members with their pastor Eli Tartt. The plaintiffs wanted the court to remove Tartt as pastor of the church and their bill of complaint gives an account of a church meeting that became so uncontrollable that local police had to be called in to restore order (image 7). Crowder, … read more »

- Dear Uncle…


Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River in Alabama. (Image used courtesy of United States National Park Service.)

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. A conflict associated with the War of 1812 was the Creek War, fought mainly in Alabama which at the time was part of the Mississippi Territory. Recently, I came across a letter dated 9 April 1814 used as an exhibit in Lynchburg Chancery Cause 1815-002, Peter Detto vs. Heirs of Caleb Tait, etc. It referenced the last and most famous battle of the Creek War, the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, fought only a couple of weeks before the letter was written. Waddy Tate, a recent Virginia emigrant to the Mississippi Territory, wrote the letter to his uncle Caleb Tate to clarify a misunderstanding concerning a deed to a lot of land in Lynchburg that was the source of the dispute in the chancery cause. Caleb believed his nephew had recorded the deed but Waddy informed his uncle that he had not because “our Judicial proceedings were all for a time suspended” because of the “Indian War.” But now that the “brave Genl. [Andrew] Jackson” had arrived, the courts were back in session and he would be sure to record the deed soon. Waddy concluded his letter by describing in a florid style General Andrew Jackson’s victory over the Creeks at Horseshoe Bend:

“General Jackson on the 27th last

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