Category Archives: Local Records Blog Posts

- Keep Your Eyes Aloft


Looking to the skies in Richmond, Virginia, circa April 1941. Part of a series documenting the infrastructure of civil defense in Virginia during World War II, Virginia State Chamber of Commerce Photographs, Special Collections, Library of Virginia.

Seventy years ago in Greene County, Virginia, civilian volunteers began to look toward the skies and record their observations in a log book, a simple black and white composition book.   Somehow this log book ended up at the Greene County Courthouse and found its way into the Library of Virginia collections. Greene County residents, mostly women, sat for hours at a time watching the skies and recording the number of planes that passed overhead. Just how common was this practice during World War II?

Similar individuals, in observation posts up and down the East and West Coasts of the United States, used these logs while acting as airplane spotters.   As a defense against a potential German or Japanese air attack in World War II, the United States War Department established the Aircraft Warning Service (AWS) in May 1941.  The AWS combined volunteer observation posts and secret volunteer information and filter centers (largely staffed by women from the Aircraft Warning Corps) and was the civilian service of the Ground Observer Corps, a civil defense program of the United States Army Air Forces.

Along the East Coast from Maine to Florida and inland 400 miles, American Legion Posts set up observation posts six miles apart, in proximity to telephone lines and roads.  However, in most places, observers worked from any site that offered a clear and unobstructed … read more »

- Frederick Co. Chancery Goes Digital


Buggy advertisements found in Frederick County Chancery Cause Columbia Wagon Co. vs. John G. Crisman & Co., etc., 1903-058.

The Library of Virginia, in partnership with the Frederick County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office, is pleased to announce that the digitization of Frederick County’s historic chancery causes, 1860-1912, is now complete. Both the index and images are available to researchers via the Chancery Records Index on the LVA’s Virginia Memory site.

The Frederick County chancery collection covers the years 1745 through 1926 (with digital images posted from 1860 through 1912). The chancery, or equity cases, are a valuable source of local, state, social, and legal history and serve as a primary source for understanding a locality’s history. They often contain correspondence, property lists (including slaves), lists of heirs, and vital statistics that reveal details 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.

Frederick County Chancery Cause 1867-007, Administrator of Hiram A. Jordan vs. Margaret Swann, etc., tells the story of how prior to the Civil War, Catherine Jordan, a free African-American, purchased her husband, Sylvester, but never technically freed him, and their son who attempted to buy his wife. Chancery cause 1899-058, Board of Supervisors of Frederick County, etc. vs. City of Winchester, etc. chronicles a dispute over whether the city or the county controlled the court house property they read more »

- Kicking Up A Stink In Virginia Beach


Map of Virginia Beach Owned by the Norfolk and Virginia Beach Railroad and Improvement Company, Portsmouth City Chancery Cause 1911-015, A. Johnson Ackiss for etc. vs. E. H. Morrison.

Here at Out of the Box we’re still celebrating Archives Month 2013, and while getting ready for the Library of Virginia’s 30 October event “Homegrown: Celebrating Virginia’s Cultural Heritage in its Archives and Special Collections,” we’ve had many conversations about local food movements and urban farming.  Some issues that came up included land use and neighborhood development—especially when it comes to animals. Some people just don’t want a rooster or goat living next door. Livestock in the city limits is certainly not a strictly modern issue. In fact, we uncovered an early 20th-century Portsmouth City chancery cause in which a horse was causing problems in the summer resort town of Virginia Beach.

The Norfolk and Virginia Beach Railroad and Improvement Company purchased land in Princess Anne County in 1883 to create a “high order summer resort” called Virginia Beach.   The company hoped to attract refined and cultured people to purchase land to build cottages and residences. The original deeds sold by the company included seven covenants that were to be followed for the construction of buildings and use of the property.  One of the covenants forbade the building of public or private stables on the lots.   According to B. P. Holland, a real estate agent, the covenants were made “to have a high order of summer resorts and to do away with … read more »

- Georgia on my Mind

 

Marriage certificate published by N. Currier, circa 1848. (Image used courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.)

One day in 1898, A.M. Scales definitely did not have Georgia on his mind.

While processing the Patrick County chancery records, I discovered a divorce case, Georgia L. Scales, by etc. vs. A. M. Scales, in which Georgia, a white woman, caught her husband, A. M. Scales, committing adultery with their African American cook.  The chancery case describes Georgia as a loving wife who faithfully served her family—a stark contrast to Mr. Scales.

Throughout their ten years of marriage, according to the suit, A. M. Scales lived a carefree life filled with riotous living and degrading insults for Georgia.  He even asked merchants to not provide Georgia with credit for food and supplies leaving Georgia to despairingly provide for herself and her four children.  After doling out years of abuse, Mr. Scales was determined that Georgia wouldn’t amount to anything, so he decided to separate from her and their children on 24 September 1897.

Georgia was fine with the separation because, despite a lack of proof, she always suspected that her husband had an affair.  One day, Georgia’s suspicions proved true when she returned home from a prayer meeting and found her husband in the kitchen committing adultery with her cook.  After being caught in the act, Mr. Scales decided to contain his adulterous affairs to the privacy of a hotel.

Shortly thereafter, an African … read more »

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- Anatomy of a Marriage


Residence of Nannie and William Shelley, circa 1900s, Arlington County Chancery Cause Nannie R. Shelley vs. William C. Shelley, 1907-055.

Divorces reveal much about the inner-workings of a family, usually much more than outsiders should ever discover. While processing the Arlington County chancery causes, I came across a divorce case that filled two whole boxes. That’s .90 cubic feet of possible scandal and mayhem! The case Nannie R. Shelley vs. William C. Shelley, 1907-055, was quite the interesting case featuring interracial relationships, mental institutions, and an overly dramatic, possibly unstable daughter.

In 1907, Nannie Shelley sued for divorce, alleging infidelity and physical and mental abuse. She claimed William Shelley treated her not as a wife but as if she were a “despised and hated slave.” He forbade her any social relations and made her religion a “matter of scorn and ridicule.” He choked her and dragged her across the floor and finally threatened to kill her saying he would “try the McCue act on her.” (At the time of this divorce case, former Charlottesville mayor J. Samuel McCue’s alleged murder of his wife and subsequent trial was much in the news.)

Nannie suffered a nervous condition, supposedly as a result of her husband’s cruel treatment, that William used as an excuse to incarcerate her for three months in a “private mad house.” Although not declared legally insane, three doctors examined her and determined she suffered from paranoia. Nannie believed she ought to have been … read more »

- Buying and Selling Servants


Indenture between Patrick Larkin and Thomas Blood, 17 August 1766, Virginia Miscellany Legal Papers, 1657-1791, Private Papers Collection, Library of Virginia (Accession 24715).

Two types of immigrants came to America without paying their own passage—indentured servants and redemptioners. Indentured servants would sign a contract, called an indenture, before they sailed agreeing to serve for a period of years in exchange for passage to America. The term of service was typically between four to seven years. Redemptioners were a similar type of immigrant; however they made their agreement with the shipping merchant to be transported without paid passage. Upon landing in America, they were given a short period of time to find family or friends willing to pay all or part of their passage. If funds could not be secured, they then signed on as servants and their indentures could be sold in order to satisfy the debt.

The practice of buying and selling redemptioners and indentured servants can be found in Augusta County Chancery Cause James Kelzo, etc. vs. Samuel McChesney, 1796-008.  James Kelzo (spelled frequently as Kelso) and James Wilson of Augusta County and Samuel McChesney of Culpeper County formed a partnership to purchase and sell indentured servants.  Wilson and McChesney were to make the arrangements for selling the servants, and the partners agreed to divide the net profits equally among them.

With three men responsible for reporting accounts and divvying up profits, it wasn’t long before accusations of withholding funds landed the business partnership … read more »

- Stories of Surry Co.


Surry County (Image used courtesy of Historical Markers Database and Laura Troy.)

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 »

- Love hurts, love scars


Postcard, circa 1915. Permelia F. McKinney va. Frank Roberts, Petersburg (City) Judgments, 1915-1916, Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

The romantic landscape may seem ambiguous in 2013, but courtship in 19th-century Virginia was no different. Think those text messages are hard to decipher? Try reading an 1850s love letter full of rigid social etiquette. Dating and its inherent potential for rejection have always been hard. A letter found amongst chancery papers from Middlesex County attests to the fact that romantic rejection can happen to anyone, regardless of the time period.

One woman who had no use for ambiguity when it came to rejecting a would-be suitor was L. B. Powers. On 26 September 1849, she responded to Henry Sears’ letter requesting the “privilege of waiting on” her. She was to the point, not bothering to spare feelings, and offered up her reasons for refusing his courtship:

“I have no objection of your waiting on me but as you are in a hurry for a wife I think it is best for you to dispense with your conversation as I think there is no earthly chance of my agreeing with your proposal for it is something I never intend to give my consent to marry a man without I love them therefore I think it is best for us both to dispense with our writings and conversation as I cannot love you.

I do not think that my age will suit yours not

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- Slavery at Hampden-Sydney


Remains of a slave cabin located near Hampden-Sydney College's observatory. (Image taken by Elizabeth Baker and available on The Untold Story: Slavery and Black History of Hampden-Sydney College.)

Once a neglected subject, the role that African American slaves played in Southern colleges has become the focus of new research. Virginia being no exception, our oldest and most established institutions of higher learning such as the University of Virginia, William and Mary, and Hampden-Sydney College all relied on slaves for providing the colleges with necessary services.  Often, the slaveholders in neighboring areas allowed their own slaves to be hired out to the colleges as servants.  The slave’s master was then paid a salary, typically at a yearly rate, for the services that his slave provided to the college.  These African Americans worked to construct buildings, provide general upkeep and maintenance of the college grounds, and act as servants to faculty, students, and staff.

Found in the Library of Virginia’s Local Records Collections is a City of Lynchburg judgment, A. D. Dickinson vs. Hampden-Sydney College, which sheds light on this often under-studied type of Southern slavery.  In this case, A. D. Dickinson sued Hampden-Sydney College for not paying him the proper amount of money for the services that his slave, David Ross, provided the college.  Charles Martin, the college curator, and A. D. Dickinson agreed that Hampden-Sydney would pay Dickinson a yearly sum of $150 for Ross’s work.  The tasks that Ross was expected to fulfill were specified in the deposition given by Martin … read more »

- Arsenic, Lies, and Bigamy

 

Photograph of Junius R. Williamson, #9470, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs and Negatives, Box 130, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

Cornbread and cabbage turned lethal for one Petersburg woman, but it was another woman’s need for some chicken feed that exposed the death as something more nefarious than a simple case of food poisoning. Parmelia Williamson became “deathly sick” after consuming what proved to be her last meal on 9 June 1909. Junius Williamson, Parmelia’s husband, first used the word “poison” to describe his wife’s condition because he did “not think she washed the ham as it oughter [sic] have been.” Even Parmelia said “her stomach felt like it did when she was poisoned in the country.”

Attended by her husband and neighbor Delia Brooks, Parmelia was examined by a Dr. W. C. Powell who pronounced it a case of “Cholera Morbus,” but Parmelia insisted, “I have no Cholera Morbus, I am poisoned.”  He gave her a hypodermic injection, put hot water bottles to her feet, and left.  As she continued vomiting, her condition worsened, and she threw her arms up and said, “Delia, save me, do not let me die…save me for the sake of my poor little infant baby.”  Another doctor, James E. Smith, was called and pronounced that Mrs. Williamson would not live two hours and that she had been poisoned by arsenic or “Paris Green,” a compound used as an insecticide for produce in the 1900s. After she gasped … read more »

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