Tag Archives: circuit court records

- The Courthouse Adventures of Morgan P. Robinson


Martinsville courthouse.

In 1915, Richmond native Morgan P. Robinson became the chief of the Archives Department at the Virginia State Library (now the Library of Virginia); three years later he was appointed the first state archivist. Almost immediately he began surveying the city and county courthouses to determine the completeness of their holdings. During these examinations he also rated the environmental conditions at each facility and noted whatever other observations struck him. He was sometimes assisted in this endeavor by the clerks, who supplied him with inventories and other information about their records. Many times, however, he received field reports from Milnor Ljungstedt, a seasoned genealogist from New England who assisted him with his inspections. How Robinson and Ljungstedt began working together and what her official role was remains something of a mystery.

With dates ranging from 1915 to 1929, these courthouse surveys consist of a collection of files for each of the inspected Virginia localities which had surviving reports. Now housed at the Library of Virginia, the surveys vary in size and completeness from almost nothing to huge inventories and everything in between. A typical file contains a brief report by either Ljungstedt or Robinson and a few photographs to document the inspection. The reports were often scribbled on an envelope that presumably held the small photographs taken during the on-site visits.

Both Robinson and Ljungstedt … read more »

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- Court Records Preservation Pioneers: Martha Woodroof Hiden


Portrait of Martha Hiden, Courtesy of Newport News Public Library.

The naming of the local history and genealogy reading room at Newport News Public Library after Martha Woodroof Hiden is well deserved. Born in Orange County, Virginia, in 1883, Hiden graduated from Randolph-Macon College and went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago and The College of William & Mary. In 1909 she married Philip W. Hiden, who became the first mayor of Newport News, the city where she spent the rest of her life. She ran her husband’s business after his death in 1936, and went on to serve as a member of the board of visitors at William & Mary, an executive at the Virginia Historical Society, and a board member of the Virginia State Library (now the Library of Virginia). An accomplished and scholarly researcher, she authored numerous reviews, articles, and books on Virginia history and genealogy.

With all those accomplishments, however, her work with Virginia city and county court records might be her most important achievement. More than most, she understood the historical significance of the records and their need to be preserved. Among her writing on Virginia history, she published essays on court records, outlining the importance of each of the “classes” or record groups, explaining their use and purpose as few had done before, and laying the groundwork for social historians of the future. In her aptly … read more »

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- Virginia Untold: Freedom Suits

This is the first in a series of blog posts on the record types found in the forthcoming Library of Virginia research database: Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative. The initial database release will be on 1 February 2016.


Detail. Published by the American Anti-Slavery Society,

Enslaved African Americans in antebellum Virginia attempted to secure their freedom in many ways. The violent, armed uprisings led by Nat Turner and Gabriel loom large in historical memory, and the historical record is littered with stories of runaway slaves stealing off in the night to seek freedom with the help of the Underground Railroad. However, the narratives of enslaved individuals who used the law to secure their freedom are frequently missing from this dialogue. The Library of Virginia’s collection of freedom suits helps to illuminate these stories.

Enslaved Virginians could petition the court for their freedom “forma pauperis” based on a few different claims. Since free or enslaved status in antebellum Virginia was based on the status of the mother, petitioners often sued on the basis that they were born of a free woman. In many cases these suits involve individuals claiming descent from a Native American. After 1788, slaveholders who brought slaves to Virginia when resettling from another state were required to register their slaves with the county court and sign an oath stating that they had not brought them for the purpose of … read more »

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- Sometimes You DO Find a Needle in a Haystack: The Augusta Co. Cohabitation Register


Augusta County courthouse, ca. 1910.

Cohabitation registers are among the most important genealogical resources for African-Americans attempting to connect their family lines back through the murky past to their enslaved ancestors.  The registers date from 1866 and provide a snapshot in time for the individuals recorded therein and provide a wealth of information that may otherwise be impossible, or at least very difficult, to uncover.  Historians are also interested in the registers because of what the registers might say about a particular community of people at a time when great changes had come about as a result of the Civil War and the end of slavery.  Locating the complete Augusta County Cohabitation Register took persistence, determination and luck.  The concerted effort of the circuit court clerk’s office and the Library of Virginia’s Local Records staff working together solved this nearly 150 year old mystery.

In 2007 Augusta County Circuit Court Clerk John Davis informed LVA staff that four cohabitation sheets had been discovered in his office . Officially titled the Register of Colored Persons of Augusta County, Virginia, Cohabiting Together as Husband and Wife on February 27th, 1866, a cohabitation register was the legal vehicle by which former slaves legitimized both their marriages and their children. The information about an individual person contained in the cohabitation register is literally priceless as it is often the first time … read more »

- Dinwiddie County Resources Online


Seal of Dinwiddie County

Recently, the Library of Virginia’s Local Records Services staff visited the Dinwiddie County Circuit Court Clerk’s office in preparation for the spring grants cycle of the Circuit Court Records Preservation  (CCRP) program. While discussing the records available in the records room at the courthouse, Clerk of the Circuit Court Barrett Chappell, Jr., informed us that his office has provided free online access to some historical Dinwiddie County documents. These records include a surveyor’s plat book (1752-1865), Works Progress Administration historical inventory, Board of Supervisors books (1870-2004), book of fiduciaries (1871-1904), land tax records (1782-1875), and a compilation of land tax, grant, and patent records (1752-1820). In addition, Chappell will be adding additional records as they are preserved and digitized in the coming years with funding provided by Dinwiddie County. He foresees adding orders books that range in date from 1789 to 1900 and a marriage register dated 1867-1874 by June 2015.

In addition to the Dinwiddie County chancery causes digitized and made freely available online by the CCRP, these records may be of particular interest to those researching Dinwiddie County history or family connections. The records might also be useful to persons determining modern boundary lines or other property issues.

The records are available from the Dinwiddie County website. We thank Mr. Chappell for sharing news of this resource with us, and appreciate his … read more »

- Madison County Chancery Causes Online


Genealogical chart, ca. 1838, Madison County, chancery causes, 1839-004, Joseph Hume vs. Exrs. of Joseph Clark, etc., Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images for Madison County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1794-1912, are now available online through the Chancery Records Index on LVA’s Virginia Memory website. Chancery cases are useful when researching local history, genealogical information, and land or estate divisions. They are a valuable source of local, state, social, and legal history and serve as a primary source for understanding a locality’s history.

Following are a few suits of interest found in the Madison County chancery collection. Exrs. of Robert Beverley vs. Mackenzie Beverley, 1803-003, is a dispute over the estate of Robert Beverley of Blandfield Plantation. Simon B. Chapman vs. John Wright, etc., 1818-002, concerns a contract for substitute militia service during the War of 1812 and discusses some generalities about the war. In Joseph Hume vs. Exrs of Joseph Clark, etc., 1839-004, the court had to differentiate between relatives of Ambrose Clark who were of the “whole blood” and those of the “half-blood.”  A genealogical chart illustrating this differentiation was filed with the suit.

One chancery suit of particular interest is Henry Hill vs. Humphrey Taylor, 1844-008. Hill and Taylor were business partners engaged “in the business of buying slaves in the state of Virginia … … read more »

- Montgomery County’s Prairie Flower Boys


The Moonbeam, page 005.

In the courthouses of Virginia, one can often find records that are not and were never under the official purview of the clerks of the court.  Newspapers, church minutes, private papers, and other records of these kinds turn up as the collections are searched by today’s researchers.  The private papers of Charles J. Callison are an example of one such find in the Montgomery County Circuit Court records. Discovered in a file cabinet drawer of court judgments and estate bonds, the Callison papers consist of two issues of a handwritten newsletter titled “The Moonbeam,” two bound booklets, and a loose sheet of paper.  Most of these seem to have been composed when Callison was a child or at least a young man.  They concern his interests in hunting, nature, and wild adventure stories.  There is no discernible reason why these papers should have found their way into the courthouse, but it is delightful to us that they did.

According to the 1880 federal census, Charles J. Callison was born in Virginia.  Eighteen years of age at that time, he lived at home in Montgomery County with his parents and his five brothers and sisters.  His father, Isaac, was a shoemaker according to the 1880 census and a farmer according to the 1900 census.  Other information about Callison is thin on the ground.  He served in … read more »

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- Stafford County Chancery Goes Digital


Stafford anniversary logo

2014 has been a special year filled with special events for Stafford County. Celebrating its 350th anniversary, the county held numerous community-based historical celebrations to mark the occasion.  On January 4, some 4,300 people kicked off the commemoration with an inaugural event—complete with an interactive history tent and a “live history timeline” enacted by elementary students. Founders Day festivities, held May 3-4, gathered together 59 groups with 655 participants to showcase different aspects of the county’s history—with a parade, history square, and county-wide school fine arts program. Close to 13,000 people turned out for this unique sesquarcentennial jubilee. The Local Records Services branch of the Library of Virginia was selected to participate and staff a table displaying mounted reproductions of county documents found in its archival collections.

Individuals researching Stafford County history know that it is a locality that has experienced a massive loss of its loose records and volumes. Helping provide a context for earlier surviving documents (see the Lost Localities Digital Collection) as well as adding to the county’s ongoing story, the digital images for the Stafford County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1866-1912, are now available online through the Chancery Records Index on the Library of Virginia’s Virginia Memory site. Because these documents rely so heavily on the testimony of witnesses, chancery causes contain a wealth of historical and genealogical information … read more »

- New Images Added to the Lost Records Digital Collection


Plat of Bell's Cold Comfort Estate, 1840, in Buckingham County found in Nelson County Chancery Causes, 1841-071, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

Additional document images from counties or incorporated cities classified as “Lost Records Localities” have been added to the Lost Records Localities Digital Collection available on Virginia Memory.  The bulk of the additions are copies of wills, deeds, and estate records of members of the Bell family from Buckingham County; these items were used as exhibits in the Nelson County Chancery Cause 1841-071, William Scruggs and wife, etc., versus Rebecca Branch, etc. The wills of Frederick Cabell, Dougald Ferguson, and William Woods–all recorded in Buckingham County and all exhibits in other Nelson County chancery suits–have been added as well. One document from Buckingham County was found in City of Lynchburg court records. It is an apprenticeship indenture dated 1812, made between Clough T. Amos and Betsy Scott, a free African American. Amos was to instruct Scott’s son Wilson “in the art and mystery of a waterman in navigating [the] James river above the falls at the city of Richmond.”

Documents from other Lost Records Localities used as exhibits in Middlesex County chancery suits have been added as well. They include the will of Edward Waller, recorded in Gloucester County; the wills of Patsy Wiatt and James Christian, recorded in King and Queen County; a deed between Henry Cooke and wife to William Taylor, recorded in King and Queen County; and the will and estate … read more »

- The Jury’s Gut Feeling: Bedford County Coroner’s Inquisitions


coronersinquest

A recent episode of BackStory With the American History Guys entitled “On The Take” addressed the topic of corruption in American politics and government. Host Brian Balogh interviewed legal scholar Nicholas Parrillo, who pointed out that, in an effort to prevent such corruption around the turn of the 20th century, government officials’ salaries were often paid through the fees and fines that they levied. Essentially, they were paid on commission. Some coroner’s inquest records from Bedford County recently brought that practice to light.

On 30 May 1890, jurors selected to inquire into the death of James Brown, a resident of Bedford County’s Big Island, were stumped. After reviewing the evidence, half of the jury thought that the deceased came to his death by poison, and the other half thought the cause of death was unknown.  They all agreed on one thing –that Brown had shown symptoms of having been poisoned, and they wanted his stomach analyzed.

Apparently, what they wanted was expensive and somewhat complicated. State Assayer and Chemist Dr. William H. Taylor wrote from his laboratory at 606 E. Grace St. in Richmond, Virginia, a letter that described exactly how much it would cost and what he would need. He explained that the fee for the stomach analysis was $200, and that the State would only cover $25 of the cost, … read more »

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