Tag Archives: Correspondence

- A Monument of Debt


Washington Monument, Carol M. Highsmith photographer, 2010. (Image used courtesy of George F. Landegger Collection of District of Columbia Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.)

The Washington Monument is finally reopening on 12 May 2014 after undergoing restoration for damage caused by an earthquake in August 2011. I was curious what the Library of Virginia had in its collections relating to the monument and discovered an interesting footnote to the history surrounding its construction. The Washington National Monument Society, a private organization formed in 1833 to fund and build the monument, solicited donations and designs for more than a decade before construction finally began in 1848. In 1854, the Society went bankrupt, leaving a partial structure that stood unfinished until Congress assumed the duties of funding and construction on 5 July 1876. Arlington County Judgment Samuel Harrison Smith vs. Thomas K. Beale, dated October 1838, sheds some light on why the Society found itself bankrupt.

The judgment concerns the work of James M. McRea, an agent for the Society sent to Alabama to solicit donations “for the erection of a great national monument to the memory of Washington at the seat of the Federal Government.” Included in the case are three letters sent by McRea during his travels in Alabama. In the first, dated 2 April 1836 and sent from the then state capitol, Tuscaloosa, we discover that McRea did not travel alone but took along his family, causing a delay in his journey when his children were “attacked … read more »

- Bad Romance


Postcard, Petersburg (Va.) Judgments, Permelia F. McKinney vs. Frank Roberts, Letters used as Exhibits, 1915-1916, Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I wanted to bring a bit of romance to Out of the Box, but when one spends her day working with historic court records, it’s rare to find evidence of a happy couple. In fact, I am convinced that there may never have been a sighting of connubial bliss in Virginia’s circuit court records. Divorce cases, however, are abundant, and this Petersburg couple never even made it to the altar before heading to the courthouse in 1916.

A recently widowed Permelia F. McKinney, born in Connecticut around 1880, met grocery store owner Frank Roberts while visiting friends in Petersburg. Little is known about their initial meeting, but after her return to Connecticut, the two commenced a courtship conducted entirely through letters, with correspondence dating from 4 January 1915 through 26 July 1916. During their year and a half courtship, one would hope for a steamy love affair conducted in the written word, but the couple’s correspondence was tame, with most letters filled with longing to see each other while making plans for Permelia to head south.  On 7 March 1915, Frank wrote, “I for one would like to see you here among us,” but first it was too cold for Permelia to travel, then too hot. It seemed that Permelia would never make her way back to Petersburg.… read more »

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- The Women of Smithfield


Portrait of Susanna Smith Preston by Jeremiah Deus at Smithfield Plantation in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Processing of the Montgomery County chancery began in August 2013, and one of the early finds was Chancery Cause 1848-016, Letitia Floyd vs. Executors of Elizabeth Madison, which involved two locally well-known Virginia families, the Prestons and Floyds.  While much of the history of these families revolves around the military, economic, and political exploits of the men, this particular suit reveals great politicking among the females as well. Additionally, this case permits researchers to evaluate changes in women’s economic and social status over several generations.

William Preston, an Irish immigrant who arrived in Virginia in 1737, moved to western Virginia and became a surveyor in Augusta and Botetourt Counties.  He fought in the French and Indian War, became an officer in the colonial militia, and eventually served in the House of Burgesses and as a sheriff and surveyor in Fincastle County. In 1775, he signed the Fincastle Resolutions and helped to recruit soldiers for the militia, ultimately serving as a colonel in the newly-created regiment mustered from Montgomery County.  Preston and his friend and fellow surveyor, John Floyd, (among others) advanced land claims for prominent Virginians by surveying tracts (legally and illegally) in Kentucky.

Numerous local and area histories celebrate adventurers and pioneers but few of these accounts consider the experiences of the women who carved out a home for their families in the … read more »

- 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 »

- 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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- “My Dearest Miss Lura:” Lunenburg Letters Illuminate a Long and Unlikely Love Affair


Photograph of Vladimir Sournin at work as a cartographer, undated. (Lura Royall and Vladimir Sournin Correspondence, 1904-1925, Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia.)

Lura Royall was a Lunenburg County girl. Her relatives remember her as a pretty woman who never married—a retired school teacher full of life well into old age. But there was a part of her life that remained a secret from her living relatives. It was a secret recently revealed in 97 letters and postcards, written across a span of 21 years, to her from a Russian émigré, Vladimir Sournin, her fiancé.

These letters, part of several cubic feet of papers left in the old courthouse by former Lunenburg County clerk John L. Yates, were stashed among bills, statements, and personal business correspondence. How the letters ended up in Yates’ file cabinets is uncertain, but they reveal an on-again-off-again relationship between Vladimir and Lura that started in 1898 and lasted until at least 1925.

Vladimir Sournin’s life is a little known historical footnote now, but he was no ordinary man. Ambitious and talented, his career and interests led him to three continents where his path intersected with major world events and some of the most well-known people of his day.  His letters reveal him to be supremely confident in his abilities and fearless in attempts to achieve his goals. This same persistence is evident in his effort to woo Lura Royall.

Sournin was born in 1875 into a military family in Mstislavl, Russia. In St. … read more »

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- All I Want For Christmas Is…


Cover of Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, 12 December 1907. (Image used courtesy Library of Virginia Special Collections.)


Children mailing Santa Claus letters from the Virginia State Chamber of Commerce Collection, circa 1930s. (Image used courtesy Library of Virginia Special Collections.)

On 16 December 1895, 12-year-old Mamie M. Yates wrote a letter to Santa Claus. It read:

Dear Santa Claus,

I will write to you to tell you what I want you to bring me. I want a sled and Robinson Crusoe and a pair of nice gloves and some ribbon for my hair and a writing tablet and some candy, oranges, nuts, raisins, banannas [sic] and caramels and apples and a cap for my doll.

Your little girl,

Mamie M. Yates

The letter did not make it to the North Pole. It somehow ended up in the Lunenburg County courthouse filed in the clerk’s records and became part of the Lunenburg County (Va.) Clerk’s Records of John L. Yates, 1878-1934 circa (Barcode 1046171). John L. Yates, Mamie’s father, was the circuit court clerk for Lunenburg County at the time the letter was written. Although the letter did not reach its destination, I’m sure Santa had a good idea about what to bring Mamie for Christmas.

-Greg Crawford, Local Records Coordinator… read more »

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- #election1860


Abraham Lincoln campaign banner for the 1860 presidential election. (Imaged used courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.)

On 13 November 1860, J.S. Moore of Indiana wrote a letter to his Virginia relative Doctor Thomas Moore. Much of the letter has to do with health matters and the vibrant Indiana economy. The “Indiana Moore” then turned his attention to the recent 1860 presidential election. He provides “Virginia Moore” his thoughts on Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and who was responsible for the secession crisis pervading the nation at the time.

“I suppose Lincoln is elected President and report says the result has created a consternation in the South and an effort is being made to adopt a plan for secession. It does appear to me that it is folly and madness on their part to attempt resistance at all events until Lincoln or his party is guilty of an overt act that would justify such a procedure if justifiable it could be. I know that Mr. Lincoln holds today principles that you and I use to battle for under the leadership of Henry Clay.

And I do say when the Republican Party is assailed the assault is not made on their principles but a misrepresentation of those principles and I hold the Democratic Party responsible for the ill feeling engendered both North and South. They persist in saying here at home that the Republican Party proposes to make war on

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- 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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- “Have you any wool? Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full!”



The wool of Merino sheep was highly prized and for centuries the flocks were not allowed to be exported from their home in Spain. One of the few individuals to get Merinos into the United States was U.S. minister to Spain David Humphreys, who imported twenty-five rams and seventy-five ewes to his home in Connecticut in 1802. The Library of Virginia has a copy of Humphreys’s 1804 book The miscellaneous works of David Humphreys, late minister plenipotentiary —to the court of Madrid, which contains an essay on Merino sheep. Thomas Jefferson was also particularly interested in the improvements of sheep herds and by 1810 had acquired his own herd of Merino sheep. The demand for Merinos soon reached manic proportions, a bubble was created, and like all bubbles there was a crash. (For more on this subject see Monticello’s article on sheep.)

Amongst the Cowling Papers found in the City of Richmond records is a letter dated 14 August 1827 from William DuVal (1748-1842), a Virginia lawyer, legislator, and planter, to Willis Cowling (1788-1828), a Richmond cabinetmaker. Enclosed in the letter is a sample of Merino wool. DuVal wrote to ask Cowling if he would sell two hundred pounds of Merino wool to buy material for slave clothing. Cowling was a good choice for carrying out DuVal’s request as he regularly dealt with merchants … read more »

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