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.
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 »
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was called to a meeting in the Library’s Special Collections reading room on a busy day in September 2014. A certain amount of skullduggery and mystery surrounded the parlay with staff from a yet-to-be-identified TV show about genealogy. Already other Library of Virginia staff members had unearthed a set of documents that related to a certain Benjamin Sharpe from a remote section of Virginia. I was to provide context with a few of my colleagues. The meeting went smoothly enough—a free-ranging discussion of the election of 1800, life in a remote section of Virginia, and slavery in the Appalachian region. Did I know a historian who could speak on camera with the show’s star for filming? Certainly. I recommended a few names and returned to my work.
A few days later the e-mail arrived. Would I be the foil for the unnamed actor? I was surprised and flattered, as I recall, but also a bit wary of the assignment. Having some familiarity with shows of this type, I felt hesitant. Such TV episodes, like a movie or any other kind of storytelling, must have a narrative arc. Having been a “talking head” for many documentaries and short media pieces, I realized that my part would be boiled down and edited to serve that narrative. I do the … read more »
“All eastern Virginians are Shintoists under the skin. Genealogy makes history personal to them in terms of family. Kinship to the eighth degree usually is recognized.”
—Douglas Southall Freeman, “The Spirit of Virginia,” in Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion
Those born in Virginia (or those who have lived here for any length of time) will either nod approvingly or roll their eyes at this quip by the famed historian and biographer Douglas Southall Freeman. The mind easily turns to Virginians bowing down at the sacred altars of their ancestors. Being a New Englander with a long lineage in this country, I can appreciate the sentiment. My own father at one time presided over the Kimball Family Association, which, because of Brigham Young’s lieutenant Heber Kimball from Vermont, likely has as many members in Utah as in New England. And we know that genealogy is serious business there!
But it was not always so. America’s complicated relationship with family history stems from our founding, when the new country’s leaders consciously threw off the chains of hereditary rights and aristocracy. George Mason asserted this sentiment in the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776: “That no Man, or Set of Men are entitled to exclusive or separate Emoluments or Privileges from the Community, but in Consideration of public Services; which not being descendible, neither ought the … read more »
The conservation of the original pages of the Henry County Cohabitation Register has recently been completed. Previously, only a poorly and confusingly microfilmed version of this register was available for researchers and was the only option to be digitized for inclusion in the cohabitation register digitization project via Virginia Memory. Thanks to the diligent efforts of Vickie Stone Helmstutler, the Henry County Circuit Court clerk, the original register pages were located in the courthouse and sent to the Library for conservation. The conserved pages of the register were digitized and the digitized microfilm images have been replaced with images of the conserved original document. We hope that researchers find these images a great improvement over the others, which were dark and difficult to read.
A comparison of pictures taken before and after conservation reveals the improvements made to the damaged original document. Library of Virginia conservator Leslie Courtois dry cleaned the paper surfaces, humidified and flattened creases and crumpled edges, then repaired tears and losses with Japanese tissue and deacidified the document.
To get a better idea of what these conservation processes look like, please view the YouTube video made about conservation undertaken in 2011 on the cohabitation register from Montgomery County. The Henry County Cohabitation Register is now in a stable and preserved state which will allow this very valuable record to exist for … read more »
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 »
Posted in Chancery Court Blog Posts, Local Records Blog Posts
Also tagged in: circuit court records, Circuit Court Records Preservation Program, Louisiana, Madison County, Mississipp, National Endowment for the Humanities, New Orleans, RVAslavetrade, slave trade, slavery
The varied experience of the African American residents of Montgomery County, Virginia, reveals itself in many documentary sources, but perhaps none as unexpected to some researchers as in the chancery causes. As a preview of the upcoming workshop “Researching Your African American Ancestors: Genealogy to 1870” scheduled to be held at the Christiansburg Public Library on 19 July 2014, here follow five examples from the Montgomery County chancery causes highlighting different facets of African American life over the span of 100 years.
Whether as slaves or free persons of color, African Americans arrived in the western parts of Virginia as soon as the area began to be settled by easterners. The earliest chancery suit with an identified free person is suit 1819-016, Lewis Garner vs. Peter Hance. Peter Hance executed a bond to Garner, “a man of color” for $49.75 in 1813. Garner then lost the note and Hance refused to honor the debt. Garner filed suit against Hance to clarify the circumstances of the debt, the loss of the note, and to collect what he was owed. The suit was dismissed at the request of the plaintiff in 1819.
Slaves appear throughout the chancery suits in many different situations, most commonly in an estate settlement suit when the slaves are divided among heirs or sold to pay debts. Chancery cause 1847-015, Ann Trigg, … read more »
The Library of Virginia is pleased to welcome the National Genealogical Society 2014 Family History Conference to Richmond, Virginia, 7-10 May. If you’re inspired to start researching your own family tree, the Library of Virginia is a great place to start. In addition to our collections that contain a wealth of Virginia records, we offer guides on how to begin your genealogical research and on the genealogical resources available here at the library.
Chancery causes are great sources of genealogical information, and some even provide the names of numerous generations of family members. The following is an example uncovered using the LVA’s Chancery Records Index.
Four generations of the Osborne and Friend families of Chesterfield County can be found in Administrator of Thomas O. Taylor vs. John Metcalfe, etc., Chesterfield County Chancery Cause 1867-065. This suit concerns the estate of Thomas O. Taylor, who died without issue, brothers, or sisters in Powhatan County in 1835. The 1850 amended bill of complaint for this cause concerns the living next-of-kin who were entitled to Thomas O. Taylor’s estate.
Taylor was an only child, and his parents were deceased. His father, Thomas A. Taylor, was from England and the court did not attempt to find any of his next-of-kin. It followed that the brothers and sisters of his mother, Martha Osborne Taylor, were considered Thomas O. … read more »
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 »
Posted in Chancery Court Blog Posts
Also tagged in: CCRP, chancery, Chancery Causes, circuit court records, Circuit Court Records Preservation Program, Correspondence, Elizabeth Madison, Governor James P. Preston, Governor John Floyd (1830-1834), grant, Montgomery County, National Historical Publications and Records Commission, NHPRC, Susanna Preston, wills, women
“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 »
Posted in Chancery Court Blog Posts
Also tagged in: African Americans, Augusta County, CCRP, chancery, Chancery Causes, Chancery Records Index, Native Americans, NHPRC, slavery, slaves, Staunton, Superior Court of Chancery, West Virginia
Dusty documents and grimy ledgers get a dose of Hollywood glamour as the third season of NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? continues tonight, February 24, at 8 P.M. with Petersburg native Blair Underwood. The Event and In Treatment actor embarks on a personal journey of self-discovery as experts trace his family tree uncovering hidden stories and family secrets. During tonight’s episode, Underwood uncovers a branch of his family tree that shows a line of free African Americans in Virginia stretching back to the 1860s, and he even discovers that one ancestor was a slave owner. Underwood traveled here to the Library of Virginia, where part of the episode was filmed, to view the Campbell County Free Negro and Slave Records and the Amherst Free Negro Register.
If watching Blair Underwood uncover his roots inspires you to start researching your own family tree, the Library of Virginia is a great place to start. In addition to our collections that contain a wealth of Virginia records, we offer a guide on how to begin your genealogical research and one on the genealogical resources available here at the library. If you’re not in the mood to leave your couch, you can get started on your research tonight by tuning in to NBC WWBT channel 12 from 5:00 to 6:30. Library staff will be on air … read more »