New Approaches to Virginia Research

Category: Articles

New Approaches to Virginia Research
by Karen Clifford, AG.
Reprinted with permission
Tips Learned from Karen's lecture on May 22, 1999.

Court records are some of the best records that exist for researching in Virginia. Start by learning some of the customs and history of the state. Dates to aid in Colonial Virginia research include:

1.    In 1624 a 16 year old and above male was titheable so when you study a full list of titheables for several consecutive years you can determine that someone has arrived at the age of 16 because he appears on the titheable lists.

2.    In 1629 Virginia born male slaves were taxed.

3.    In 1705-All Indian and mulatto women were to pay tithes.

4.    In 1723-All Indian, mulatto, and wives of such person were to pay tithes as well as males over 16.

Use tax records on land and personal property after the Civil War. Some state relationships such as "so-and-so, son of so-and-so." Personal property tax lists give male tax payers and number of males over 16. Women will show up on the list if they owned their own property. As indicated above, ages 16 and up would be included on property tax list.

Up to 1786 the Law of Primogeniture existed in Virginia. The widow automatically received 1/3 life interest in the property and the eldest son (the Heir-at-law) received the other 2/3rds. The heir-at-law received the mother's portion at her death. The first grandson gets the next land, not the second son if the heir-at-law dies. The second son gets nothing but personal property. In 1734 all children received something in the will which usually included personal property.

Understanding the laws of Virginia is a precursor to understanding the court records which evolved from those laws. For example, the Court Order Books of Virginia listed who got what and why including slaves. Follow the slaves to determine relationships. Twenty to thirty years after a man received a slave in an inventory sale, he could emancipate that slave in his own will and indicate that he received the slave from his father. This would not only establish relationship between the two owners (one from the inventory in which no relationship was stated outright), but might also establish an original parentage of the slave as further documents are studied pertaining to the individual with the inventory.

Court records contain deeds. Look for deeds of gift passed from one family to another. Slaves are often deeds of gift. Watch for terms, "my son, my daughter, my son-in-law (could be step-son or son by law). The price of the gift is important. If the consideration were a small amount this might could also indicate relationship, when the relationship was not stated. Many white families became closely attached to their slaves. They had no intention of the slave families being separated at the death of the owner. Estate inventories should be studied carefully for clues of family units being left intact to the widow, or to elder children. Watch also for a "lease for life" statement for "21 years or for three lives." If John, the father of Elizabeth, the mother of Nicholas owned the land and then the lease expired, that would prove the relationship between the three. These deeds might also mention a power of attorney which would give a wife's maiden and married name. Prenuptial agreements imply the existence of children.

Don't assume to much by a name without investigating several possibilities. In Virginia parent's would name their children after the surname of grandparents. If slaves received these kinds of names this could suggest white parentage to the slaves. The use of Sr. (which meant elder or first) or Jr. (which could simply mean younger) could refer to two cousins or an uncle and a nephew holding these names and not father and son. A person could be a junior in one record and later appear as a senior in other records if the previous senior had left the county or died.

Triple given names such as Raymond Thomas Johnson Green was often a naming pattern of illegitimacy.

Let's consider servitude in Virginia.

Virginia's early land owners needed workers for their crops. In 1619 indentured servants came into colonies. These were white individuals usually male about 17-to young twenties. Most colonists used indentured servants until the supply exceeded the demand. Then black and Indian slaves were introduced. Servitude usually existed for a 4 to 7 year period. The Virginia House of Burgesses in 1643 ruled that male or female servants will serve 4 years if they were 20 or above and 7 years if 5 to 20. Some Indian, blacks, etc. could be servants at any age. Some were 4 and 5 years old. This did not prevent the servant from rising in social status after his/her term of servitude ended.

Boys were often bound to skilled craftsman who had to meet certain requirements, education, clothes, and set amount of money during the time. Girls did housework. Often boys and girls would be bound out voluntarily to secure their future. Records of these indentures are found among the deeds.

Court Order Books would list where people petitioned for freedom, where people felt they were mistreated, or where they felt they were illegally detained. Evidence of importation are also in the court orders. County court orders should be an integral part of any research. Take all the facts and add them up.

Chancery Suits name children and sometimes four generations of relationship or more. Chancery (or Equity) Courts are another type of court for cases in which there were no firm laws on the book to answer the question. These courts could supply a remedy by going back in time and could provide a common law expansion of the law. These were unique cases which had to be answered beyond the extant information of the court. This included in forma pauperis which allowed poor people to be able to sue. This court did not prejudice against the poor or people of color.

Legislation came up in 1782 making if legal to emancipate a slave by a will or deed. Before that the only way to be emancipated would be because they were freed by meritorious service...i.e. service in the Revolutionary War. If you freed your slave, you had to provide transportation out of the state so often land and property was sold to provide that transportation.

By the Laws of Virginia, November 1795, if a slave was being illegally detained as a slave, he/she could make complaint to a magistrate out of court, or to the court of the district, county or corporation where he or she shall reside and not elsewhere. The sheriff would take possession of the slave and keep him/her safe at the expense of the officer until a court case was held.

Freedom suits were suits in which slaves asked for their freedom. These were officially provided for by law and the earliest ones were scattered and irregular. They can be found in any of the different courts of Virginia discussed in the lecture. Details about both the white and black individuals involved provide rich genealogical information. As is so often the case, more information about the white people or the former owners might appear than about the black owners, but in the records and inventories of the white individuals more information might pertain to the black or Indian individuals. These often give descent 3 or 4 generations back to the mother if the slave were trying to prove descent back to a free "mother." Courts were not interested in freeing blacks because the father (white) was free. Those who claimed descent from an Indian grandmother would be included. Indians held in the 1600's were found to be held illegally so individuals were trying to prove descent back to an Indian. These records also provide proof of a free mother whose children had been bound out. Testimony might go back for a hundred years. Once one member of the family was found to be free, search other court records in nearby areas where other relatives would try to tie into the same proof. Liken it to those who try to tie into someone else's DAR records so they can join the DAR.

Emancipation suits and petitions also included slaves freed by wills and the heirs who contested saying they didn't have the right to free their slaves, or rulings to to force the family to do what they should. Suits for emancipation of slaves can be brought forth by slaves themselves or heirs of slaves. These suits contain lists of slaves or heirs and here are found records that individuals did not want slave families to be separated. Slaves could also purchase their spouse and children. Sometimes there are lawsuits because of this condition. Inheritance suits were often instituted by slave owners and related to heirs of deceased person, determining how the slaves are to be divided by the various heirs. Sometimes children were bound out. Sometimes the court records contained permission for freed slaves to own a gun which was normally illegally unless they went to court and got permission to do so for hunting, etc.

A Virginia law of 1778 stated you could not bring slaves into the state by sea or land except as a owner coming into the state with a written application. Papers they bring in also list the slaves by names. Virginia slaves were sold to Mississippi. Chesapeake Bay area was often influenced by the laws of Maryland and North Carolina.

Any legislative petitions for your family should be searched. Only petitions prior to 1782 have been abstracted. Request them by the name of the county and a range of years. The final action of the legislature would have been an act of these. They start to die out again after about 1842. You had to have an act of the legislature made to allow you to divorce.

In summary learn the laws and history of the state you are studying. Determine their county of residence. Find out where the records of that county are located today. Many of Virginia's records are microfilmed and are available by the Family History Library (try the Family History Library Catalog at a local Family History Center or online at Other records of Virginia are on interlibrary loan from the Library of Virginia. Their catalog is also online. In Virginia, however, there is no requirement that records be turned into the state archives. You will need to determine if they are still in the county.

It is helpful to learn as much about the family as possible. Did they own slaves, were they slaves, who were the owners, and who were the heirs. If your family has a tradition that some were slave and some were free, watch for different kind of court records providing their freedom.

After 1830 the records may be in the counties themselves. Petitions often say that records may be in other courts. Then you must go through each sheet. Minutes of the monthly courthouse are available on interlibrary loan. Blacks often by first name only rather than first and last name, but in the index given by first name including criminal case. Look under "C" for Commonwealth vs. Tom. Or under "F" for Free Negroes. Reading entire court order books. Online information on these court order books is available.

Good Sources:

1.    Cappon, Lester J. and Stella F. Duff. Virginia Gazette Index, 1736-1780. Williamsburg, Va., 1950. [Early newspaper advertisements with the Index to the Early Virginia Gazette to find runaway slaves and indentured servants. Every noun is indexed.]

2.    Catterall, Helen T. Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro. Washington, 1932. [Surveys all published law reports. Lots of clues to black research. Covers every state in the Union. Bulk will be those in the southern states. You want to follow up and receive the state. These are all on microfiche so you can look up the law report. May be able to go back to the county. Widely available at academic libraries.]

3.    Guild, June P. Black Laws of Virginia. 1936. Reprint, Lovettsville, Va., 1996. [Covers all the laws of Virginia referencing blacks. Includes different acts. Look at the names of individuals in the index. There were used as a reference to petitions but could be a relative or a slave owned by your family.]

4.    Schweninger, Loren, ed. Race, Slavery, and Free Black Petitions to Southern Legislatures, 1777-1867. Bethesda, Md., 1998. [Copies of petitions are on these 23 reels of microfilm and a printed guide. Available on OCLC.]

5.    Vernon, Robert W. And Carmen Scott Thrower. "Virginia's Free Negro Registers," The Virginia Genealogical Society Newsletter, Vol. XXI, No. 2, March-April 1995.

6.    Williams, John W. Index to Enrolled Bills of the General Assembly of Virginia, 1776-1910, Richmond, 1911. [Petitions passed by the legislature will be listed as bills in this source.]

Copyright ©1999 by Karen Clifford, AG.   Reprints require approval by the author.