Course: 2024-19 – Working with Virginia Records from Jamestowne to the Civil War

Coordinator: Barbara Vines Little, CG


The colony with the longest history and the most record destruction, Virginia, also has a number of unusual record collections that help overcome these limitations. The Library of Virginia’s interlibrary microfilm loan program provides access to the most sought-after surviving county records from the county or municipality’s beginning to 1900. FamilySearch has digitized many, but not all of these, and most are available online without restriction. Many of Virginia’s institutions have active digitization programs. Thus, the researcher can access many of the records normally sought in genealogical research. However, once these basic resources are accessed, the researcher still has rich resources available, albeit many must be accessed at the institutions holding them.

This course will cover all of the usual record groups, noting their idiosyncrasies, the applicable law(s), and avenues of access, including abstracts, transcriptions, digital images, and indexes. We will also discuss what record groups are most likely to provide information on the various population groups, from the wealthy to the poor and those in between, as well as those more difficult-to-access records that hold information focusing on specific populations, geographic areas or time periods. Bibliographies of print sources, including maps, websites, manuscripts, and finding aids, will be provided for each lecture. The law as it applies to inheritance, age limitations, indentures and apprenticeships, African Americans, the military, religion, land ownership, taxation, jury and voting eligibility, women, and the poor will be discussed. References to laws that blocked or encouraged migration into different areas of the state during different periods will be noted. Both pre-statehood Kentucky and West Virginia are included in the various topics. Questions are always welcome as long as they focus on interpreting records and not identifying specific family members.

Other Instructors: None

Student Prerequisites:

None; students are expected to have some experience with various court or other manuscript records


None. Various useful texts will be listed in the session bibliographies.

All times are listed in Eastern Time.
• Refer to your student’s Dropbox for the full schedule, including breaks. (Provided one week prior to the start of the course)
• Live sessions may be subject to schedule adjustments by your course coordinator.

Day Session Title Description Instructor

8:30 – 9:00 AM


 Introductions Take this opportunity to connect with your peers and gain insights into what exciting adventures await you this week.
Mon 1

9:00 – 10:15 AM

Virginia Geography: Its Effect on Settlement and Migration Virginia’s waterways and mountains were a major influence on where people settled. Once they began to move away from the coastline, geography played a major role in the path they chose. We’ll look at roadblocks and pathways as we study where people moved and when they made those moves. Vines-Little

10:45 – 12:00 PM

Legislature and the Law: Virginia’s Published Government Records Virginia lost the vast majority of its colonial government records. Attempts to replace the loss have led to the publication of most of the surviving material. We’ll look at both what is left and what was lost and how to use what survives to the best advantage. In addition to print publications, we’ll look at the surviving loose papers from the colonial and the legislative petitions recently digitized and posted online. Vines-Little

1:30 – 2:45 PM

Virginia’s Vital Records: What’s There; What’s Not During the colonial period, the law required the parish minister or clerk to keep a record of births, deaths, and marriages. Few of these records survive. At the establishment of the Commonwealth, only marriage records were required to be kept, and many of these did not survive or were never recorded. In 1853, the law required the keeping of births, deaths, and marriages—the response in the beginning was erratic. In addition to discussing what records survive and where they are located, and how reliable the source is, we’ll also explore alternate sources for the information. Vines-Little

3:15 – 4:30 PM

Tithable Lists and Personal Property Taxes Many people use tax records as a substitute census and miss the full potential of the information. This presentation will cover the types of extant tax records, the laws that created them, the information they contain, and how to interpret that information. Vines-Little
Tue 5

9:00 – 10:15 AM

Probate: The Law The law regarding testate and intestate estates changed over time. Without a clear understanding of who inherited what during what time period, researchers can face brick walls or even more disastrous misinterpretation of the evidence. We’ll explore various scenarios, including those where only limited information survives, and look at what each can tell us about family connections. Vines-Little

10:45 AM- 12:00 PM

Probate: The Process and the Records It Created Settlement of an estate can take years and involve court suits over debts or quarrels among heirs, issues over underage heirs, dower and curtesy rights, or even incompetent administrators or executors who never seem to bring an estate to settlement. The paper trail that these events create, if followed, can often solve our research problems. But we need to recognize them and know where to look for the records they generate. Vines-Little

1:30 – 2:45 PM

The Role of Religion in Virginia and the Records It Created Although the Anglican religion was the official religion of colonial Virginia, at various times, Pilgrims, Quakers, Huguenots, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Moravians, Reformed, and later the Baptist and Methodists made inroads during the colonial period. They tended to settle close to each other. With the full establishment of freedom of religion, many expanded, and their influence grew. Others integrated into the general population. We’ll explore their influence and their records. Vines-Little

3:15 – 4:30 PM

The Colonial Militia Through the Civil War Most histories of the French and Indian War, after mentioning Washington and his ill-fated first attack on Fort Duquesne and Braddock’s even more disastrous defeat, focus on the campaigns in the North. Little is written about the effect of the war in Virginia, yet its impact on Virginia and other Southern colonies had far-reaching consequences. Its records can help track migrations. The focus on the Revolution will look at Virginia rather than federal records, as will the War of 1812. The Civil War discussion will also be limited primarily to Virginia records. Vines-Little
Wed 9

9 – 10:15 AM

How Government Worked: The Virginia Court System Prior to 1850 and Its Records During the colonial period, the court system was limited to the county court and the General Court; the parish, the county or municipality, and the colonial government all played a role in government functions, from maintaining roads to caring for the poor and militia duty. The Commonwealth expanded the court system to include various appellate courts in addition to the county court. Since the records of the General Court were destroyed in 1865 the records of the various lower appellate courts take on an increased importance. Vines-Little

10:45 AM – 12:00 PM

County Court Records: Ignore Them at Your Peril Local court records, especially the order and minute books, are a rich resource; however, they are frequently unindexed and consequently ignored. While they might not be first on the list of records to peruse, a researcher who wants an answer ignores them at their peril. We’ll explore the variety of information available, especially on those who own no land, and some ways to access their data without a line-by-line reading. Vines-Little

1:30 – 2:45 PM

Chancery Records: The Secrets They Hold; The Families They Reveal Because chancery court cases are based on equity rather than a strict interpretation of the law, they often provide information not found elsewhere. Divorce and intestate estates with an underage or a missing heir (or disgruntled sons-in-law) will often cause a case to be brought. They can last years, and the depositions can sometimes provide interesting insights into family relations and migrations. Virginia has almost completed scanning and placing most of their pre-1900 chancery cases online. We’ll consider where and when to look and how best to search the limited index. Vines-Little

3:15 – 4:30 PM

Lands from the Crown: Records of the Colonial Land Office Although they have suffered periodic record loss, the records of the colonial land office are the largest surviving colonial government record group. Unfortunately, unlike the post-colonial land office, all of the papers created during the patenting process were burned annually. What’s left is the patent. However, careful attention to detail and a thorough understanding of the patenting process as it developed over time can provide the researcher with unexpected results. Vines-Little
Thu 13

9:00 – 10:15 AM

The Northern Neck or Fairfax Proprietary and Its Records Unlike the colonial land office the Proprietary kept its records, thus many of the warrants and surveys as well as the grants and various rental lists survive and provide details about individuals not found elsewhere. In addition, the extensive court suit between Fairfax and Hite over overlapping land grants identified early settlers and provided details about their early settlement. Vines-Little

10:45 AM – 12:00 PM

Tracking the Land: County Land Records Attempting to determine how an individual obtained title to a piece of land or what happened to all of the property owned by an individual can sometimes be a difficult task. To be successful in this search, an understanding of the ways the title to a piece of property could pass from one individual to another and where the record, if any, of that exchange can be found is necessary (it’s not always in the deed books). We’ll explore a variety of sources, including those available to burned county researchers. Vines-Little

1:30 – 2:45 PM

Settlement on the Western Waters The Virginia Land Office closed during the Revolution and reopened in 1779. During this time, numerous people moved west to settle on new land they couldn’t patent. The process developed by the state government to cope with the conflicting land claims created a wealth of documentary evidence of settlement as early as the 1750s. We’ll explore the numerous records created and learn where to look for them and how to interpret them. Vines-Little

3:15 – 4:30 PM

Tracking the Land: Virginia’s Land Tax Records Surviving colonial land tax lists primarily consist of the 1704 quit rent list and various copies of the Fairfax Proprietary rent rolls, as well as the few surviving county tax lists. Beginning in 1782 and continuing through the end of the nineteenth century Virginia’s land taxes allow the researcher to track ownership (even in burned counties), inheritance, often determine a death year, and separate multiple people of the same name. We’ll explore both their many uses and their idiosyncrasies. Vines-Little
Fri 17

9:00 – 10:15 AM

A Potpourri: Brock, Colonial Records Project, the U.S. Circuit Court, and Various Business Records We’ll explore an index of over 500,000 names to colonial records of microfilmed British records, discover the wealth of material in the most extensive private collection of Virginia manuscript records ever assembled (microfilm available via interlibrary loan), and the wealth of information in federal circuit court records in the custody of the Library of Virginia. Often spanning multiple counties and decades, business records provide information on family makeup and relationships, wealth, occupations, literacy, and occasionally document migrations. We’ll look at both major ones, such as the Glassford papers, which encompass sixty-two linear feet of records and are available on seventy-one reels of microfilm, and at smaller ones like Patrick Henry’s account book, where we learn who some of his clients were. Vines-Little

10:45 AM – 12:00 PM

Virginia’s Manuscript Records: On-Site, On Film, Online, and In Print Most Virginia counties have a historical society, and many maintain libraries and manuscript collections; many college and university libraries are useful, and some, like the University of Virginia and William and Mary College, have extensive special collections. There are also specialty libraries like the Rockefeller Library, the Mariner’s Museum, the Museum of Frontier Culture, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, the collections housed at Mt. Vernon, and, of course, the Library of Congress, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina. We’ll learn about the strengths of their collections and the unusual sources some have. And, no, I’m not forgetting about the Library of Virginia. You’ll hear about her resources every hour. Vines-Little