Virginia Government records cover a broad range of genealogy subject areas that can help you as part of your research, such as land ownership, courts, taxes, and naturalization’s. Given that Virginia court records cover such a wide selection of topics, they could aid you in many different ways. As an example, they could aid you in finding ancestors’ residences, identify occupations, locate financial information, determine citizenship status, or shed light on relationships between individuals. The whole thing relies upon on the type of court records that the ancestors” names show up in. For Definitions of all court terms see the Genealogy Encyclopedia.
Virginia Courthouse records change extensively from county to county in both level of quality and volume. You will find different kinds of court records that are most likely to possess information related for your genealogical research below.
Virginia Court Records
Virginia courts are courts of record, like most courts in America. This means that the law requires that they keep records of all proceedings. The state’s court system can be confusing, but it can be understood if taken a step at a time.
COUNTY COURT (1619–1902) – Until 1904, the court of record used by most Virginians was the county court. After this time, these functions were assumed by the circuit courts, and the county courts were disbanded. The Great Charter of 1618 established monthly courts that were held in different precincts to hear petty civil and criminal cases. The two main functions of these courts were to relieve the president and council of part of their duties as justices and bring justice closer to all Virginians. In 1634, eight shires were established, and the monthly court became the court of shire. By 1642 it was called the county court and was required to meet a minimum of six times annually.
The governor appointed commissioners as justices, and in 1662 they became known as justices of the peace. There were usually eight to ten justices for the court, and four were appointed to the quorum. A valid court consisted of three justices and one quorum member.
Special terms were sometimes held by the court as meetings for specific functions. The orphan’s court was established in 1642. Its function was to review annual accounts of estates inherited by orphans to make sure the guardians were providing proper stewardship of assets and care for the orphan. This court was also open to apprentices to file petitions against their masters when they did not live up to their contracts.
A special session called the court of claim was held for citizens of the county to present monetary claims against the county before the levy was laid (see Tax records). The county court began functioning as a probate court in 1645 to settle estates, grant certificates of probate and administration, and order inventories and appraisals.
PRESIDENT AND COUNCIL (1607–19) – In Virginia’s earliest years, all civil and criminal cases were heard by the president and council members. However, there are no surviving records of the proceedings. In 1619, monthly courts were formed, and the president and council only heard appeals from those courts and major cases.
QUARTER COURT (1619–61) – The establishment of courts in 1619 included a Quarter Court of the President and Council that handled major civil cases, chancery, and appellate matters. This court was held in March, June, September, and December; the other months were Council meetings. In 1661, this court became the General Court.
GENERAL COURT (1661–1851) – Continuing the responsibility of the former Quarter Court, the General Court heard appeals and major criminal and civil cases. During this time, the high court of chancery and the district courts were established. General Court judges also presided over district courts (established in 1789), which heard appeals from common law cases in the county. In 1814, the General Court was made the Supreme Court Tribunal in Virginia in 1814. The General Court was abolished by the 1851 state constitution, and its functions were transferred to the state supreme court of appeals.
STATE SUPREME COURT OF APPEALS (1779-PRESENT) – The State Supreme Court of Appeals has held final jurisdiction on all civil cases since its establishment in 1779. There has been no other court of final appeals since the abolishment of the General Court in 1851.
Since the state supreme court of appeals was created in 1779, it has had final jurisdiction in all civil cases. It has been the state’s only court of final appeals since the general court was abolished in 1851.
HIGH COURT OF CHANCERY (1777–1802) – The high court of chancery heard all state chancery appeals from its formation in 1777. The Superior Courts of Chancery replaced this court in 1802.
SUPERIOR COURTS OF CHANCERY (1802–31) – The first chancery districts established Superior Courts of Chancery in Staunton, Richmond, and Williamsburg. In 1812, three more districts were formed: Wythe County, Winchester, and Clarksburg. Greenbrier County and Lynchburg were established in 1814. These courts held chancery appeals until they were abolished in 1831, and the nearest county’s circuit superior court of law and chancery assumed its responsibilities.
DISTRICT COURTS (1789–1808) – The district courts covered eighteen districts, each made up of multiple counties. The district courts were held in the same location two times per year. The courthouses were in Charlottesville, Fredericksburg, Richmond, Williamsburg, Suffolk, Winchester, Staunton, Dumfries, Petersburg, and possibly others. In1808, the superior courts of law replaced the district courts.
SUPERIOR COURTS OF LAW (1808–31) – These courts assumed the role of the previous district courts beginning in 1808. A general court judge rode a circuit throughout his district to hold court, so it was also known as the circuit court. The circuit superior courts of law and chancery took over this role in 1831.
CIRCUIT SUPERIOR COURTS OF LAW AND CHANCERY (1831– 51) – These courts followed the same organization and circuit as the previous Superior Courts of Law. They assumed the roles of the superior courts of law and the superior courts of chancery. These courts were abolished by the state constitution in 1851 and replaced by the circuit courts.
CIRCUIT COURTS (1852-PRESENT) – Circuit courts are held twice a year, and the records are kept in each county where they are held. Since 1902 when county court provisions were eliminated, the Circuit Courts have been the only court of record in Virginia.
The Library of Virginia keeps original court records. The state library and the707 Virginia FHL both hold microfilmed copies of records before 1865. Many abstracts of early court records are being published.Original documents are always the most reliable, but they are not always in the best condition. In the case of lost or damaged originals, printed transcripts can be helpful, as long as the researcher recognizes the limitations of such sources. The largest collections of printed manuscripts are at the FHL and Library of Virginia, but other libraries have
smaller collections. See Also Research In Court Records.
- Virginia County Records, Volume VII (search.ancestry.com)
- Virginia County Records, Volume VI (search.ancestry.com)
- Virginia County Records, Volume IX (search.ancestry.com)
- Virginia County Records, Volume X (search.ancestry.com)
- Virginia Colonial Abstracts. Volume I, Volume II, Volume III (amazon.com) This work brings together a wealth of data from the records of the Tidewater region of Virginia birth, marriage and death records, tax lists, court orders, militia lists, wills, and deeds. The result of extensive research in county courthouses, municipal and state archives, and private collections, most of the abstracts were based on the earliest records known to exist.
- Virginia Court Record Books (amazon.com)