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)
Virginia Land Records
The original 1606 charter given to the Virginia Company included provisions for land grants. These grants were given to planters (settlers) and adventurers (investors). In 1609, revisions were made, specifying that all lands were to be held in common for seven years. After that time period, planters received 50 acres and investors received 100 acres. By 1614, planters who were especially industrious were rewarded with three acre plots. The success of tobacco led many planters to include it in their fields. The London Company began granting land in 1616, with the earliest grant on record to Simon Codrington in March 1615/6.
When the charter was reorganized in 1618, four boroughs were established with designated public land in each. Land within each borough could be granted by the governor and council. One copy of each patent was retained for company records, and another copy was made and given as proof of title to the grantee. In 1624, when Virginia became a royal colony, it was governed by crown-appointed governors. Sir George Yeardley wanted to issue patents under the original charter’s definition of planter. It took many years for the Privy Council to give him the power to do so, but in 1654 grants totaling millions of acres were made.
These grants were called “headrights,” which was the “right” to claim fifty acres for every “head” arriving in the colony. This right was usually claimed the person who paid for the travel. However, these headrights could be bought or sold. Some sold their headrights for money to get established in the new world.
There is a record generated for most of the steps of the patenting process. First, a “certificate of importation” was filed by the prospective patentee with the county court. This served as proof of the number of headrights claimed. This certificate was carried to the Secretary of the Colony, who issued the “right” of fifty acres for each headright. Each right was taken to the county surveyor to create a plat. All of these papers were then returned to the secretary. The secretary made one copy of the patent to retain for records. A second copy was made to be signed by the governor, sealed, and delivered to the patentee.
A patentee was given three years from the date of issue to seat and plant the land. “Seating” involved an annual payment of one shilling per fifty acres, called the quitrent (see Tax Records). The requirement to plant could be met by cultivating one acre or building a house and keeping livestock. If a patent was given to an orphan, he was given until three years passed the age of majority to possess and plant it. Sometimes an extension on this three year period would be granted if the widow petitioned the county court.
The need to incentivize immigration subsided by the end of the seventeenth century. The treasury right was created to allow purchase of land by native Virginians. Anyone could purchase a land right to fifty acres for five shillings. The treasury right was the primary method of land patent by 1715. See also The Virginia Land Office online at .
If you are researching grants and deeds, you will find the following information easily: original patents and land grants from 1619–1921; survey plats from 1779–1878; Northern Neck (the area between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers) land grants from 1690– 1862; Northern Neck surveys from 1722–1781 and 1786–1874; land warrants from 1779–1926; and miscellaneous land records from 1779–1923. The Library of Virginia keeps original land office records.
You can search an online index of land patents through the Library of Virginia for land patents issued prior to 1779; land grants issued by the Virginia Land Office after 1779; grants issued in the Northern Neck from 1692–1862; and original and recorded Northern Neck surveys (1786–1874). You might need a Tiff viewer to access some of the files, such as the Northern Neck Grants and Surveys and the original Land Office Grants. These grants are listed chronologically. You can learn how to download a viewer and use the records at the library’s Tiff Tips page . Abstracts of many patents have been published.
County, town, or independent city deed books were used to record land purchase transactions. However, many people are excluded from these books because they rented or leased their land. Most of these books have individual indexes, with general indexes existing for grantees and grantors in each city or county. County clerks have deed copies, but most records from before 1865 are at the Library of Virginia and the FHL on microfilm. See Also Guide to U.S. Land Records Research
Virginia Probate Records
Civil courts on the county level handle estate records in Virginia, unless it is an independent city, where the circuit court hears probate cases. These records can include wills, administrations, guardianships, inventories, appraisals, and settlements.
In colonial times, the written and common laws of England also applied in Virginia. There were two laws that related to probate matters: primogeniture and the right of dower. Under primogeniture, entire estates were kept whole, especially if it was land, and it would be passed from eldest son to eldest son. The right of dower came from common law; in this practice, a woman gained a dower right in her husband’s real estate when they married. When her husband died, she had a right to a portion (usually one-third) of her husband’s property until she dies. Sometimes that portion would be split equally with the surviving children. This right was confirmed by the House of Burgesses in 1673. If there were one or two children, the widow was given the right to one-third of the property, but if there were three children or more the inheritance right was split equally with the children. This applied to both personal property and real estate, and she could not be disinherited.
There are three different locations for researching probate records. According to English law, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury was over Virginia probate matters. Virginia law specified probates and administrations were to be handled by the Quarter or General Court. The county court issued certificates of probate or administration after 1645. Records such as wills, inventories, and appraisals were recorded in two places: the Secretary of the Colony and the county. The county is the largest source of probate records.
Will books were used to record probate proceedings, including will copies, inventories, appraisements, guardianships, appointments, and sales of estate assets. The county clerk’s office and Library of Virginia both have original will books. The library and the FHL both have books on microfilm for records before 1904. You can find a list of library holdings for each county at .
The clerk’s office will often have files in metal boxes called “loose papers” or “chancery court records.” These can contain powers of attorney, letters submitted from outside the county, affidavits, and receipts submitted while an estate was in probate. Sometimes they are in poor condition. These papers are not on microfilm and are filed chronologically at the clerk’s office.
Published abstracts and indexes exist for many early Virginia will books. Many of these can be found at the Library of Virginia and the FHL, as well as in other libraries across the country. You can check the websites for each library to see which publications they carry. The Family History Library and Library off Virginia also have some searchable indexes to chancery court orders on microfilm. See Also Guide to U.S. Probate Records Research