Search For Your Ancestors in Historical Documents




State of Virginia Court Records Research

Virginia Court records cover a wide range of genealogy topics that can help you in your research, including land ownership, courts, taxes, and naturalizations. Since Virginia court records cover such a wide variety of subjects, they can help you in many different ways. For example, they may help you locate ancestors' residences, determine occupations, find financial information, establish citizenship status, or clarify relationships between people. It all depends on the type of court records that your ancestors" names appear in. For Definitions of all court trems see the Genealogy Encyclopedia.

Virginia Court Records

County Court (1619-1902): County courts existed in Virginia until 1904, when they were replaced by circuit courts. The 1618 Great Charter created county courts to be held on a monthly basis. They were responsible for trying minor criminal and civil cases. They took some of the duties from the council and president. They also made it easier for all Virginians to get justice for crimes committed against them. In 1634 the 8 original shires were created and the monthly county court was turned into the court of shire. As of 1642, it was known as the county court and met 6 or more times annually.

Originally, the name given to court justices was commissioners. The governor was responsible for appointing the commissioners, who were renamed justices of the peace in 1662. The court generally consisted of around 8 or 10 justices of the peace. Four of them were considered to be the quorum and a committee of 4 (the quorum) was considered to be a valid court committee. Special terms also occurred from time to time. Those were public court meetings set up for certain purposes ahead of time.

Orphans' Court: In 1642 the orphans court began. It was set up to handle the processing of orphans' estates. It was also responsible for appointing and overseeing guardianship of minors. If an apprentice had a contract with a master that they felt was not fulfilled, they could set up an orphans' court appeal.

Court of Claim: The court of claim was an opportunity for citizens of the county to bring up monetary claims against the county itself. As of 1645 the county court also handled probate matters, including estate settlements, inventories, and administrations.

President and Council (1607 to 1619): All of Virginia's criminal and civil cases were heard by the president and council members until 1619. None of those records still exist today. Then, in 1619, monthly courts were started. At that time, civil and criminal case appeals from those monthly courts.

Quarter Court (1619 to 1661): In March, June, September, and December quarter quarts were held, as of 1619. At first, the council and president presided over those proceedings. Later, the governor took the president's place. Those quarts heard chancery, major civil, and appeals cases. All meetings held in other months were known as council meetings, not quarter court meetings. In 1661 the quarter court became the general court.

General Court (1661 to 1851): The general court heard appeals from the county courts, as well as capital offense cases, major civil cases, and probate cases up to 1851. During that time period the district courts and the high court of chancery were also created. The district court heard county court common law appeals from 1789 on, and the high court of chancery began hearing county court chancery case appeals in 1777.

The general court judges also acted as district court judges. In 1814 the supreme criminal tribunal was set up from the general court. That led to the judges sitting on the higher courts more often. In 1851 the general court was entirely abolished when the 1851 state constitution was enacted. The state supreme court of appeals took over general court functions at that time.

State Supreme Court of Appeals (1779 to Present): In 1779 the state supreme court of appeals was created. It has had the final say in all civil matters since that time. Since 1851, when the general court ceased to exist, the state supreme court of appeals has been the state's court of final appeals.

High Court of Chancery (1777 to 1802): The high court of chancery was started in 1777. At that time, it took over all chancery case jurisdiction in Virginia. The superior courts of chancery replaced the high court of chancery in 1802.

Superior Courts of Chancery (1802 to 1831): To begin with, 3 chancery courts existed in Virginia. Staunton, Williamsburg, and Richmond were home to the superior courts of chancery. In 1812 Winchester, Wythe County, and Clarksburg were added. In 1814 Lynchburg and Greenbrier County were added. In 1831 superior courts of chancery were completely disbanded. The county circuit superior courts of law and chancery replaced them at that time.

District Courts (1789 to 1808): Virginia was separated into 18 districts in 1789. Each district contained more than one county. Twice annually courts were held in each county. However, in 1808 the superior courts of law replaced district courts. Courthouses in the following places held district court hearings: Charlottesville, Fredericksburg, Richmond, Williamsburg, Suffolk, Winchester, Staunton, Dumfries, Petersburg

Superior Courts of Law (1808 to 1831): Each county held superior courts of law twice annually, beginning in 1808. Those courts took over district court functions. Occasionally they were known as circuit courts, since a general judge typically rode around his county and held court proceedings in various locations. Superior courts of law and chancery replaced those courts in 1831.

Circuit Superior Courts of Law and Chancery (1831 to 1851): Similar to superior courts of law, circuit superior courts of law and chancery took place twice annually. They were presided over by a general court judge. That judge rode a circuit from one hearing location to the next. In 1851 the state constitution turned those courts into circuit courts.

Circuit Courts (1852 to Present): Each county held circuit courts twice annually. The county maintained those records. The original circuit courts consisted of 21 judges. In 1902 the state constitution gave count court powers to circuit courts and removed county courts. Presently, Virginia's only courts of record at the county level are circuit courts.

The Library of Virginia holds original court documents and records. Records from before 1865 can be found on microfilm both there and at the FHL. New abstracts of earlier court records are being printed at a rapid rate. Some original court records may not be in good condition. So, it may be necessary to examine copies. However, researchers should view original bound records whenever possible. Nevertheless, it is important to note that some pages may be lost, damaged, faded, or otherwise impossible to read. Therefore, printed transcripts can also be valuable resources. Many published transcripts can be found at the FHL and the Library of Virginia.

Virginia Land Records

In 1606 the first Virginia Charter gave planters (land settlers) and adventurers (investors) land grant rights through the Virginia Company of London. Each planter was given 50 acres and each adventurer was given 100 acres. However, the rules stated that lands had to be held in common for a 7-year period. Around 1614, 3-acre plots were given to industrious planters by Sir Thomas Dale. Many planters decided to grow tobacco, since John Rolfe had been so successful in that endeavor. Around 1615 the London Company began giving out land grants. The earliest of those records that still exists was a grant from March of 1615 given to Simon Codrington.

In 1618 Virginia was split into 4 boroughs by the Great Charter. Each borough had some land that was designated for the use of the public. The council and the governor were responsible for giving land allotments to individuals in each borough at the time. Each grantee was given a copy of the proof of title (patent) for the land. Another copy was kept as part of the public records.

In 1624 Virginia gained the status of royal colony. The governor in 1627 was Sir George Yeardley, who decided that he could give land to any settlers who met the planter definition according to the old company policy. However, the Privy Council didn't agree until 1654, at which point headrights claims led to millions of acres being distributed during the 1600s.

According to the headright, each "head" (person coming to the colony) was given 50 acres of land. However, only those who paid for passage by ship to Virginia could claim those headrights. Indentured servant headrights could be claimed by any (or all) of the following: The Master of the Transporting Ship, The Merchant Who Sold the Indenture, The Person Who Bought the Indenture, The Servant

It was also possible to sell and buy headrights. Some people choose to sell their headrights to others in order to get money and be more comfortable in their new homes.

Obtaining land patents in Virginia was a several-step process. So, many records were created. First, the patentee was required to obtain a "certificate of importation" from the county court. That was a way to prove how many headrights were claimed and those records were generally kept in the minute books of the county clerks. Next, the patentee had to take the certificate and get the "right" from the Secretary of the Colony. After the "right" was obtained, the county surveyor had to survey the land. That process created a land plat. All of those documents were then returned to the secretary and two patent copies were made. The governor had to sign one copy, seal it, and send it to the patentee. The office of the secretary held onto the other copy for the permanent files.

Each patentee was then given 3 years to plant and seat the land in question. They were required to pay an annual tax to the crown for seating, called a quitrent. That tax was one shilling for each 50 acre allotment of land. A piece of land was considered to be planted if a house was built and livestock was kept, or if at least one acre was cultivated. When an orphan's majority passed, they had up to three years to take land possession. A petition to the county court could help widows get 3-year extensions.

By the time the 1600s came to a close, Virginia's population growth was no longer controlled by immigrants from overseas. The Crown was still looking to expand the colony, and those living in it wanted more room to grow tobacco crops. That led to the creation of the treasury right. Each allotment of fifty acres was given at a cost of 5 shillings. Most land patents were by treasury right, not headright, as of around 1715. Some information on those patents can be found on the Virginia Land Office's website.

Researchers can easily access Virginia deeds and land grants. Collections of available resources include: Original Patents and Land Grants from 1619 to 1921, Survey Plats from 1779 to 1878, Northern Neck (Area Between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers) Land Grants from 1690 to 1862, Northern Neck Surveys from 1722 to 1781 and 1786 to 1874, Land Warrants from 1779 to 1926, Miscellaneous Land Records from 1779 to 1923

The Library of Virginia golds original records from land offices in Virginia.

Land patents issued before 1779 have been indexed and that index can be searched on the website for the Library of Virginia. Also available on the website are land grants issued after 1799 by the Virginia Land Office, 1692 to 1862 Northern Neck grants, and 1786 to 1874 Northern Neck surveys. TIF files of original Northern Neck Grants and Surveys, as well as Land Office Grants and Patents, are available. Several patents and patent abstracts have also been published throughout the years.

City, town, or county deed books held land sale transaction records. However, leases and rentals were not generally recorded, which means that several transactions were not listed in those deed books. Most of the counties and cities in Virginia offer grantee and grantor indexes. Many deed books also have individual indexes. County clerks can supply deed copies. However, most of the county records from before 1865 are at the FHL and the Library of Virginia on microfilm.

Virginia Probate Records

Civil courts in each county produce Virginia estate records. Some independent cities recorded probate records in circuit courts. Some of those probate records may include appraisals, settlements, inventories, administrations, wills, and guardianships.

The colony was governed according to the Common Law of England, as well as the written English laws. The right of dower and the right of primogeniture played large rolls in colonial times. Land and estates were kept whole by passing to the eldest son by the right of primogeniture. As for the right of dower, it meant that all widows inherited part of the real estate that belonged to their husbands when they were married. Generally, that dower right amounted to one-third of the husband's real estate at the time of marriage. Personal property was also subject to a dower right, but might be divided among surviving children equally as well.

The dower right was confirmed by the House of Burgesses in 1673 using a slightly different system. At that time, if there were 1 or 2 children, the widow received a third of the personal property. If there were 3 or more children, all of them and the widow split the property equally. The widow also inherited one-third of her deceased husband's real estate for the remainder of her life.

Three different places had the power to grant administrations and probates. Those places were the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, the Quarter or General Court, and the county court (after 1645). Both the Secretary of the Colony and the office of the county were supposed to keep records of appraisals and inventories. Each county is now the best source for probate records.

Will books generally contained most early probate information, which might include appraisements, appointments, estate asset sales, inventories, copies of wills, guardianships, and other documents. The Library of Virginia or the county clerk'[s office can supply original will books. The FHL also has copies of most of the will books from years before 1904 that still exist. Library of Virginia holdings are listed by county online.

Chancery court records and loose papers may be found in county clerk offices in metal boxes or other files. Powers of attorney, letters, affidavits, receipts and other documents may be included in those files. Those records cannot be found on microfilm. They are arranged by year. Researchers should expect that some of them may not be in good condition.

Several of Virginia's early will books have been published or abstracted, and many also have printed indexes available. Large collections of those records can be found at the FHL and the Library of Virginia. Some records can also be found in libraries across the nation. The FHL and the Library of Virginia websites list which chancery court records they each have.

Virginia Tax Records

Virginia Tax Records - Tax records are available at the county courthouses and in the Virginia History Commission. Where county records were lost, the state auditor’s copies are especially valuable. Some Personal property tax records have been published for some counties.

Virginia's tax records are very good sources of genealogical information. Early colonial poll tax, parish levy, and quitrent records can be especially helpful.

Land taxes were sometimes called quitrents, after the English society taxes that were "the land obligations due the manor, such as plowing and haying the lord's land" Once the annual payment was made, the obligations were quit until the following year. A quitrent tax was paid to the Crown by all of those living in Virginia to the Rappahannock River's south. A 1704 list of landowners has been published and contains some of that information. However, that record can be unreliable and may be incomplete. Lord Fairfax's agents were also paid quitrents by those who lived in the Northern Neck region between the Potomac River and the Rappahannock River. Fairfax original rent rolls can be found in San Marino, California at the Huntington Library. The Library of Virginia also has rent rolls on file.

Parish levy taxes were paid each year to ministers by their tithables. The taxes were used to maintain the land that produced income for the parish, as well as to maintain the parsonage. Those lands were known as glebe lands.

Virginia's main revenue source was the poll tax, except for the years between 1645 and 1648. Poll taxes were paid once per year and calculated by dividing the colony's expenses and the counties by the tithables. Each tithable was then charged their share of the taxes.

The term "tithable" was defined differently at various points in Virginia's history. For example, in 1624 it was defined as "any male head above sixteen years of age." In 1629 any agricultural workers also became tithables. As of 1643 any African American females over 16 were tithables and all males were tithables. In 1649 any male servants were also tithables, regardless of how old they were.

In 1658 the term "tithable" was redefined. The new definition included any makes over 16 who were free, any African Americans at all, and white male imported servants. In 1662 all white women who worked in agricultural fields were also included. In 1680 the definition was revised again, thanks to planters who had many indentured servants complaining. Male slaves born in Virginia who were over 12 years old were then added, as were imported male servant who were 14 or older. Free mails and women who were not white were still taxable upon turning 16 years old.

In 1705 Virginia laws changed. At that point, any females who were over 16 and not white were tithables, as were all males. In 1723 the wives of non-while males who were free also became tithables.

Several Virginia genealogical publications have published portions of tax and collection lists, but there is no comprehensive guide available. Many Virginia periodicals print those lists on a regular basis. Several can also be found on microfilm at the FHL and the Library of Virginia.

When the Revolutionary War came to a close the tax system in Virginia changed. Personal property and land became taxable as of 1782. In 1787 the law was further revised. Tax lists from before 1859 are, for the most part, still extant today. Many can be found at the FHL and the Library of Virginia. Researchers trying to trace migrations from around that time should definitely utilize the 1787 tax lists of Schreiner-Yantis and Love, The 1787 Census of Virginia in their research.

Virginia Immigration Records

Virginia Naturalization Records usually contains a petition for citizenship with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, a petition with the local court clerk, and a Certificate of Naturalization. The National Archives has many of these records. Records of early naturalizations will be in the records of the courts where the naturalization took place.

Typically a petition for citizenship is included in each Virginia naturalization record. That petition must be filed with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as well as with the local clerk of the court. Records may also include Certificate of Naturalization. Many of those records can be found at the National Archives. The courts that handled the naturalizations generally still hold the early naturalization records.

In the early 1600s the first settlers from England came to Virginia. Originally they settled in the coastal plain (tidewater) region. Several of the colonists were from Barbados or had connections there. In 1619 the first African Americans arrived in the area, but it wasn't until 1680 that they began coming to the area in large numbers. Around 75% of white settlers in Virginia were originally convicts or indentured servants, according to most estimates. Soon, landowners moved to Piedmont and more Scottish and English immigrants joined them.

French Huguenots came to the area in the beginning of the 1700s. From 1714 to 1717 several German workers also migrated to the Piedmont area to work on iron furnaces. Many Germans and Ulster Scots also came to the area from 1730 to the 1740s. They came down into the Shenandoah Valley from the Pennsylvania region.

In the late 1700s many Virginia settlers chose to migrate to the west. Few foreign immigrants came to Virginia from the start of the 19th century onward.

Colonial Ports included Accomack (Accomack County), Leedstown (Westmoreland County), Alexandria (Fairfax County), Norfolk (Norfolk County), Belvoir Plantation (Fairfax County), Port Royal (Caroline County), Bermuda Hundred (Chesterfield County), Portsmouth (Norfolk County), Dumfries (Prince William County), South Quay (Southampton County), Falmouth (Stafford County), Suffolk (Nansemond County), Fredericksburg (Spotsylvania County), Tappahannock (aka Hobb's Hole) (Essex County), Hampton (Elizabeth City County), Urbanna (Middlesex County), Jamestown (James City County), Williamsburg (James City County), Yorktown (York County).

Ships coming to Virginia docked in several places along the following rivers: Elizabeth River, James River, Potomac River, Rappahannock River, York River.

Few colonial Virginia passenger lists are still extant today. However, there are several earl immigration resources and published records available.

Norfolk was Virginia's major port from the late 1700s onward. However, several Virginia settlers also came from Philadelphia, Baltimore, or other ports. The Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers were major ports in the 1700s for ships that brought convicts and imported slaves to the area.

It can be difficult to tell where some colonial Virginians came from. However, headright grants can give some information on pre-1720 immigrants. Although, they can be difficult to interpret. Some colonial resources also list whether individuals were convicts or indentured servants. Other immigrants may be identified in records from the Revolutionary and French and Indian War.

The importation of settlers was well-documented by headright grants. However, few land patents were issued for headright land after 1720. The Library of Virginia holds those records, which have been both computerized and abstracted.

The Library of Virginia's Virginia Colonial Records Project is available to assist those trying to trace their European immigrant ancestors. Some European archives also include records about immigrants who went to Virginia. Many of those records and reports can be found on the Internet. Many of the records have also been placed on microfilm at the Library of Virginia.

Copyright © 2014,