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State of Virginia Court Records Research

Virginia Court Records - Nearly all courts in America are generally courts of record that is they are required by law to keep a record of the proceedings. Virginia courts are the same. In fact these days few individuals escape mention in a court room records sooner or later all through his or her everyday lives as witnesses, litigants, jurors, appointees to office or as petition signatories. Even so Americans from a several of generations ago also expected to show up at local court proceedings as long as they were in session. It was a civic duty and then they could be fined if they failed to attend. Virginia court files mirror U.S. history. Hidden away in courthouses together with archives everywhere you go are the aspirations and concerns of lots of citizens. The chances are good that your particular ancestors have left a concise record of at least some areas of life in a court room records.

Generally, American courts are known as courts of record. In other words, the law requires that they record everything they do. The Virginia court system is no exception, but researchers must take the time to understand it.

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 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.

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