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State of Virginia Land Records Research

Most Americans possessed at least some land just before the 20th century, generating personal land records a powerful resource for genealogists. Therefore, virtually every researcher, whether or not a veteran professional or weekend hobbyist, has needed land records to document the existence, association, or movement of an individual or ancestral family. Deeds, legal records for transferring land or property from one individual to another, are the most used of the land records, and can provide a reliable method of tracing ancestors when no additional record can be located. Deeds tend to be relatively straightforward to identify and often provide a wealth of facts.

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.

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