The City of Petersburg chancery records scanning project officially began on Friday June 3! The first 50 boxes of case-files were loaded for transfer to LVA’s digital vendor (Backstage Library Works) in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Imaging of these fragile court papers will begin next week and resulting images will be posted to the Chancery Records Index (CRI) after ensuring they meet strict preservation and quality control standards. The records date from 1787 to 1912 and consist of 150 cubic feet, including bills of complaint, affidavits, wills, business records, correspondence, and photographs.
Partially funded by a $155,071 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), this project marks the second chancery collection housed at the Library of Virginia to receive federal grant support in 2011. The Library was one of only 33 institutions nationwide to receive a grant in the Humanities Collections and Reference Resources category and one of only two state archives awarded grants by NEH.
Prior to 1860 Petersburg had the largest population of freedmen in the Mid-Atlantic states. The records offer social, demographic, and economic details that affected state, regional, and national politics; legal decisions; and institutions. The evolution of Petersburg’s economy from one based on tobacco to one centered on milling and manufacturing can be explored through the chancery records. The importance of Petersburg as a prosperous and diverse city—the state’s largest market town and center of economic activity—is seen in the chancery causes.
As a commercial and industrial center as well as a transportation hub Petersburg attracted an unusually large number of free African Americans. By 1860 Petersburg had a population of 18,000 including more than 3,000 free African Americans, half of whom were women. The suits document this aspect of Petersburg’s robust and diverse population as free African Americans, women, laborers, and artisans used the courts to recover debts, settle estates, divorce spouses, assert land ownership, or dissolve partnerships.
Please stay tuned to the blog as we update our progress on this important project.
-Carl Childs, Local Records Director
It is interesting to note the large number of free slaves in Petersburg. That surprises me as I would think the numbers would be higher in the more northern states at that time in history.
One of the sources we used in researching this information was Melvin Patrick Ely, Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s through the Civil War. According to Ely, on the eve of the Civil War, Virginia had more slaves than any other state and more free African Americans than any state except Maryland. (Vintage Books Edition 2005. p. 14) Thanks for reading!