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Digital images of legislative petitions to the Virginia General Assembly, 1776 to 1865, from Fairfax County through King William County have been added to the Legislative Petitions Digital Collection available on Virginia Memory, the Library of Virginia’s digital collections website. The list of localities added includes the present-day West Virginia counties of Fayette, Gilmer, Greenbrier, Hampshire, Hancock, Hardy, Harrison, Jackson, Jefferson, and Kanawha, as well as Kentucky County, now a part of the state of Kentucky. It also includes numerous localities classified as Lost Records Localities such as Fairfax, Gloucester, Hanover, James City, King and Queen, and King William Counties. With this addition, the number of legislative petitions available for viewing online currently exceeds 11,000.

One common topic found in the legislative petitions that would be of particular interest to genealogists is that of name changes. Virginia citizens could petition the General Assembly to have their names changed.  Typically this was done for inheritance purposes.

Page 1 of petition, citizens of Shinnston, 1861

Harrison County, Legislative Petitions to the Virginia General Assembly, State Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia. See gallery at end of article to view rest of petition.

In 1851, Richard Ballinger of Floyd County filed a petition to change the surname of his nine stepchildren from Lovell to Ballinger so that they could be heirs at law of his estate. William W. Finney of Accomack County filed a petition to change not just his surname but his whole name in order to receive his inheritance. Finney’s uncle, John Arrington, wrote in his will that the only way his nephew would receive his inheritance was by legally changing his name to John Arrington. In his will, filed with the petition, Arrington explained his reason for this condition: “I am the last one of the family of that name.”

An attempt to change the name of nine-year-old Josiah Cowper of Isle of Wight County so that he could receive an inheritance from his grandfather, Josiah Parker, generated multiple petitions to the General Assembly between 1811 and 1823. It also brought to light a strained family relationship. Cowper’s mother, Ann, was the daughter of Josiah Parker and married to William Cowper. Parker left a substantial estate to his grandson on the condition that he change his surname to Parker. Following the death of Parker, William Cowper filed a petition in 1811 with the General Assembly requesting the name change. However, Ann Parker Cowper filed a remonstrance petition that same year pleading with the legislature not to change her son’s surname. One of the reasons she gave was that her son was too young to inherit her father’s estate; therefore, her husband would manage the estate until their son came of age: “That I have great reason to believe that if the estate was to fall in the hands of my husband, he would in a very few years dissipate it all away and that both myself and children would be left destitute; a misfortune which would be highly aggravated by the unhappy temper of my husband.” In the following years, William filed additional petitions to change his son’s surname. In 1823, Josiah Cowper was now of age to inherit his grandfather’s estate and filed his own petition to change his surname to Parker. The General Assembly agreed that the request was “reasonable.”

One petition for a name change found in this recent addition has nothing to do with inheritance. A petition filed in 1861 by the citizens of Shinnston, located in Harrison County, requested a name change as a form of protest. They wanted the General Assembly to change the name of one of their citizens from John Tyler Janes to John Minor Botts Janes. Janes was named after John Tyler because of the “memorable campaign of 1840” when Virginia native sons William Henry Harrison and John Tyler were elected president and vice-president of the United States. The citizens of Shinnston believed Janes was deserving of the name until Tyler brought shame upon it. They presented two examples: 1) Following the death of Harrison, “John Tyler became the President of the United States and proved himself recreant to the trust confided in him,” and 2) the course pursued by Tyler at the Peace Conference in Washington, D.C., and his recent denouncing in Richmond of the plan of settlement that came out of the conference. Why the name John Minor Botts? He was a vocal anti-secession politician in Virginia at the time. For more on Botts, see his biography in the “Union or Secession” online classroom found on Virginia Memory.

Out of the Box will keep you informed of when legislative petitions from new localities become available.

-Greg Crawford, Local Records Coordinator

Greg Crawford

State Archivist & Director of Government Records Services


  • John Ragosta says:

    Thank you for your interesting work!
    I have a question about the petitions database, though: Having worked extensively with the database of Virginia Religious Petitions, is there a way to search only the new additions to the database (otherwise I might have to go through a list of several hundred petitions cross-referencing to see if anything new has been added)?

    • Jessica says:

      Hello Mr. Ragosta,
      Thanks for reading!
      Currently, the search selection is limited to two fields – Locality and Keyword Search; Subject and Keyword Search. We hope to correct this in the future.
      I suggest you do the following:
      Keyword Search – Churches/Religious issues
      Locality Search: type in the name of a locality from the latest addition (Fairfax County-King William County)
      Hope this helps,
      Greg Crawford

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