Archivists enjoy creating order out of apparent disorder. Much like untying a stubborn knot, the process itself can be very satisfying. Archivists are familiar with the process of arranging loose items or documents that are part of an archive or manuscript collection. However, occasionally manuscript materials that have been disbound can present challenges. A 78-page minute book would typically not prove too difficult a task. However, the Lancaster County Minute Book 1712-1715, housed at the Library of Virginia, was quite a knot! During the transfer of large collections of materials from local courthouses to the Library during the 20th century, some items occasionally found themselves in a box with other unidentified court papers or volumes.
Minute books recorded all matters brought before the court when it was in session, and thus may contain information not found anywhere else, such as civil and criminal suits, appointments of county officers, guardians and administrators, deed recordings, free negro registrations (note: this was the name assigned by the Commonwealth to a legal document free people of color were required by law to carry with them at all times prior to the end of the Civil War), naturalization registrations, and court fees. These books also provide a snapshot of a typical day in court, as events were recorded in real time as they occurred. Clerks would later transfer information from the minute books to the appropriate order book, deed book, etc.1 Thus, some minute books were thick volumes bound in leather, while others were hand-sewn with fewer pages and bound in handmade cloth covers reinforced with newsprint, and thus, easily worn and damaged. This Lancaster County minute book was of the latter type.
It is likely the volume came to the Library unidentified, in a transfer of other materials, sometime within the last ten years. It no longer had a cover, and had suffered extensive water damage in the past. It consisted of 19 folios (large sheets of paper, stacked together, sewn down the center, and folded once). Each folio contained four pages, for a total volume of 76 pages, as well as one detached leaf with two more pages. Several pages had significant mold damage, as well as being crumpled and torn. The volume was treated on-site at the Library’s conservation lab. The pages were thin and fragile, and even after mold treatment some residue and staining remained. The sewing had been removed, and the folios were folded individually and placed in an acid-free folder within a box. However, when an archivist examined it last fall as part of a larger project examining minute books, the folios appeared to be out of order. Since the original volume had never been paginated, there was no immediate way to put them in proper order. Someone needed to read the pages and locate dates, if possible.
For folks familiar with bookbinding, it would seem that one only needed to identify the proper order of the folios and layer them in gatherings as if they would be sewn into signatures.2 This is easier to do with printed narrative works, but handwritten minute books are not narrative. This one did contain several pages of depositions from various individuals regarding a particularly grisly infanticide case,3 which were also recorded in an order book, so sequencing those folios should have been easy. However, this too proved problematic.
No matter how the folios were stacked, there were always pages that did not fit the sequence, sometimes out of sequence by a year. Since minute books by their very nature are chronological, this did not make sense. A folio from 1714 demonstrated the problem. The month of December often was abbreviated throughout the volume with what looks like an X. Near the top of one left-facing page was an entry ending with a reference to the next court meeting the second Wednesday of December 1714, which indicated that that entry was likely from November. However, the entry that followed on that same page was a date in January 1714. The year had stayed the same.
By reviewing the order books that spanned that same time period, it was possible to match up some pages that did not include dates, which then revealed the mystery.4 Moving forward a few years in Order Book 1713-1721 revealed patterns for dates denoted in those early months of a year. A January 1716 entry referred to the court having been “adjourned to the Second Wednesday in Feby next” and signed and dated 1716/17. Court was not held in February, but the next entry was dated “13th day of March Anno Dom 1716.” Scholars of the period would likely have an “Aha!” moment and easily explain the apparent discrepancy. From 1155 to 1751, England’s official calendar considered the legal new year to begin March 25, often referred to as Annunciation Day–the day that many Christians of the period believed that the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus. Thus, while Roman months accounted for the calendar year, on legal documents, officials might refer to dates between January 1 through March 24 with what looks like a fraction—the old year as the numerator and the new year as the denominator.5 A 2016 article in The Staunton News Leader explored how this was common in Augusta County as well during that time period.6
Using the order books as a chronological reference, the minute book folios soon were placed in proper chronological order, and a document explaining this order was placed with the item. The Lancaster County Minute Book 1712-1715, which had been in no discernible order, now is in order. Thus the “stubborn knot” of the mysterious folios and dates was untied—a very satisfying feeling for an archivist, and hopefully a more expedient research experience for any future historian.
- See Research Notes #6: Using County and City Court Records: https://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/rn6_countycity.pdf
- See a few image examples of folios here and here.
- Several pages of Lancaster County Minute Book 1712-1715 contain entries related to the case of Ann Tayloe, who on 20 Sept 1714 stood charged with giving birth to an illegitimate child and later burying it, possibly in pieces; this page is part of a deposition from Elizabeth “Betty” Massey, a white servant who, along with an enslaved woman named Mary, appeared to have had some knowledge of this event.
- See Lancaster Order Books 1702-1713 and 1713-1721.
- See also this and this.
- Sorrells, Nancy. “When March 25 was Augusta County’s New Year’s Day.” Staunton News Leader. 15 April 2016.