The story of Prince William County’s first deed book begins nearly three centuries ago. On May 14, 1731, during the fourth year of the reign of King George II as “sovereign Lord of Great Britain, France, and Ireland,” the county clerk of Prince William County, Catesby Cooke, began writing in a blank book. He recorded the first land transaction to take place in the newly formed county that was birthed from parts of Stafford and King George counties. John Homes of Hamilton parish leased to Thomas Whilledge, Jr., land south of the Occoquan River for five shillings sterling. Over the coming year, the clerk continued to fill the blank pages with property transactions until he reached the final page in in late 1732. The vellum bound volume was titled Liber A and shelved with other county records accumulating in the clerk’s office.
Over the next century, Liber A and other records of the county court journeyed from one part of Prince William County to another. The site of the Prince William County courthouse moved four times before finally settling at Brentsville in 1822. There Liber A remained until the Civil War. The first major battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Bull Run or Manassas, occurred in Prince William County in July 1861. It continued to be the site of multiple battles between Union and Confederate forces over the next four years of the war. At some point during the Civil War, Union forces went into the Prince William County courthouse and stole some of the oldest records of the county including Liber A. Its captor took it to an unknown location in the northern United States where it remained for the next seventy years.
On March 30, 1936, the Library of Virginia received a letter from James A. Tyson, a dealer in old and rare books in Rhode Island. He recently “secured” a volume bound in vellum with written pages of deeds, bonds, etc., recorded in Prince William County. The writing on the cover identified the book as Liber A. Tyson informed the Library that the price of the item is $250 (approximately $5,500 today) and that he would hold the volume “pending your reply.”
The State Librarian of Virginia Wilmer L. Hall informed the Prince William County circuit court clerk George G. Tyler that Liber A had been found and of the dealer’s offer to return it for cash payment. Hall asked the clerk if the Board of Supervisors would appropriate the money to purchase Liber A. Hall acknowledged that the dealer had no legal claim to the volume; however, a lawsuit to recover it would be far more costly than the $250 to purchase it.
Liber A binding pre and post conservation
Tyler forwarded Hall’s letter to the Board of Supervisors. In a subsequent letter to Hall, Tyler replied that the Board had taken no action. He proceeded to offer Hall his opinion on the matter, writing “I am not in favor of paying anything for this book as it belongs to us already and anyone in whose possession it is is in honor bond to return to us.” Tyler had the local Commonwealth’s Attorney contact the dealer to return Liber A without a price “as it is obvious that the book belongs to us.” There was no reply.
During this back and forth between the Library of Virginia and the Prince William County clerk, a third party learned of Liber A’s discovery and sought to purchase it. E.R. McKay of Springfield, Massachusetts, had recently visited the Library of Virginia and overheard conversations about Liber A. He visited the dealer in Rhode Island and negotiated a price of $200 for the volume unbeknownst to the Virginia officials. McKay took Liber A and placed it in a bank vault in Springfield. He contacted people he knew in Virginia to notify them he had “closed the deal” on Liber A but wanted to be reimbursed the $200 he had paid for it. McKay made it clear in his correspondence that his actions were not for personal financial gain, but for compensation for his service on behalf of Virginia, the home of his ancestors. McKay received payment for his “patriotic service” from the Library of Virginia with some financial assistance coming from private donors.
Soon afterwards, Liber A made its return to Virginia by express mail in June 1936. In his correspondence with the Librarian of Virginia, the Prince William County clerk wrote that while he would very much like to have the book returned to Prince William County he did not want to do so if it meant paying for it. Thus, Liber A has remained at the Library of Virginia since 1936.
Eighty-six years later, Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP) grants consultant Tracy Harter and I visited the Prince William County courthouse to examine records for future item conservation grants. After reviewing the early deed books stored there, I informed the clerk’s office that the Library of Virginia had the original Liber A deed book, the county’s oldest record. Given that the original intent of acquiring Liber A was to return it to Prince William County, the Library of Virginia offered to do so following some much-needed conservation work. The clerk’s office would also be provided with a color facsimile copy of Liber A that will be made available the public. Once conservation work was completed, arrangements were made to return Liber A. On May 9, 2023, Liber A finally returned home to the Prince William County courthouse, nearly two hundred ninety-two years to the day the first deed was recorded in 1731.
Disclaimer: It was a common practice during most of the 20th century for archival institutions to purchase historically valuable public records from rare book dealers and collectors. The Virginia Public Records Act, passed in 1974, implemented a legal process for the recovery of public records.