Skip to main content

As one of two Circuit Court Records Program (CCRP) consulting archivists, CCRP travel for the upcoming grant cycle season began for me in February 2023. That month, I visited Westmoreland County, Richmond County, and Louisa County, each of which were day trips. All three were formed from other counties, but Westmoreland and Richmond Counties are similar in that they both are Northern Neck localities over 330 years old, with Richmond County the elder by one year, having been formed in 1692. Louisa County, in central Virginia, may seem young in comparison, if you consider dating from 1742 “young”!

The records in each of these localities date to their beginnings, but are not always complete. Louisa County is missing one order book that likely burned in Richmond in 1865. Westmoreland County lost a number of loose papers during the Revolutionary War and Civil War. Richmond County’s losses were not attributed to specific conflicts, but are considered catastrophic: some volumes had been burned and/or mutilated, and many records are missing, including pre-1699 will books (which already were known to have been missing as early as 1793), 1794-1816 order books, and many pre-1781 loose records. Thus, when CCRP consulting archivists travel to identify volumes and other items in need of conservation, we have to consider them in context of extant surviving records.

CCRP archivists’ primary mission during these site visits is to identify records that might be candidates for item conservation grants. If you have ever read our past Facebook posts over the years, you likely have seen examples of crumpled or water damaged land tax books, a variety of volumes or loose records in some form of deterioration, and items that were cellulose acetate laminated, which was a popular form of conservation in the early to mid-20th century, but is now discredited, as it proved to be more harmful over time. Since many eastern localities have records dating to the 1600s, the earliest records often were the first to be laminated. While examining these types of records, CCRP archivists truly have the best of both worlds: we seek historical records in need of conservation, and we can bring attention to the events and transactions recorded in them that document the human condition.

During my three February visits, there was plenty that caught my attention, and will likely catch yours here!

Westmoreland County

Shown on the left is the front of the historic Westmoreland County Courthouse. Shown at right, just a few blocks away, is the façade of the modern Westmoreland Judicial Center building where the Circuit Court is now located, in Montross, Virginia.

My first stop was the records room of Westmoreland County circuit court clerk Anne Garner in Montross, Virginia. As I examined Westmoreland County Order Book, 1690-1698, I noticed this entry from June 26, 1695, concerning a Native American servant’s successful petition for his freedom. He appears to be referenced by both the first and last name of the man to whom he had been bound to serve, possibly a former clergyman from Cople Parish who had died in 1691 (see Virginia Chronicle). A rough transcription of the entry follows, with questionable translations in brackets:

“John Scrimgeour an Indian Native of this Country late Servant to Mr. Jn. Scrimgeour [deceased] Setting forth that hee is upwards of thirty years of Age and that hee came here by Land, making humble petition to this Court for his freedom according to Law. This Court having Considered the matter doo adjudge him thirty years of age. Therefore It is Confidered that the sd John Scrimgeour r an Indian as aforesaid from henceforth doo enjoy his freedom and bee free from the sd John Scrimgeour [deceased] or any person whatsoever clayming under him Pursuant to the 12 Act of Assembly held at James City the 3d of October 1670 Entitled an Act Concerning who shall bee slaves.”

Although not enslaved, married women had very few legal rights in the 1600s, but an entry in Westmoreland County Order Book, 1698-1705, is heartening. It records the order of a woman seeking to retain control over the family’s crops in a field after her husband had abandoned her and their children. She sought to benefit from the crops, whether as for food or for any revenue they might bring, and to ensure that they would not be confiscated to cover any of her husband’s debts. The court finds in her favor, as follows:

“Elizabeth Wilkinson the wife of Thomas Wilkinson late of this County showing to this Court that her said husband having absented himself out of the County and left her with five children in a very meane condition prayed that the Crops of Corn & Tobacco left growing when her sd hussband ran away (being for the most part the labor of the Petitioner and her sd children (and their sole dependence for support & maintainance) might not bee served by any attachment or levyed by virtue of any Execution ag’t the sd. Thomas Wilkinson or his Estate. Which being Considered by the Court It is Ordered that no Attachment or Execution be levied or served on any of the Corn or Tob’o aforementioned but that the land remains & bee wholly in the possession of the sd Elizabeth And bee disposed of by her towards the maintenance of her self and said Children.”

Richmond County

Shown on the left is the historic 1749-era Richmond County Courthouse in Warsaw, Virginia. Just past the courthouse complex is a recently constructed (c. 2020) storm water pond and greenspace area, which replaced what had been an abandoned shopping center, and is a welcome addition to the landscape of the town.

My visit to the records room of Richmond County circuit court clerk Cheryl “Sherry” Pierson, in Warsaw, Virginia, uncovered other historical scenarios, ranging from liquor to witchcraft to murder. During the examination of Richmond County Order Book, 1699-1704, as a potential item conservation candidate, I almost missed this entry from a court session on March 4, 1701. However, whenever I happen to see reference to courthouses, I usually read them. This one was fun: “Ordered that no Settlers do presume from this day to to expose to sale any sort of Lyquor within the Space of a full Quarter of a miles Dystance from the new Court house.”

While volumes available in most circuit court records rooms commonly include deed books, will books, order books, and minute books, some of the earliest volumes were not always consistently labeled, or used titles that served as umbrella terms for any of the above. In a volume titled County Court Record Book, 1710-1754, the handwritten flyleaf explained its contents: “Fines, Examination of Criminals, Tryalls of Slaves &c.” That got my attention.

Fortunately, this volume had an index, which proved especially helpful as it contained details that identified specific situations. I found references to several folks bound to their good behavior or recognizance, and in some instances, persons to be whipped. The entry for “Mary a White Woman Whipt” seemed unusually specific. The Oct. 7, 1730, entry stated that Mary, a “white woman Servant belonging to John Samford,” had been jailed and found guilty for “takeing upon her by Inchantment, Charm, witchcraft or Conjuration, to tell where Treasure is, or where goods lost may be found…It is therefore ordered that the Sherriff take her and carry her to the Comon Whipping Post, and give her Thirty-nine lashes on her bare back well laid on.”

Louisa County

Although Louisa County was established in 1742, this Louisa County Courthouse dates from 1905 and is designated as a Virginia Historic Landmark. The jail building at left dates from 1868 and was in use until 1967.

I concluded my February travel with a visit to the records room of Louisa County circuit court clerk Patty Madison in Louisa, Virginia. She had contacted me to visit specifically for advice about conservation options for the county’s oldest will book, so that was the primary target for examination, along with other items in need of conservation in the main records room. I had less opportunity to seek “human interest” stories, but I can assure you from my previous visits, there are many!

The volume of Louisa County Wills 1, 1745-1761, like many around the commonwealth, was lovingly and beautifully conserved in the 1930s using a process called silking. This involved cutting the leaves apart, adding a thin, almost transparent layer of silk to the documents, which was thought to strengthen and protect them. The leaves were then attached to paper tabs and resewn and bound into a volume. While this truly has kept the volume’s pages intact for the last century, we now know that all forms of lamination have detrimental effects and should be removed if possible. Even the wooden boards and endpapers are acidic.

Example of ``Silking`` Conservation

Louisa County Wills 1, 1745-1761,

And, like many early volumes, sometimes other types of actions get recorded within and not denoted on the spine. This will book also contains polls for the selection of Louisa County’s electors for the 1892 presidential and vice-presidential elections. If delamination/desilking can be accomplished successfully, the pages would then be deacidified, placed into inert polyester sleeves, and post-bound, including the pages containing election polls.

Continuing with the lamination theme, it’s easy to see why lamination was so popular during the 20th century. Consider examples from these two Louisa County Minute Books. Minute books are often historically valuable, as they are the “diaries” of activities and transactions that occurred in a courthouse on any given day, in real time as they occurred. They are often the rough drafts of what would be more formal recordings, including land transfers, court decisions, oaths of office, and other legal transactions. In Louisa County, many early minute books were merely soft-bound gatherings (sets of leaves sewn together at the fold), some of which were later bound together as volumes. It’s possible that some gatherings were overlooked or simply not located at the time others were bound together.

Notice that the pages  from Louisa County Minute Book 1784-1787, (far left image) which was cellulose acetate laminated in 1961, are intact and whole, while the pages from a very thin portion of a minute book dating from January 1775 to August 1776 are chipped, torn and brittle (left image). Both warrant conservation, and although the treatment will differ for the laminated item, if selected for item conservation grants, the leaves of each would be mended as needed, deacidified, encapsulated and bound in appropriately sized post-binders.

Road Trip Round-Up

Miles traveled: 286
Courthouses visited: 3
Oldest record viewed: Westmoreland County: Deeds & Wills 1653-1659
Soundtrack: primarily silence…this trip!
Virginia landmark: Headstone/memorial for Warsaw, VA native William Atkinson Jones, St. John’s Episcopal Church Cemetery across the street from the courthouse; Virginia’s 1st Dist. U.S. House of Representatives 1891-1918 (died in office). According to Wikipedia: “From 1911 to 1918, he served as Chairman of the House Committee on Insular Affairs, which had jurisdiction over areas including the Philippines and Puerto Rico. He is best remembered as the House sponsor of the Jones Act or the Philippine Autonomy Act, which promised ultimate independence to the Philippines.”

And that wrapped up my February CCRP travel. After each visit, I returned to LVA and compiled locality notes to document each visit, for future reference, and uploaded dozens (if not hundreds) of photos to our network drive. For those items that seemed most in need of conservation or were high-priority for the clerk, I wrote condition reports and statements of work to supply to the clerk later when the grant cycle opens. All told, I examined a total of about 60 volumes, with photographs and condition reports for nearly half of them, which likely will supply about two grant cycles’ worth of item conservation grants for each locality. I did not schedule any locality visits for March, so April will prove to be a busy month.

Tracy Harter

Senior Local Records Consulting Archivist

Leave a Reply