Skip to main content

Our CCRP travel picked up during the month of April for CCRP consulting archivists, which for me meant visits to five localities: Spotsylvania County, Mathews County, Greene County, Lancaster County, and Middlesex County. Often, my colleague and I will try to map out visits such that if they are a significant distance from LVA, we stay overnight near adjacent localities in order to maximize time at each one and not spend as much time driving. However, for this month, three of my five visits were day trips, and two others involved one overnight.

Spotsylvania County

The modern Spotsylvania County Courthouse in Spotsylvania, Virginia.

My first stop carried me north on I-95 to the records room of Spotsylvania County circuit court clerk Christalyn Jett. I spent about half of my time in a locked historic records area not available to the public, examining records and identifying potential candidates for item conservation grants. Then I moved into the main records room to do the same thing, and to finish inventorying about a dozen cellulose acetate laminated volumes that I had not completed on my visit last year. Between the historic records area and the main records room over the course of about four hours, I examined over fifty items—that’s a lot of standing and lifting, so there’s a reason most job descriptions for archivists require the ability to lift 40 pounds!

Of the items I examined that day, a few memorable ones stood out. A several hundred page typed compilation called “Index to All Suits, Court Papers, Etc. 1722-1918” represented a Herculean indexing effort by one individual over 100 years ago. It also demonstrates why conservation and security of the physical records are still so important today, as per the compiler’s frank and witty note at the front:

This volume contains an effort to make an index of all of the Court papers in the Clerk’s Office at Spotsylvania Court House down to March 1, 1918. It represents a free service contribution to the bar and the county by one member of the bar and is not subject to any criticism. Anybody that don’t like it let them make a better one and then criticize this one all they please…If you don’t find what you want it is more probable that some lawyer had the papers out of the clerk’s office than it is that they were overlooked in making the index.

Because Spotsylvania County dates to 1720, there are a variety of record types with a variety of conservation issues. For example, Execution Book 1800-1804 is bound with a deteriorating vellum cover but the majority of the text block is in fair condition. It may be possible for the volume to be rebound with new cover boards and a faux vellum binding, retaining as much as possible of the original vellum covers. Other water-damaged or insect-damaged items with missing covers might be good candidates for treatments involving encapsulation of individual leaves and post-binding in a sturdy cover.

And, like many localities throughout the Commonwealth, Spotsylvania County also has a large number of cellulose acetate laminated items, which are candidates for delamination projects. To assess these, I often bring a device that shines light behind a page to help determine the degree of deterioration it has suffered, and thus identify some challenges to conservation. The light source demonstrates losses, whether through acidic ink, weak or vermin-eaten paper, or a combination of issues, as seen in these images of Execution Book 1756-1771 and Will Book B 1749-1761. It also helps highlight the watermark and chain lines of an unused 18th century leaf, when paper sheets were laid and pressed.

Mathews County

Mathews Courthouse

My next destination was eastward to the records room of Mathews County circuit court clerk Angela Ingram, on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula. This might have been part of a two-overnight-visit with two other localities, but scheduling conflicts allowed for this to be a day trip. The focus on this visit was to examine marriage licenses as potential item conservation candidates and to address some other preservation and access concerns. As most of the earliest marriage licenses have been conserved and digitally reformatted, there were a few drawers remaining that might be conservation candidates. I otherwise was not examining loose records, however tempting that might be.

Ms. Ingram, who will be retiring August 1, and her incoming interim clerk Beth Manning are also interested in other CCRP grants, such as a reformatting grant for a large run of deed books to be made available electronically through their records management system, and an essential equipment grant for temperature and humidity gauges that would help them compile data regarding the environmental conditions of their records room. I typically bring a handheld device when I visit localities and take readings at intervals during my visit. We recommend a stable temperature no higher than 70°F and a stable relative humidity between a minimum of 30% and a maximum of 50%. If localities can document these readings over time, they can make a stronger case for the care and custodianship of their records, as well as the health of the staff and patrons who visit.

1809 Superior Court Rule Docket hand-sewn into a cloth cover lined with newsprint; close-ups of advertisements for runaways—one, a runaway soldier of German descent; the other a runaway enslaved person who escaped from onboard a ship bound from Georgia

Perhaps the most interesting item I examined was an 1809 Superior Court Rule Docket hand-sewn into a cloth cover lined with newsprint. This kind of item is itself an artifact, and as such warrants different conservation treatment. A close-up of a portion of the 1809 newspaper includes advertisements for deserters and runaways—one, a soldier of German descent who deserted from Fort McHenry in Maryland; the other a runaway enslaved person who escaped from onboard a ship bound from Georgia.

Greene County

The Greene County courthouse in Stanardsville, Virginia. Originally part of Orange County, Greene County was established in 1838.

My third day trip for the month of April was to the office of recently elected Greene County circuit court clerk Ashby Lamb-Gomez in Stanardsville, Virginia. The county dates to 1838, but several volumes were water damaged after a courthouse fire in 1979, and its first Deed Book, 1838-1841, was lost during the Civil War. With the county having participated in the CCRP grants program for a number of years now, most records that had been a higher priority for conservation have been treated. Thus, some items that had been lower conservation priorities may now be considered. For example, the handwritten note on the cover of Will Book 3 1926-1958 reads, “Do Not Take Apart, Thanks.” The post-binder is broken and pages have become detached. Some of the county’s earliest volumes may have loose hinges or covers or spines that are detaching, with the text blocks largely intact.

While examining two early minute books, which also served as order books, I glanced through references to property conveyances. Historians know that references to “property” in antebellum times often include enslaved people, so I was not particularly surprised to find references to “Negro Girl Ellen” and “a certain servant Girl Amanda 16 Years of age” in recordings of deeds of trust in 1843 and 1853, respectively.

Lancaster County

The current Lancaster County courthouse, constructed in 2010, is located only a few hundred feet away from the historic 1863-era courthouse.

The next two visits involved an overnight in Kilmarnock while I visited Lancaster County on one day and Middlesex County the next. Lancaster County circuit court clerk Diane Mumford was in court the day I visited, but we had made arrangements for this scenario and I had plenty of material to examine. My mission that day was to leave with photos and condition reports for two grant cycles’ worth of potential grant candidates, and to get an accurate assessment of the remaining cellulose acetate laminated volumes on the shelves, which included deed books, order books and other miscellaneous 19th century volumes. I had another opportunity to use the illuminating light pad to help document degradation of cellulose laminated pages with significant bleedthrough and losses due to a combination of iron gall ink and other factors.

Many of the laminated volumes were in fair enough condition to be good conservation candidates, and did not take much time to examine, which enabled me to spend some time with the content. Whenever I examine 18th or 19th century volumes of deed books, order books, or will books, I immediately check to see if they contain an index because some clerks were forward-thinking and included helpful information about the transaction or situation being recorded.

The index of Deed Book 25 1803-1812 often listed emancipations of enslaved people or indentured servants, because at that time transactions involving enslaved or indentured persons were considered property transactions and were recorded in deed books. The indexes of order books, however, can be even more varied than deed books.

In Order Book 19, 1789-1792, for example, the topics range from court orders regarding estate disputes, debts, or criminal cases to business licenses, road and bridge repairs, tax exemptions, military commissions, guardianships, apprentice indentures, and emancipations.

Middlesex County

A view of the Middlesex County courthouse in Saluda, Virginia. This courthouse was built in 1852.

The next day I traveled from my overnight stay in Kilmarnock to the records room of Middlesex County circuit court clerk Rachel Hartenbach in Saluda, Virginia. Established in 1669 from Lancaster County, the first Middlesex County courthouse was located in Urbanna. In 1849 the county seat was moved to Saluda, and construction for that courthouse was completed in 1852. Middlesex County is considered one of Virginia’s “Lost Records” localities, as several loose records from the 19th century are missing. However, many of the historic volumes do survive, and thus my focus on this particular day was to examine a variety of volumes with vastly different conservation needs, from tattered and otherwise damaged 18th and 19th century minute books and execution books, to cellulose acetate laminated plat books, to thick, post-bound indexes with degrading, sticky, yellowing tape adhering each page to paper strips.

The variety of content within the record types and conservation needs made this an especially interesting visit. For example, the whimsical marginalia found in Minute Book 1810-1812 indicate a few potentially challenging court days. It’s not unusual to find militia commissions recorded in deed books, such as that shown in an August 24, 1812 entry in Deed Book 13, 1810-1817. Colorful hand drawn plats often show geographical features and/or structures that may no longer exist, and thus help tell a visual story of a place in time, such as this plat from Middlesex County Plat Book 1, 1919-1941 containing surveys of lands and oyster grounds, and showing extant structures and trees.

And although the term “execution book” sounds alarming, these volumes have nothing to do with putting anyone to death. Instead, they document the sheriff’s efforts to collect, or “execute,” a debt owed from one party to another, typically by a judgment of the court. If the party owing the debt could not pay it, the sheriff seized property that later could be released to the party once they paid the judgment, or if not, the property could then be sold to cover the judgment as well as the sheriff’s expenses. In antebellum records, these executions often included enslaved people, as shown in this entry issued on November 25, 1775 in Middlesex County Execution Book 1795-1797, in which “Woman Unity & Child” were seized from the defendant and sold on January 25, 1796 to pay his judgment debt.

Road Trip Roundup

Miles traveled: 555 miles

Courthouses visited:

  • Spotsylvania County (Spotsylvania, VA, est. 1720)
  • Mathews County (Mathews, VA, est. 1790)
  • Greene County (Stanardsville, VA, est. 1838)
  • Lancaster County (Lancaster, VA, est. 1651)
  • Middlesex County (Saluda, VA, est. 1669)

Oldest record viewed: Lancaster County Order Book 2 1680-1686

Soundtrack: WNRN—independent music station

Best food: Dinner at the Kilmarnock Inn

Virginia landmark: Armistead S. Nickens Historical Highway Marker J-46 (1871-1875 Virginia House of Delegates member)

Tracy Harter

Senior Local Records Consulting Archivist

Leave a Reply