As we mentioned in the last installment for the “Records Room Road Trips” series, the spring and summer have brought more overnight stays as we’ve ventured farther from Richmond. Naturally, we try to group circuit court clerks’ office visits that are near each other for these trips. This is especially important for me because my localities stretch along the southern tier of Virginia, from Lee County in the southwest corner of the state to Accomack County on the Eastern Shore. When I travel on overnight excursions to the Southside and southwest Virginia, I try to work out of the “hubs” of Danville, Salem, and Abingdon.
On May 10, 2023, a week or so before I began my long-haul traveling, I made a day trip to the office of Charlotte County circuit court clerk, Nan Colley, who would be retiring in just a few weeks. Formed in 1765, Charlotte County has a nearly complete collection of court records. On this visit, the clerk opted to continue with an ongoing project to conserve the county’s marriage records.
Marriage records can sometimes be complicated and tedious to examine. When we, in consultation with the clerk, identify a court record as a good candidate for a Circuit Court Records Program (CCRP) conservation grant, we write up a condition report and take photographs of the item. The condition report lists the specifics of the item, such as type of binding (sewn, post binding, etc.), or if it is loose records (bundled, flat filed, etc.), then the item/page count, etc., while also indicating the conservation issues that warrant its consideration for a grant. The photographs that we take are examples of condition issues. The condition reports are used to later create a statement of work (SOW) document, which essentially prescribes the suggested conservation treatment for each item. The clerk then passes these SOWs to conservation vendors so that they can provide a quote for the cost of the work, or a proposal of work (POW). The grant review committee takes the POW into consideration when evaluating grant requests.
Marriage records can be challenging to write up, especially if they are folded and bundled. Depending on the date range (or era), marriage records can contain bonds and/or licenses, as well as consents, certificates, and ministers’ returns. The “bundle” might be one document (a license) or it might contain multiple documents, all folded up, only to be revealed after it is untied and unfolded. The number of documents is included in the condition report and eventually in the SOW as the vendors frequently provide a quote based on the number of items. Capturing images of these documents can be problematic, especially if they have been folded and need to be unfolded in order to be photographed. The documents don’t want to remain unfolded, especially if they have been that way for 200 years.
This was the case with the Charlotte County marriage records. Having already examined the marriage records from 1765-1801 on previous visits, I began with the years 1802-1804. The folded loose records are stored in acidic envelopes and then packed tightly into the Woodruff document drawers. The documents can generally be described as brittle, chipped, and tearing (or splitting), especially along the folds or creases. Once at the conservation lab, the documents will be flattened, surface cleaned and mended as needed, before they are deacidified, encapsulated in archival polyester sleeves, and post bound in a new binder. Accompanying documents, such as consents and certificates, will be put in sleeves and placed just after the bond or license that they are associated with. Tabs will be added to separate the years in the post binder.
While at the Charlotte County circuit court clerk’s office, I examined and wrote up condition reports for seven batches of marriage records for the years 1802-1826, totaling 2,010 items.
The following Monday, I headed to Southside Virginia for a week. Danville served as my hub for visiting the localities in this area. On the way, I stopped at the office of Campbell County circuit court clerk, Valerie Younger, in Rustburg. The clerk was out of the office, but we confirmed in advance that the conservation of the Campbell County marriage records remained her top priority. While visiting the clerk’s office, I returned the Campbell County Free Negro Register, 1802-1865. A few months earlier, the clerk kindly transferred the volume to the Library of Virginia so that it could be scanned as a part of the Virginia Untold project. The digital images from the volume are now available through the Virginia Untold website.
Like the Charlotte County marriage records, the Campbell County marriage records were folded, bundled, and packed tightly into Woodruff drawers, with the only difference being that the Campbell County records were 100 years later (or newer). One of the interesting things about examining marriage licenses from the end of the 19th and into the turn of the century is the variable quality of the paper. You might find folded and bundled marriage licenses that are in pretty good condition, and then in the next drawer or year the licenses will be of a poorer quality paper and in tatters. The Campbell County marriage records will receive the same treatment as the Charlotte County marriage records: surface cleaned and mended as needed, before they are deacidified, encapsulated, and post bound in new binder, with tabs to divide years.
In total, I examined and wrote up condition reports for 11 batches of marriage records for the years 1903-1924, totaling 3,840 items.
One of the beautiful parts of having been in this job for a number of years is that I have become familiar with my travels and surroundings. I have made a friend of US-58, US-360, and US-460, all of which I sometimes use when I am heading to the Southside. Additionally, because of my familiarity with my hubs, I have a rudimentary understanding of my way around once I arrive. As was mentioned in our introductory installment, Tracy and I are avid runners. When I am in Danville, I am on the Riverwalk Trail every morning. The Riverwalk Trail offers over 9 miles of walking and biking on a blacktop trail along the scenic Dan River.
After my morning run on the Danville Riverwalk Trail, I took a short drive to the office of Pittsylvania County circuit court clerk, Mark Scarce, in Chatham. (The roundtrip drive also takes me through the unincorporated community of Tightsqueeze, Virginia.) Upon my arrival, the clerk introduced me to the records room manager, Stephanie Adams, who had a list of volumes with conservation concerns. Most of these issues were simple problems concerning broken post binders and potential rebinds, all of which should be easy and relatively inexpensive fixes. They are important, however, because they involved deed books, which are heavily used. Other than that, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the clerk had set marriage records as a high priority.
A good example of one of the items with the modest rebind issues is 676-page, Deed Book 139, 1912. The volume has pages splitting along the signature folds and a detached spine, which should be easily remedied. What makes this volume a little trickier is that it has quite a few glued and taped attachments, such as plats and surveys. Even worse, some of the attachments were tearing and have tape repairs, and most are covering text. Once at the conservation lab, the attachments will be removed, along with any tape and adhesives. Then, the pages and attachments will be surface cleaned and mended, the signatures that are splitting will be guarded (or reinforced), and signatures will be resewn as needed. The volume’s pages (but not attachments) will be deacidified and it will be rebound in a new spring back binder. The removed attachments will be refolded and formatted so as to be sewn in place in the new binder.
After taking care of the 10 binder/post binder concerns, I continued with the marriage records, examining and writing up condition reports for six batches for the years 1801-1815, totaling 1,776 items. They were mostly bonds, with some consents and other documents, and are flat filed and stored in transparent plastic sleeves. For the most part, they are in fairly poor condition with many tearing, some evidence of old water damage, and some pressure sensitive tape repairs. They will get the same treatment as the Charlotte and Campbell County marriage records: surface cleaned, mended, deacidified, encapsulated, and post bound with tabs.
The following day’s trip to the office of Henry County circuit court clerk, Jennifer Ashworth, in Martinsville was a little out of the ordinary. As I already had enough condition reports in the chute for at least two grant cycles, I had not planned to travel to Martinsville this summer. In March, however, the clerk’s chief deputy, Frances Wade, contacted me about some records that they recently rediscovered and had questions about. Since the clerk had previously expressed interest in visiting the Bassett Historical Center, I asked if she might want to visit the facility while I was in the area. The clerk made an appointment and the director gave us a tour of this impressive regional history and genealogy facility in Henry County.
To be honest, my expectations for the Henry County records were low; these discoveries are usually letdowns. On my arrival to the Henry County Courthouse, however, the clerk and deputy took me to the vault to retrieve the records, which turned out to be a Henry County archival jackpot! The collection included a few early court record books, election returns (1778-1825), land tax books (1789-1806), and nearly 50 loose records related to the formation of Henry County, including a 1774 land grant signed by Lord Dunmore (the lieutenant governor of the colony), as well as a number of official commissions and appointments signed by early governors of Virginia, including Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Floyd, John Tyler, and more. The collection also included documents related to the construction of the first courthouse in 1780, another courthouse in 1793, the prison in 1803, and the clerk’s office in 1812. I explained that it was an artificial collection, meaning that the documents had been pulled from other local government record groups, which goes against one of the basic archival tenets that records should retain the original groupings according to their creators or sources. However, as they had already been removed from their original record groups, they were now an artificial collection which I entitled “Records Related to the Founding and Early History of Henry County, 1774-1833.”
1) Land grant conveying 343 acres in Pittsylvania County signed by Lord Dunmore, Lieutenant Governor of the Colony of Virginia. 15) Justices’ commissions signed by Patrick Henry, Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. 19) Land grant signed by Thomas Jefferson. 22) Land grant conveying signed by James Monroe.
After we returned to the clerk’s office, I began examining and writing up condition reports for the items. As time was slipping away, I realized that I would need to return to complete my work, which I did the following day after my visit to the City of Danville circuit court clerk’s office. I returned to Henry County the following week for a television and newspaper interview regarding the clerk’s rediscovery.
City of Danville
The office of City of Danville circuit court clerk, Gerald Gibson, was my final courthouse visit of the week (if you don’t count returning to the Henry County circuit court clerk’s office later that day). Mr. Gibson is the second longest serving circuit court clerk in the Commonwealth of Virginia, having been first elected to the position in 1979. Marriage records have been the clerk’s top priority since my first visit to his office on September 6, 2016, because of their popularity with genealogists. I examined and wrote up condition reports for seven batches of marriage licenses for the years 1921-1924, totaling 2,200 items.
In my next installment, I continue my western progression to Abingdon and I also share an out of state adventure with my colleague and fellow traveler, Tracy Harter, so stay tuned!
Road Trip Roundup
Miles traveled: 880 miles
Charlotte County (Charlotte Courthouse, Virginia, est. 1764)
Campbell County (Rustburg, Virginia, est. 1782)
Pittsylvania County (Chatham, Virginia, est. 1767)
Henry County (Martinsville, Virginia, est. 1777)
City of Danville (Danville, Virginia, est. as village in 1793)
Oldest record viewed: 1774 land grant conveying property in Pittsylvania County from George the Third to George Taylor, signed by Lord Dunmore, Lieutenant Governor Virginia colony, creating Henry County.
Soundtrack: Anything on Led Zeppelin I, II, or III.
Best food: (Danville, Virginia hub) Mucho Taqueria; Me’s burgers & brews; Cotton at Riverside Mill
Virginia landmark: Bassett Furniture Industries Jacket, Bassett Historical Center, Bassett, Virginia
Pittsylvania County circuit court clerk, Mark Scarce in the archival storage area, standing next to the clerk’s office safe and the lottery drum used once a month for juror candidate selection.