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And so, with my final week-long travel stay in Salem in August completed, my fellow traveler, Tracy Harter, and I settled into the post-frenzied-travel, winter doldrums period. It’s not that we don’t travel, but by this time, with the bulk of our time-sensitive travel behind us, there are few pressing clerks’ offices to visit before the next grant cycle (which is the reason that we must hit the road each summer). Of the seven clerks’ office visits between my last southwest Virginia visit (to the Franklin County Courthouse) until the writing of this blog post in March 2024, only two would be for examining items as potential candidates for the upcoming CCRP program item conservation grants. Of course, there’s always something going on.

As mentioned in previous installments of the RRRT blog series, in addition to our courthouse visits, Tracy and I routinely travel to Greensboro, North Carolina, to inspect items conserved at area conservation labs through CCRP program conservation grants to make sure that the treatment has been performed adequately. During this period, we traveled to Greensboro in September, November, and January, and we are currently making plans for a March visit.

The author inspecting conserved Buckingham County marriage licenses at the Kofile Technologies facility in Greensboro, North Carolina.

November 14, 2023, photograph by Tracy Harter.

In September of last year, the 113th annual Virginia Court Clerks’ Association convention was held in Richmond at a conference facility just a few blocks from the Library of Virginia. On the afternoon of September 8, Virginia State Archivist Greg Crawford presented to the convention, discussing his new role as the state archivist and provided an update on the CCRP grants program. The following day, the Library of Virginia hosted the clerks for another presentation by Greg Crawford and Local Records Program manager Vince Brooks on online historical court records resources, featuring the Chancery Records Index and Virginia Untold. After the talk, the circuit court clerks were given a tour of some of the behind the scenes areas and got to see some of the historic records that the clerks’ offices have transferred to the Library of Virginia for preservation and access.

Virginia Court Clerks Association Convention

Attendees of the 113th annual Virginia Court Clerks’ Association convention touring the archival collection on the fourth floor at the Library of Virginia in Richmond, September 9, 2023.

Grants Review Board Meeting

The CCRP Grants Review Board meeting at the Library of Virginia in Richmond, February 13, 2024.

On October 16, 2023, Tracy and I sent out the CCRP grant announcements to over 100 circuit court clerks’ offices, with a January 12, 2024 deadline for getting the grant applications in. During that time, Tracy and I processed the grant applications as they came in, making sure that they were complete, and communicating with both the clerks’ offices and the conservation vendors whenever necessary. That work all culminated in a February 13, 2024 CCRP grants review board meeting at the Library of Virginia in which 124 grant applications from 101 localities were reviewed. In the end, over $3.2 million dollars in CCRP grants were awarded to circuit court clerks’ offices across the commonwealth of Virginia.

City of Williamsburg/James City County

The first two day trips were to the office of City of Williamsburg/James City County circuit court clerk, Elizabeth O’Connor in Williamsburg. The clerk had found a single Woodruff drawer of 1867 judgments and since the rest of the judgments were at the Library of Virginia, she asked that I stop by to transfer them so that they would be with the rest of the collection. Not very sexy, but that, along with inventories, environmental/security assessments, consultations, etc., are additional parts of our jobs. The clerk signed an Archival Transfer List and Receipt permitting me to transfer the drawer to the Library of Virginia.

My second day trip to the City of Williamsburg/James City County Courthouse three weeks later concerned what appears to be an older index to wills in the circuit court clerk’s office. James City County was established in 1634 and Williamsburg in 1699, and since 1770 the two have shared a common courthouse. In 1865 the records of both localities were destroyed by fire in Richmond where they had been transferred for safekeeping. As a result, the oldest records in the courthouse only date from 1865 (although a few random records appear to predate the fire, possibly those that for some reason were not sent to Richmond). The index has turned out to be a puzzle of sorts, as so far we have been unable to tie it to any will book, drawers, or collection of loose records.

Charles City County

After leaving the City of Williamsburg/James City Courthouse that day, I traveled on Route 5 to the office of Charles City County circuit court clerk, Victoria Washington, to pick up some voter registers for a scheduled transfer to the Library of Virginia. The clerk had recently found a batch of old court records, which included four List of Colored Voters Registered Since January 1st, 1904. Voter registers from this era are not unusual themselves as we see them quite frequently. Generally speaking, the slim volumes tend to stand out on courthouse visits because, when they have them: a) there are usually a large number of them stacked together, and b) they have distinctive marbled covers. The large number in each locality is attributable to the fact that each of the slim books represents one voter precinct.

Charles City County Voter Register

List of Colored Voters Registered since January 1st, 1904 for Harrison Precinct in Harrison Magisterial District in Charles City County, and the voter application and “understanding clause” questions and answers for Junius Jones.

The reason that these Charles City County voter registers are so special, however, was because of the loose documents they contained. As a result of the 1902 Virginia Constitutional Convention, the unabashed purpose of which was to disenfranchise the state’s African American voters, the new constitution adopted a series of election law changes that had the objective of depriving Black men of their right to vote without explicitly disenfranchising them because they were Black. That was the reason that the List of Colored Voters Registered included the date, January 1, 1904. That is when the rules changed. In addition to a poll tax and other measures intended to make voting more difficult, a controversial literacy test was watered down into what became known as the “understanding clause.”

The understanding clause granted the right to vote to those who could make an application to the registrar unassisted and in their own handwriting, and then provide satisfactory answers to the questions that registrar asked. This question-and-answer workaround, which could be subjectively administered by their local white registrar, served its purpose in disenfranchising African American voters. The loose documents floating around within these voter registers included some of the actual applications (in their own handwriting) and the tests with answers for that person.

In addition, this visit proved fruitful for another reason. Because the voter registers were in a batch of recently discovered records, a return visit will be scheduled in the coming weeks in order to inventory the newly found items, as well as to begin our regular work examining items as potential candidates for the upcoming CCRP program grant cycle (2025FY).

A few weeks ago I made a second visit to the Charles City County circuit court clerk’s office, this time for another scheduled records transfer. In this instance, the clerk had received a random page from a Charles City County court record book, circa 1683. The page, probably from a minute book, which in all likelihood had been removed during one of the Union raids on the courthouse, had been in upstate New York before making its way south and finally being donated back to the Charles City County circuit court clerk.

Victoria Washington & 1683 Page

Charles City County circuit court clerk, Victoria Washington, holding the sheet (pages 187-188) from a 1683 court record book. Someone who had the document previously had matted it for display and that’s how it was returned to the clerk.

The loose page was cataloged and shelved with a number of other similar Charles City County records that were ultimately saved BY being looted by Union forces, and the returned to the courthouse years later. I know that it sounds strange, but by looting them they were saved from destruction like so many of the other records that remained. These stolen records keep turning up and I am sure that there are more out there.

Chesterfield County

The Chesterfield County circuit court clerk’s office is one that I usually visit each year because of its close proximity to the Library of Virginia. The condition and treatment for the records there is pretty straightforward and predictable because almost all of the items that I examine there are disbound volumes. From conversations with the veteran staff members, it appears that when the records, mostly deed, will and order books, were scanned sometime in the mid-1990s, the imaging vendor took it upon themselves to cut the pages from the volumes.

Chesterfield County Disbound Deed Book 77 1888-1889

All of the items examined as candidates for CCRP conservation grants during my visit to the Chesterfield County circuit court clerk’s office were deed books that had had the pages cut out of them (disbound) in the mid-1900s in order to make digitizing them easier. The volume on the right is Chesterfield County Deed Book No. 77, 1888-1889.

I have seen this before, but not on a scale like this. We have mentioned that a lot of our job involves undoing discredited conservation methods of the past, and this might as well be categorized as one of those. The secure, climate controlled, archival storage area in the circuit court clerk’s office is wall-to-wall with roller and compact shelving, much of it packed with disbound volumes stored in oversized archival boxes. Unfortunately, when these disbound volumes are sent out for conservation, the most cost effective treatment is for them to have the pages encapsulated and then post-bound, which usually doubles the size of each volume, eating up valuable shelving space.

For what it’s worth, the visit also involved a scheduled records transfer, this time some random loose, circa 1830s chancery records, to be added to the Chesterfield County chancery records that are housed at the Library of Virginia.

Buckingham County

Two weeks later, I was off to the office of Buckingham County circuit court clerk, Justin Midkiff in Buckingham, to examine items as potential candidates for conservation grants. This was another locality with a predictable set of candidates, as the clerk has an ongoing project to have the marriage licenses there conserved. The beautiful part of having these sorts of predicable candidates is that I can spend less time searching for items to examine to see if they warrant conservation treatment. Additionally, the clerk had suggested that he wanted some of the deed books in the records room examined and I was happy to oblige. In the end, I wrote up condition reports for eight batches of marriage records (1903-1920), and three deed books (circa 1907-1910) that are good candidates. The deed books will be rebound.

Buckingham County Chancery

One of the archival storage areas in the Buckingham County circuit court clerk’s office. These Woodruff drawers contain the county’s chancery records, circa 1869-1955.

Buckingham County Records to be Inventoried

One box of the records in the Buckingham County circuit court clerk’s office archival storage area that will be inventoried in the coming weeks. Two bundles appear to be dated, 1869, the year that the Buckingham County Courthouse burned down. This photo is from a December 4, 2019 visit.

While I was there, I talked to the clerk about the Library of Virginia’s Chancery Records Index, informing him that Buckingham County’s chancery records had not yet been scanned and added to the database. It soon became apparent from our conversation that he wanted to have his chancery records sent to the Library of Virginia to be processed, indexed, scanned, and made available on the in the Chancery Records Index. After I returned to the Library of Virginia, state archivist Greg Crawford suggested that I make another trip early this spring to see how many drawers (the records are still in folded bundles in Woodruff drawers) of chancery records there are, with the intention of getting them into the Chancery Records Index. We also determined that it would be a good idea to inventory some boxes of materials that I have seen in the basement on other occasions, so that became the plan. I will be making arrangements to travel back to the Buckingham County Courthouse to inventory the random boxes of materials and assess the quantity of chancery records.

Accomack County

The next adventure involved another records transfer, this time, from the Eastern Shore to Richmond. Outgoing Accomack County circuit court clerk, Sam Cooper, sought to free up space in his small office for his successor by transferring many of his older, less used, records to the Library of Virginia for storage. With over 160 volumes (circa 1660s-1850s), this records transfer would involve four archivists, two vehicles (including the Library’s cargo van), numerous boxes, and an overnight stay in Onancock. Arriving around mid-morning, we spent the rest of the day searching for the items on the transfer form and then boxing up the records that would fit in boxes. The second day, we had to get the volumes and boxes of books down the stairs (they were all on the second floor) and then out to the vehicles for the ride back to the Library of Virginia. All things considered, the transfer was uneventful and the records made it back to Richmond safely where they were cataloged and shelved on the fourth floor with the rest of the archival collections.

That brings my travel up to date for now. However, in the coming weeks we will be entering the exciting portions of our jobs with regular travel to record rooms across the commonwealth of Virginia to find items in need of conservation. Stay tuned.

Road Trip Roundup

Miles traveled: about 785

Courthouses visited:
Accomack County Courthouse (Accomac, est. 1634)
Buckingham County Courthouse (Buckingham, est. 1761)
Charles City County Courthouse (Charles City, est. 1619)
Chesterfield County Courthouse (Chesterfield, est. 1749)
Williamsburg/James City County Courthouse (Williamsburg, est. 1699/1619)

Oldest record viewed: Accomack County (County Court) Order Book, 1666-1670.

Soundtrack/Songs: First four albums by Aerosmith, first three albums by Santana, and first two albums by Veruca Salt.

Best food: Berret’s Seafood Restaurant and Taphouse Grill (Williamsburg), The Blarney Stone Pub (Onancock), Green Leafe Café (Williamsburg), and Paul’s Deli Restaurant (by William & Mary).

Virginia landmark: Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel

Eddie Woodward

Sr. Local Records Consulting Archivist

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