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My first three locality visits this season also involved traveling with my colleague and Virginia Untold project manager Lydia Neuroth. While my visits pertained specifically to the Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP) and identifying materials for item conservation grants, Lydia focused on locating and examining extant “free negro registers” to digitize for the Virginia Untold project.

Orange County

Our first trip was in February to the office of Orange County Circuit Court Clerk Melissa Morris. We had looked forward to the visit as Library of Virginia staff had not visited in several years and since the exact whereabouts of the free registers were not known. After much searching, Lydia was exited to finally locate one of the free registers! Thanks to the diligent work and helpful clues provided by local researcher, Ann Miller, Lydia was able to easily pinpoint two sections of the Orange County “Free Negro Register” which had been disbound and filed as loose papers in two different box and folder series. (Ann Miller has transcribed the entirety of the Orange County register and the volume was just published earlier this year.)

Early minute books, deed books, will books, and marriage registers were among the items I examined that day. For those familiar with our CCRP posts, my CCRP colleague Eddie Woodward and I take photos of a volume’s spine title and a few interior photos as evidence of its condition for developing its condition report. We can’t help but read some entries or to enjoy hand-drawn features, and Orange County Deed Book 1, 1734-1737, contained some lovely miniature plats drawn alongside surveys and descriptions.

Orange County Deed Book 1, 1734-1737 p.3.

Entries in early minute books often document the moment-by-moment activities in the courthouse on any given day. A translation of a May 24, 1764, entry in Minute Book 1, 1764-1774, points out how seriously the county took religious education:

Francis Strother failing to Educate Elijah his Son about six years old & Maintain him & teach him in the principals of Christianity [it is] Ordered that the Church Wardens Bind him out according to Law.

An entry in Minute Book 1, 1764-1774, points out how seriously the county took religious education.

Middlesex County

The next visit, again with Lydia, was in early April, to the office of Middlesex County Circuit Court Clerk Rachel Hartenbach in Saluda. Lydia spoke with Clerk Hartenbach about digitizing the conserved free registers for inclusion in Virginia Untold. In addition to checking items in the main records room, Lydia and I spent some time sorting through some volumes that had been tagged with inventory numbers, which proved helpful in identifying them.

The variety of records made visiting this records room particularly interesting, as they ranged from small, hand-bound volumes to hardback leather volumes, to cellulose acetate laminated or modern laminated post-bound volumes, each of which have varying levels of conservation concerns. The conservation candidates include water-damaged items such as Minute Book, 1823-1827, a canvas/burlap bound item in which pages of a March 04, 1823, issue of the Richmond Enquirer were used as pastedowns and reinforcement. As mentioned earlier, drawings and plats often grab my attention, such as the hand-drawn seal of the city of Philadelphia in a modern laminated volume of Deed Book 14, 1817-1823, and an 1849 plat showing the courthouse lot staked out in a heavily taped and surface-soiled volume of Deed Book 20, 1846-1851.

Middlesex County is another locality in which a section of the register was hiding out in other records. Clerk Hartenbach helpfully pulled the Middlesex County “Register of Free Negroes and Mulattoes,” 1827-1862, in advance of our visit. But Lydia still had to find the first twenty years of previous registrations. As the microfilm indicated, the clerk had made lists of registrations in the final pages of Order Book, 1799-1804. The clerk kindly allowed us to borrow both volumes for scanning.

Essex County

Later that week, Lydia and I hit the road again, this time to visit Essex County Circuit Court Clerk Christina Ambrose in Tappahannock. Essex County is one of a handful of localities that has an unusually high number of cellulose acetate laminated volumes, which often are among a county’s oldest records. Although Essex County was officially established in 1692 after the division of its predecessor county “Old” Rappahannock County (not to be confused with today’s Rappahannock County in northwest Virginia), some of that extinct locality’s records are also in the Essex County records room.

Lydia easily located two volumes of “free negro registers” tucked away in a metal cabinet. They were not in great condition, so the Library of Virginia plans to create facsimile volumes for the clerk to provide to patrons who use the archives room for research, with the hope that this will lessen the handling of the original volumes.

One of the oldest volumes of Old Rappahannock County Wills, Deeds, Etc., 1665-1677, is cellulose acetate (CA) laminated and a potential item conservation candidate. When I photographed its spine, I inadvertently included Lydia Neuroth in the background, discussing a free register with Ms. Ambrose and local historian and resident Suzanne Derioux. One of the photos of the interior, however, shows not only yellowing paper and some thick ink (typical of many CA volumes of that period), but also three descriptions (on the left facing page) of markings on “hoggs & Catle” denoting the owners, such as (translated):

cropt in the left ear & a Swallow fork in the right ear; a half moon under each ear & slit down each ear; flower [illegible] on the left ear & the staple on the right.

Essex County (Old Rappahannock County) Wills, Deeds, Etc. 1665-1677

On the right-facing page, the brief will of Thomas Wright, recorded in May 1666, declares his wife sole executor and instructs that his female cattle be equally divided between his wife and daughter.

Essex County (Old Rappahannock County) Order Book 2, 1686-1692, was disbound, its leaves cut apart, then cellulose acetate laminated 75 years ago, in 1949. The photo shown here is an example of writing that was made very close to the margin in the original volume, so care should be taken when this is delaminated so that no text is lost along the gutter.

Essex County Register of Births, 1856-1884, has several pages that are chipped and torn, with detached leaves and tape. The pages have valuable content, including births of free and enslaved people in addition to white births. On one spread of pages alone, five free born children are listed, with birth dates and their mothers’ names, as well as one listing the name of the father and two listing maternal grandfathers.

An example of writing that was made very close to the margin in the original volume

Essex County (Old Rappahannock County) Order Book 2, 1686-1692.

And that sums up the beginning of my CCRP travel season. More to come regarding May and June visits!

Tracy Harter

Senior Local Records Consulting Archivist

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