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Volume 4, Number 3 Mountain Press, P.O. Box 400, Signal Mountain, Tennessee 37377, 1-423-886-6369 February 8, 2012
This article discusses the history of Virginia as it evolved over the years. Researching in Virginia can be tricky if you don't know the history behind the state and know where to look for your material. Hopefully, this can help you in your never ending genealogy search.
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James L. Douthat
In most family trees, there is a branch that goes back to Virginia at one time or another. In order that you might understand how this very old commonwealth works, I want to give you a brief run down on their very early history. You will find many terms used for Virginia that are not commonly found in states since this is a commonwealth and they differ from states in many ways.
In 1607, the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown was established by the Virginia Company of London. This company tried to establish a colony in Maine but this failed. By 1609, the Virginia Company was given a new charter with an expanded territory which included the whole mid-Atlantic and upper south area of the Americas. In the new charter there were two classes of investors in a joint-stock company. The adventurers investors owned 100 acres or more. This class mostly remained in England. The second class was the planters-settlers with 50 acres or so. The land was theirs after seven years of settlement.
Between 1611 and 1619 expansion of settlements were seen with the establishment of “Hundreds,” “Plantations,” “Corporations,” parishes and finally in 1624 with precincts on a county basis. Thereby in 1619 a total new arrangement was developed as the old martial law was replaced with English Common Law. On 30 July 1619 the House of Burgess was established as a representative government. Their power increased through the years, especially during Cromwell’s reign [1652-1660] with Virginia becoming a royalist haven. This also meant that all Virginians were members of the Church of England.
In 1632 the Anglican Parish Registers and Vestry minutes were required. Since all residents were members of the Anglican Church, you will find their early records in these Vestry minutes. By 1634 the eight original “shires” [counties] were established and therefore, the records switched over to the county system. In this system in 1660, marriage bonds were required for this union. It remained until 1705 that parental consents were required for those under 21 years of age to get married, especially for the girls. These are extremely important as the names of the parents have to be given and they are frequently signed by the mother. Of course, it is the mother who knows best the actual age of the child. During this early period, the bond, the consent form, the license and the return are frequently bound in a “marriage packet” housed in the courthouse. They are tied with a red ribbon which by now is probably a dirty pink. On a side note, the tying of records with red ribbon is where the term “red tape” developed in legal terms.
By 1690 the patent books for the Northern Neck Proprietary began tracking the land records of this area. In 1728 there began a survey of the border between Virginia and North Carolina. In the final story here, Virginia lost land. In the annals of Augusta County, established in 1745 the lands covered by this new county made it one of the largest ever created as it ran from the Shenandoah Valley to the head waters of the Mississippi. Included in this county were some or all of seven later states. When Fincastle County was established out of Augusta County in 1772 these lands included some of the northern part of Tennessee. Some of these lands were given out as a claim from the Dunsmore War. When the land offices were established in 1776 the term “patent” was changed to “grant”. Out of Augusta County later came the Territory South of the River Ohio which later became Kentucky and Tennessee which was not, for the most part, a portion of Augusta County. Also out of Augusta County came the Territory North of the River Ohio or the Old Northwest Territory as some called it.
The first big change in county government came after the American Revolution when in 1782, each county was required to give an accounting of personal property and land tax returns. It was this years’ listing that constituted the “1790" census of Virginia and the original census records were lost or not found to date.
In the next few years great changes took place, in 1786 the Anglican Church which was the “official” church of the colony was dissolved and other churches moved into prominence. In 1789 a portion of Fairfax County was ceded to the United States for the Capitol. By 1792 many of the western counties entered the Union as the State of Kentucky. During the Civil War, many of the northwestern counties became the State of West Virginia. Finally, in 1904 the County Court System was dissolved and areas formed independent towns and cities.
Hopefully, this brief history of Virginia will help you in your research of this area. Also keep in mind that during the late 1930s through the 1960s, the Virginia State Archives microfilmed most of the early records of each county. These records are accessible by interlibrary loan, if you are not able to find through other sources.
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