Take Me Back To Olde Virginie: No Fee, On-Line Resources for Genealogical Research

by Michael Pollock | Apr 24, 2012

Michael Pollock

In my article on research in order books and chancery records, I specifically mentioned the on-line database of such records maintained by the state library in Virginia.

While the Chancery Records Index is not the only digital database maintained by our state library, all of them can be difficult to find due to, in my opinion, the poor overall design of the library's homepage. For example, without having the aforesaid url, most genealogists would go to the library's homepage, where they are presented with 3 basic "search" categories: 1)"For the Public"; 2)"For Localities & State Agencies" & 3)"For Libraries & Educators" With that breakdown--titles for the other two suggest they would not be open to the public or at a minimum require a special user account and password to access that might be restricted to state residents--and subcategories in the first of "Using the Collections", "Virginia Memory", "Search the LVA catalog", etc., most genealogists would presume "For the Public" would be the proper choice.

One can indeed find the Chancery Papers Index through "For the Public", then choosing "Virginia Memory". While there is a slide show at the homepage of 6 rotating pages, one of which stated "Virginia Memory" is the library's digital portal, nothing is said about the specific collections that are included and the link opens a page that headed "Library Blogs" with "topics" of "This Day in Virginia History" and "Current Exhibits". Many might well think either the links are broken or they had selected the wrong menu option!

Hopefully one notices a tab labeled "Digital Collections, and opening the same, sees an option "Collections by Topic" in its dropdown menu, but clicking on the same merely opens another page labeled "Digital Collections" with a list of 11 different topics. Chancery Papers (Index) is NOT among them. No, it is under "County & City Research"! Thus, Chancery Papers are reached by a 7 step process!

A much more direct manner of access to the Chancery Records Index is through the "For Localities & State Agencies" option on the library's main home page, then selecting "Circuit Court Records Preservation" where one will then note an entry for "Chancery Records Index", a 3 step process. It is also possible to reach the Chancery Records Index through the VirginiaMemory home page under Digital Collections, then Collections by Topic. As I discussed how to search this specific index in my article on using chancery papers, I will not repeat those instructions here.

As the details provided above for navigating to the Chancery Records Index shows, perhaps the greatest difficulty anyone unfamiliar with either the collections or how they are organized will have is determining the most direct route for both identifying what databases are available and how to access them.

Though there are multiple ways to access any of the databases, as already demonstrated, the easiest to explain and use will be "Collections A to Z". Those topics are: 1)Virginia History & Culture; 2)Biographical & Genealogical; 3)Maps & Architecture; 4)County & City Records; 5)African American Research; 6)Military Service; 7)Newspapers; 8)Historic Virginia Government; 9)Web Archiving; 10)Photograph collections; & 11)Land Office Patents & Grants. Each topic has multiple individual databases, some of which genealogists will use heavily, others at irregular intervals and still others, perhaps not at all. I will walk you through each topic, noting the databases included with those I either use on a regular basis or know to contain information of interest to genealogists indicated by bold, italic type, followed by a separate, more elaborate description. The databases I chose to highlight will admittedly be subjective, but the reader will hopefully be able to determine when any database I do not highlight will be of interest simply by consulting the collection description that is available at the provided url.

Virginia History & Culture

The databases included here are: a)Virginia Chamber of Commerce Photograph Collection; b)1939 World's Fair Photograph Collection; c) Virginia Historical Inventory; d)Broadside Collection; e)Tantilla Gardens Poster Collection; & f) CW 150 Legacy Project.

The Virginia Historical Inventory is an index to the collections of the Virginia Writers Project, Works Progress Administration from the 1930s. The contents vary widely by locality, e.g., there is no inventory for Westmoreland, one of the oldest counties in Virginia, dating from 1653, but can include such things as: a)architectural plans of homes and other buildings built prior to 1800; b)antique furniture and furnishings found (including books) in such homes; c)bible records; d)business histories; e)cemeteries; f)histories of early churches; & g)extant records of such churches. The actual inventory is available in digital format

CW 150 Legacy Project aka Virginia Civil War 150 Legacy Project consists of an assortment of individual company rosters, newspaper accounts, handbills, financial accounts, diaries and letters pertaining to events that occurred during the Civil War, script/certificates/bonds (money), discharges, passes, and other material organized alphabetically by title of the item.

Biographical & Genealogical

This topic includes two databases: a)WPA Life Histories; & b)S. Bassett French Biographical Sketches. The former is also part of the Virginia Historical Inventory and the fact it is not also listed may be intentional to avoid unnecessary redundancies, but illustrates a criticism I voice elsewhere in this article--finding some of the individual databases can be almost impossible for either a first time or infrequent visitor.

The WPA Life Histories are a collection of transcriptions of interviews of both former slaves and older whites from different regions of the state about their life experiences. On-line contents from the same include a description of the person interviewed, whether the name of said individual is fictious, name of the person who conducted the interview, the number of pages to the same, and if the actual transcript of the interview is on-line or microfilm. A link to the interview is provided for those which are on-line. Those on microfilm are referenced by the reel number in the Miscellaneous Reels Collection.

The S. Bassett French Biographical Sketches is a collection of upwards of 19,000 handwritten histories spanning 4 reels of microfilm Mr. French assembled between 1890 and 1897 either from the biographee or a member of the immediate family for a proposed biographical dictionary to be entitled Annals of Prominent Virginians of the XIX Century. The images of actual images are on line and the same is searchable, but not browsable, i.e., one is obliged to type into the search engine if not an exact name, then at least "surname", then click "Go". If the name appears in the collection, the report will list the number of instances and one must click on the name to determine not just the specific entries, but whether the name was a given, middle or surname. If there is no entry, the name will appear in the search report, but with no "links", rather than "nothing found".

Maps & Architecture

This topics includes: a)Charles F. Gillette Virginia Photograph Collection; b) Civil War Map Project; c) Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia; d)Richmond Esthetic Survey/Historic Building Survey; e)School Building Service Photographs; f) Alan M. Vorhees Map Collection; g)Carneal & Johnston Negative Collection; h) Fry-Jefferson Maps, Survey & Derivatives; i)Public Buildings and Grounds; & j) Board of Public Works.

Had I been the one to design this site, I would have split it into two separate topics--Maps and Architectural Plans/Photographs, though the placement of some of the databases I would include in the latter could be criticized as being as confusion and I have complained this site is. However, doing that, I would have a dilemma about where to place the Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia Records for reasons noted in the further discussion of the same.

The Civil War Map Project is a cooperative venture between the state library in Virginia, Virginia Historical Society and Library of Congress, consisting of images of both maps and descriptions to maps. The title is extremely misleading. This collection is not exclusively of Virginia maps nor strictly from the Civil War period. There are maps that are either prior to and after the Civil War, and a map of Charleston SC). With the title to this collection, one might expect the maps of Jedediah Hotchkiss and Jeremy Gilmer, the two most prolific cartographers of the Civil War in Virginia, to predominant. The collection contains only 1 Gilmer map and none of Hotchkiss'!

The default display for this collection is alphabetical by title of the maps for the map images, rather than by subject or locality. The very first listing is "A military map of section of the country contiguous to Petersburg....", a violation of one of the cardinal rules for referencing published works and manuscripts in an index, to wit, indexing by "A", "An" and "The". A more proper citation would have been "military map...., a", though I personally would have preferred "Petersburg...., A military map of....."

The default display also offers three different "view" modes--"Brief", "Table" and "Full". "Brief is similar to the "Thumbnail" view of Windows operating systems since Windows95. "Table" is similar to the "details" view of Windows, but unlike Windows, it does not provide the option of scrolling to any "hits" that fall outside number, in this case, 20, the display in the "Brief" mode. One must click through to the next and subsequent pages. Until the "details" mode of Windows, it also does not increase the number of items that are viewable in a single screen.

Full view should be fairly self-explanatory, but note the actual image of the map does NOT load, merely a large thumbnail than what displays in the "Brief" mode. To see the actual image, not just in "full view", but also in any of the view modes, one must click on the map icon. What then displays is indeed larger, but not full-sized or even full screen. To shift the display to any portion of a map that is not displaying, one must use a tool similar to that of Google Maps. To enlarge the map, one must click on a portion of a "tool bar" that separates the image from the description of the same rather than being at the top of the screen. This tool bar appears not just in all three initial view modes for maps, but also subsequent pages. Initially I found the location of this tool confusing because I did not recognize the description in the upper portion of the screen as an actual description! I seriously doubt many would recognize this as a decripton--categories were "Tag" and "Values", with individual "Tags" including such things as "FMT"and "Control No. ID", while "Values" included such things "MP", "OCoLC", "20041124114147.0", "aj cgnzn" and "040401s1864^^^^xx^^^^^^^^^a^^^^^0^^^en^^". The actual "tool" resembles the a cell phone volume control.

One can search for maps by subject/locality, but should be careful to note that even when opened specifically from the Civil War Map Project page, the search engine is preset to "general" and one needs to change to "Map Collections" to avoid extraneous "hits".

This collection includes two sets of index cards, one for Accomack, the other for Albemarle, with descriptions of maps of each. While I find no explicit statement of the same, these cards appear to be from a catalog in the map room of the state library. I also find no statement of why only these two counties are included and in this specific on-line collection. No only are no specifically Civil War maps included in either set that I could readily identify, there were NO Civil War battles/skirmishes fought within the bounds of the county that I can document. Presumably the cards for all other Virginia localities will be digitized and placed on line, but there is no indication of a time-table for the same.

Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia. The on-line material is only a small part of what is available, and consists of policies issued to in the city of Richmond and adjoining areas of Henrico County against damage or loss due to fire during the years 1796 to 1867 typically with name of the policy holder, location of the property, name of the occupant if different from the policy holder, a description of the furnishings/conents with estimated value and a sketch, usually in "plan" form, of the property. One will likely find multiple policies for a single property as updates were required a minimum of every 7 years, but could occur more frequently when insured items were sold or new items purchased. The material that is not on-line consists of both policies issues in other areas of Virginia (it should be noted policies were issues only in cities and towns as while rural buildings were less at risk of a fire spreading from building to building as in cities, the distances between buildings made it more difficult to assemble a "bucket brigade" to fight the fire), and after 1867, along with full color maps not just of insured properties but adjoining buildings. The colors and other "coding" can reveal such detail as the material used in the construction, the number of rooms, number of stories, whether there was a stoop or raised porch, and not just the location of windows, but whether a window had a single pane or multiple panes, with the number of panes! My knowledge of the existence of those maps, notwithstanding they are not on-line is why I would be tempted to keep this collection as part of the maps collection even with a separate topic for architecture.

Alan M. Vorhees Map Collection. The majority of these nearly 6 dozen maps are identified as pre-1800 with some of not just other areas of North America than Virginia, but of other parts of the world. Some of these maps will be of little interest to genealogist simply because they are not drawn to scale though the fact they are as close to scale as they are demonstrate what was possible even without the technology on which we depend so heavily today. A number of the maps show the distribution of Indians across North America. Such maps, if showing an early enough period, could be quite instructive as they could reveal that tribes associated with one specific region of the U.S. had actually migrated to that area from other regions, usually the result of white encroachment on their former territory. One example of this is the Tuscarawas of northeastern Ohio who migrated there in the early 1700s from the Albemarle Sound region of NC.

Fry-Jefferson Maps, Surveys and Derivatives. The Fry-Jefferson Map is perhaps the single most significant map of Virginia for two reasons: 1)the Jefferson was Peter Jefferson, father of President Thomas Jefferson; and 2)its accuracy, though that stems from the date of its original publication, 1755, showing, among other things, a radically different boundary between King George and Stafford Counties than exists today, the result of legislation passed during the Revolutionary War.

Virginia Board of Public Works Maps contains maps from the 1800s showing either actual or proposed right-of-ways for railroads, turnpikes and canals/navigable rivers as well as 35 county maps drawn & published by John Wood about 1820. The Wood maps typically show major water courses, roads, mountain ridges, the location of the courthouse, mills, ferries, taverns, churches and sometimes the homes of prominent citizens, most identified by name. As with the Civil War Map Project, navigation of the maps is be a tool similar to Google Maps, but the map is spilt into segments with no key to identify what specific portion of the whole map any given segment represents. As one moves between segments, any change in the magnification of one segment is "discarded", the display reverting back to the lowest magnification available. Many of the right-of-way maps show the same kind of detail as the Wood maps, but at a much higher scale and due to that higher scale, the area shown is typically much smaller while the detail is much greater.

Also as with the Civil War Map Project, items are displayed in alpha/numerical order by the title of the same. Except when the title specifically includes a county name, e.g., a Wood map, or references a well-known locality, e.g., Berryville, neither the initial description displayed in the index nor the further description accompanying the actual image(s) of a map identifies the specific location shown on the map. Accordingly, visitors may need to do considerable prior research in the water courses and landmarks of any locality of interest for the title of the non-Wood maps to suggest they are pertinent to one's research interests.

County & City Research

The individual collections of this topic are: a) Chancery Records Index; b) Cohabitation Registers; c)Public Buildings & Grounds; & d) Lost Records Localities Digital Collection.

As has been previously stated, the Chancery Records Index is more extensively covered in another article.

Cohabitation Registers are a collection of de facto "census" of blacks taken in 1866 which can include such information as: 1)name of the individual; 2)to whom married; 3)when & where married; 4)if previously married; 5)names, with ages, of children born to the current marriage; 6)names, with ages, of children born to a prior marriage; 7)name of an individual's father; 8)name of an individual's mother, with "maiden name" where applicable; 9)name & residence of the owner of a former slave; &/or 10)where the individual was born. It should be noted that not all registers contain the same details. The collection consists of 26 registers from 16 different localities. No information is posted to explain why no registers for the other 100 cities and counties existing in Virginia in 1866 are included.

Lost Records is both a bibliography of losses of records for every locality in Virginia known to be missing records with the date(s) and circumstance(s) of the same when available, as well as a catalog of digital images of records that are found in other places with the date of the original record and where it was found noted, that is arranged alphabetically by the names of the primary party involved. The bibliography page includes a number to the right of each locality indication the number of "found" records included. While it is widely presumed most records were lost as a result of Lee's burning of Richmond in his retreat to Appomattox at the end of the Civil War, and those losses were considerable, this bibliography cites much more recent losses, such as Botetourt County in 1970, notable for prompting the preservation program that has made possible many of the databases discussed here.

African American Resources

Currently the only database for this topic is Cohabitation Registers.

Military Service.

This topic includes, in approximate chronological, rather than the order listed in the index: a) Dunmore's War (Virginia Payrolls/Public Service Claims, 1775) ; b) Revolutionary War Bounty Warrants; c) Revolutionary War Virginia State Pensions; d) Revolutionary War Rejected Claims; e) Confederate Disability Applications & Receipts; f) Confederate Pension Rolls, Veterans & Widows; g) Robert E. Lee Camp Confederate Soldiers' Home Applications for Admission; h) World War I History Commission Questionnaires; & i)U.S. Army Signal Corps Photograph Collection.

Dunmore's War (Virginia Payrolls/Public Service Claims, 1775) is highlighted in large part because of the on-going dispute over whether everyone appearing in these records should be considered a Revolutionary War veteran. While this war was ostensibly fought in direct defiance of King George III as it violated the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwyck intended to settle the dispute between the British and the Indian allies of the French that continued even after the formal end to hostilities between the British & French, it was also provoked by the Royal Governor at the time, Lord Dunmore, who speculated heavily in large tracts of land in the area where the war was primarily fought. The DAR recognizes participation in Dunmore's War as a qualifying service of an ancestor, but the U.S. Government never issued, that I am aware, a pension or bounty land grant to any veterans of this war without that soldier having sufficient subsequent service to qualify otherwise for the same.

Revolutionary War Bounty Warrants may not be as useful as state and rejected pensions as they will often contain little more than the service rendered, officers under whom served and residence at time of application.

Revolutionary War Virginia State Pensions. Many people do not realize that the first general pension act at the federal level was not until 1818, though there were earlier federal pensions, primarily by special legislation that benefited just one individual. Most of the earliest pensions, however, were issued by the states and such pensioners who were still living when the Pension Act of 1818 was passed were "transferred" to the federal system. Most Virginia pensions were for soldiers who lost limbs or were disable while in service.

Revolutionary War Rejected Claims is very misleading as many might conclude, from the lack of specific reference to Virginia, that it is perhaps a federal database, when it is actually strictly for Virginia pensions, something the on-line description does not acknowledge. It does acknowledge, however, that the typical reason for an application being rejected was not doubts about the service or claiming a service that actually belonged to another, but the length of actual service being too short. This would mostly likely be a problem for those whose service was predominantly or solely in the militia--the state became responsible for a militiaman's pay only when his company either left the county where it was based or was on "active duty" beyond an "expiration" of a local "alarm".

Confederate Disability Applications & Receipts is a collection of records primarily for individuals applying for money to purchase artificial limbs.

Confederate Pension Rolls, Veterans & Widows often lack detail that is typically found in corresponding Union pension applications, as well as other earlier federal pensions. That said, I was able to find in the same for the first time confirmation of stories I heard growing up that my great-grandfather was a spy for Stonewall Jackson!.

Robert E. Lee Camp Confederate Soldiers' Home Applications for Admission is a database for a "retirement home" opened in 1883 in the city of Richmond for aged &/or infirmed Confederate veterans, many with no family to provide needed care. Biographical information is often quite limited.

World War I History Commission Questionnaires are interviews/surveys of either returning soldiers or family members.


Items in this topic are: a)Lewis and Clark : "We send from this place with dispatches; b)Born in the Wake of Freedom: John Mitchell, Jr., and the Richmond Planet; c)R. M. S. Titanic: Ninety-Nine Years Later; and d)The Engraver's Art: Newspaper Mastheads. The individual collections are commemorative, and in my opinion should have been included under "Biography".

Historical Virginia Government

This topic consists of a) Virginia Colonial Records Project; b)Governor's Letters Received, June, 1776-November, 1784; c) Early Virginia Religious Petitions, 1774-1802; d)Government Reform Commission Reports; e)Executive Orders Digital Collection. I do not rate The Governor's Letters... as a database of interest to most genealogists as it cannot be browsed for either names or topics, though a random check of the index established that the collection includes official correspondence with officials both for Virginia and other states, legislation before the General Assembly, and petitions. Government Reform... and Executive Orders.... would not be of interest specifically as they are too recent, but non-digital, earlier versions of the latter two and subsequent Governor's Letters would more likely be of genealogical interest.

Virginia Colonial Records Project seems a bit out of place in this topic, and it might well better fit under either Virginia History & Culture or County & City Research if not for the fact the bulk of its contents are official communications and dispatches. In consists of descriptions of about 15,000 documents that reference either individuals living, or localities, in Virginia, found in either libraries and government archives of not just Great Britain, but other European libraries. While the descriptions are on-line, the actual records are not, available only on microfilm, though I believe that microfilm is available by interlibrary loan.

Early Virginia Religious Petitions, 1774-1802 As I was not familiar with any petitions in this database, I attempted to learn more about it. The link here took me to the Library of Congress website where there was a description of this database, or more accurately the records in the same, stating a Calendar of Religious Petitions... identified a total of 497 petitions, but apparently only 423 are still extant, and included both the location from which a petition was submitted and a summary of its content. As few records of individual churches from the period covered by this collection are extant, the lack of a bibliography of at least the localities mentioned in the petition makes this collection far less useful than it could be.

Web Archiving

The databases for this topic consist of: a)Capital Square Renovation Collection; b)Governor Timothy Kaine Administration Collection; c)Jamestown 2007 Commemoration Collection; d)Tragedy at Virginia Tech; e)Virginia Organization Web Archives; f)Virginia State Government Web Site Collection; g)Governor Mark Warner Administration Web Archives (archived versions of the archived records of the Governor, Lieutenant Governor & Attorney General, the secretaries of the Departments and their initiatives; h)Virginia's Political Landscape, 2005 (elections for House of Delegates, Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General); i)Virginia Statewide Election Campaign Web Sites (2006 U.S. Senate Election); j)Virginia's Political Landscape, 2007 (House of Delegates & State Senate elections); k)Virginia's Political Landscape, 2008 (elections for U.S. Senate & House of Representatives); l)Virginia's Political Landscape, 2009 (elections for House of Delegates, Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General; & m)Virginia's Political Landscape, 2010 (U.S. House of Representatives election). These databases do not have any immediate value for genealogists, but may likely have such value in the future.

Photograph Collections

Among the databases for this topic are: a)Callahan Photograph Collection, Eastern Shore Library; b)Fairfax County Public Library Photograph Collection; c)Fairfax County Public Library Historical Photographs; d)Hamblin Studio Photograph Collection, Suffolk Public Library; e)Hampton Public Library/City of Hampton Historical Society Collection Photographs; f)Harry C. Mann Photograph Collection; g)Newport New Photograph Collection; h)Portsmouth Public Library Photograph Collection; i)Radford Public Library Photograph Collection; j)Roanoke Public Library Photograph Collection; k)Tazewell Public Library Photograph Collection; l)Waynesboro Public Library Photograph Collection; m)Adolph B. Rice Photograph Collection; & n)Stereograph Collection. An additional 7 database are mentioned elsewhere.

Land Office Patents & Grants

Virginia Land Office Patents and Grants/Northern Neck Grants and Surveys. This database actually consists of three different collections, royal grants issued from 1623 to 1779; state grants after 1779; and Northern Neck grants, also known as Culpeper or Fairfax grants. The royal grants were abstracted and published, the former under the title Cavaliers & Pioneers in two separate series, the first in 3 volumes through the year 1732 and an official publication of the Virginia Land Office under the editorship of Nell C. Nugent, the second series edited by Dennis Hudgins and published by the Virginia Genealogical Society. The Northern Neck grants were abstracted and published by Peggy Schomo Joyner, while the surveys were abstracted by Gertrude Grey and published by Genealogical Publishing Company. These grants all contain detailed descriptions of the properties, called "metes & bounds", or the length and angle of each line of the tract. This detail is often lacking in subsequent deeds, so can help in determining the precise location of a property when the deeds cannot because a sapling mentioned in the deed has since grown into a tree, if not been cut down, while a stake has since rotted away. The earliest royal grants are also useful in establishing approximate dates of emigration because they were awarded on the basis of the number of individuals, called "headrights" imported to Virginia by the "grantee", but as "headrights" were also a form of currency, the "grantee" may have "acquired" the "headright" by inheritance, barter or gift. It was also common for grantees to re-register a grants, thus re-list the "headrights" when the land changed hands or additional grant land was acquired.

The phrase "Northern Neck" now refers to the area of Virginia north of the Rappahannock River, south of the Potomac River and east of Fredericksburg. Historically, however, it included not just the whole area between the two rivers, but even extended into what is now West Virginia. It was a gift to Lord Culpeper by King William and when Culpeper died without any male issue, fell to his son-in-law, Lord Fairfax. For a considerable period of time, the precise western boundary of the "Northern Neck" were uncertain, and that dispute was both one reason for the Fry-Jefferson Map and not settled until after its publication. Accordingly, it is not unusual to find not just both Fairfax and royal grants for the same property, but to different grantees. When the dispute over the boundary was settled, it was agreed to honor the royal grants which predated a Fairfax grant for the same tract.

While a royal grant might be re-registered each time it changed hands, it was more common for a Fairfax grant to change hands several times before it was registered and the warrants detail many of those transfers, and the surveys often include the names of the individuals in the surveying party. As with the headrights in the early royal grants, this information can establish an approximate date of "migration" to the locality. Some of the grantees may well have been emigrants, but many had simply resided in other parts of Virginia.

Find Records Now for Free

Start your free trial today to learn more about your ancestors using our powerful and intuitive search. Cancel any time, no strings attached.

Start free trial