Looking around

Just one county’s courts

Time and time again, somebody says it — proudly:

“I got the county court records on microfilm!”

And then looks absolutely blank when The Legal Genealogist asks the follow-up question: “So… when are you going to the courthouse?”

Inevitably, after a pause, the person will ask: “Why should I go to the courthouse? After all, what else can there be?

Oh my.

Allow me to introduce you to the Isle of Wight County.

Isle_of_WightIt’s a Virginia County in the Hampton Roads metropolitan area. As you can see from the map, it’s tucked up along the James River just west of the City of Norfolk.

Its original courthouse was built in 1750, a replacement courthouse — still standing and occasionally still used for trials — was built in 1800, and the modern courthouse there opened in 2010.1

Its size today is 363 square miles (part of that is water). Its 1790 population was just over 9,000, and it hovered around that for decades. In 1880, it had 10,572 people; even today its population is only about 35,000.2 Just by way of contrast, Henrico County — just outside the City of Richmond — has 245 square miles and a 2010 population of more than 300,000,3 while Fairfax County — in the Northern Virginia suburbs — has 406 square miles and a 2010 population of more than 1,000,000.4

Now the Isle of Wight is far from Virginia’s smallest county — Arlington County in Northern Virginia has only 26 square miles5 — and not the least populated as of 2010 — that was Highland County in western Virginia.6

So why am I introducing you to this particular county?

Two reasons: (1) because I think it has a really cool name — even the county seat is called Isle of Wight — and (2) because so many of its court records have already been digitized. In that, it’s an exception: there may be other courts whose records have been as thoroughly microfilmed, but few if any where so many have already been put online. You can see them on FamilySearch in its Isle of Wight County Records database.7

So… what else can there be? Here’s an abbreviated version of the court records digitized and available in that database:

• Chancery execution book vol 1 1832-1908
• Chancery order book vol 1-6 1831-1909
• Chancery papers 1844-1855
• Chancery process book vol 2, 4 1831-1855
• Chancery rule book vol 1 1871-1903
• Charter book 1870-1905
• Circuit Court bond book vol 1 1889-1909
• Circuit Court common law docket vol 2 1871-1905
• Circuit Court common law order book vol 1 1831-1840
• Circuit Court common law process book vol 1 1849-1870
• Circuit court docket vol 5 1831-1858
• Circuit Court rule book vol 3 1885-1905
• Common law docket and rule book vol 6A 1846-1885
• Common law docket vol 1-5 1883-1887
• Common law docket vol 6 1836-1845
• Common law docket vol 6A 1859-1870
• Common law record book vol 1 1841-1889
• Common law witness docket vol 1-3 1831-1875
• County account book vol 1 1882-1885
• County Court common law execution book vol 2 1832-1842
• County Court docket index vol 1 1900
• County Court docket vol 13 1845-1870
• County Court execution book vol 4 1870-1892
• County Court judgments vol 1 1878-1888
• County Court order book and index 3, 19 1871-1873, 1893-1898
• County Court order book (8 vols.) 1866-1931 (gaps)
• County Court process book vol 1-2 1845-1865, 1892-1903
• County Court rule book (6 vols.) 1828-1874
• County Court witness docket (3 vols.) 1832-1870 (gaps)
• County executions vol 3 1849-1869
• County fund 1913-1919
• County road fund 1914-1915
• County road fund 1918-1919
• Court case book (new causes) vol 1 1797-1803
• Court case book vol 2 1803-1807
• Court docket 96 vols.) 1839-1894 (gaps)
• Court minute Book vol 1 1826-1830
• Court papers vol 1-17 1846-1914 (gaps)
• Court papers-miscellaneous vol 1-23 1746-1903
• Court rule book vol 1-2 1838-1871
• Execution book vol 1-2 1838-1870
• Execution book vol 1(A) 1903-1906
• Executions returned vol 1 1883-1898
• Fee book vol 1-38 1773-1879
• Fiduciaries (1-3) 1906-1930
• Hardy District road fund 1914, 1918-1919
• Index to fee book vol 1 1780-1781
• Index to judgment docket vol 3B 1871
• Index to reservations of title 1891-1905
• Index to vendors and vendees 1850-1950
• Judgment docket and index vol 1 1841-1870
• Judgment docket vol 2 1870-1897
• Judgments 1833-1834
• List of warrants vol 1 1884
• Miscellaneous court records 1847-1857
• Miscellaneous court records 1873-1943
• Miscellaneous court records 1907
• Newport District road fund 1914-1915, 1918-1919
• Order book and index vol 15 1879-1881
• Poor fund 1914-1915, 1918-1919
• Record of criminal cases vol 1 1888-1901
• Register of convicts vol 1 1871-1917
• Reservations of title 1891-1905
• Supreme court rule book vol 1 1900
• Windsor District road fund 1914-1915, 1918-1919
• Witness docket book vol 1-3 1871-1916

Let’s see here… yes, there are the order books of the county court. Those would be the day-to-day records of happenings in the county courts.

And what else can there be?

Criminal court cases, a register of convicts, books with lists of witnesses in civil and criminal cases, dozens of volumes of fee books with lists of fees paid for so many things (registering freedom papers for emancipated slaves, as just one example). Tons of case papers — where some of the best details can be found. Records of the county road funds and the poor funds and charters for corporations that did business in the county and… and… and…

This is just one relatively small county. And just from this list, you can see why it pays to take that road trip, go to the courthouse and take the time to do the one thing we just can’t do online: look around. That dusty volume over there? The one nobody has looked at in years, much less ever microfilmed? That’s the one that might have the answer to our most perplexing brickwall question.

And oh by the way that court record list above? It doesn’t include the probate records — wills, guardianships, estate bonds — all those neat things we want to see to help us prove relationships. That’s a separate list and it includes …

We’ll leave those for another day.


SOURCES

Image: “Map of Virginia highlighting Isle of Wight County,” David Benbennick, via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Isle of Wight County, Virginia,” rev. 10 Jan 2014.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Henrico County, Virginia,” rev. 15 Feb 2014.
  4. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “Fairfax County, Virginia,” rev. 4 Mar 2014.
  5. Profile,” Arlington Facts and Stats, Arlington County, Virginia (http://www.arlingtonva.us/ : accessed 25 Mar 2014).
  6. Virginia QuickFacts,” Advanced Search, American FactFinder, U.S. Census Bureau (http://quickfacts.census.gov/ : accessed 25 Mar 2014).
  7. Digital images, “Virginia, Isle of Wight County Records, 1634-1951,” FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 25 Mar 2014).
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6 Responses to Looking around

  1. In Craven County, I was told that the microfilmed court records in the library was all that was available for dated materials. They send all their records to the State Library and Archives at Raleigh. But my biggest problem is that I’m always with someone who doesn’t want to spend all day looking through records and I only get 4 hours max in 2-4 years…and that is usually at the Register of Deeds.

  2. Joe says:

    “I got the county court records on microfilm!” … Ha! That line gave me a laugh. I’ve heard it a lot, along with, “It’s all on the internet now!”
    I think to myself, “Poor souls, they know not what they are missing.”
    When I started my genealogical journey in 1991, I did all the record searching I could in person. I got to love the smell of old paper & leather. It’s like a pheromone that gets my researching juices flowing.
    I’m originally from NJ and now live in Hampton, VA and I’ve noticed you work in those areas also. We may have been to the State Archives and court houses of those States at the same moment in time.
    One thing that disturbs me, and you have addressed this issue, is how archives & court houses routinely destroy records for lack of space or for reaching some arbitrary date set by some uncaring,unconcerned administration.
    I saw this happen in the Hampton City, (Elizabeth City County) court house. York Co. has done a much better job and has actually had some old volume rebound. Records held in local health departments here in VA, are also apt to disappear after a set amount of years. One year I looked at hand written death records from the 1920′s that gave valuable info on my wife’s grandmother. When I went back for more research later that year, I was told the records were sent to the archives in Richmond. When I inquired with the archives they said if they had them it could be years before they could be cataloged or microfilmed and available to the public, because of the lack of funds.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It certainly is a shame that we fund all kinds of things at all kinds of levels… and can’t find a few extra dollars to save our history.

  3. Margie says:

    Why go to the courthouse? Other reasons: I went to the county courthouse at Judy’s suggestion; I met a lady who actually loved helping people find deeds and she even gave me the business card of a local professional genealogist who later contacted me to see if I needed help (the courthouse was on the east coast, I live in the northwest). I now have 2 friends in that courthouse who may be able to help me in the future. In fact, my whole experience in that courthouse, visiting 4 different offices was a fun and very pleasant experience. In spite of being very busy, everyone I asked graciously helped me and even asked how I knew what I knew. AND, I found things I had not intended to find when I went there simply because I saw indexes I had not heard of before. I found an atlas that showed not just the street where my ancestor lived, it showed each house and who occupied it, I found deeds I wasn’t even looking for. It was such great fun!

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