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There’s gold in them thar petitions!

There’s an old saying, usually attributed to Otto von Bismarck,1 that laws are like sausages; it’s better not to see them being made. For one particular part of the law-making process, however, I beg to differ.

1786 Petition for Tax Relief, Burke County NC

Unless your ancestors are recent immigrants, then you’ve undoubtedly run into situations where your family left records in several jurisdictions… but never moved. Only the county lines changed. Just last year I researched one Virginia family that lived essentially in one place, within a 20-mile radius of a particular river fork, for more than 100 years, and ended up over the years living in Augusta, Monongalia, Harrison, Lewis, Gilmer and Calhoun Counties.2 Whew…

So… did you ever wonder how those counties came to be formed? Bottom line: people asked for ’em. They did exactly what the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed them the right to do: petition the government for a redress of grievances.3 In many many cases, those original petitions still exist, along with hosts of others submitted at one time or another to the legislatures of the states and to the U.S. Congress. And they can be fabulous resources.

Petitions for and against the creation of new counties or even smaller units of government are commonplace and can put an ancestor in a place at a time that no other record does. Live in New Jersey like I do? The loss of the 1800, 1810 and 1820 censuses drive you batty because you need to place your guy in, say, Monmouth County? Check out the New Jersey State Archives holdings for the State Legislature. The image that pops up on that page is… you guessed it… a petition from the Monmouth County freeholders to the Legislature in 1782. Among the Archives’ holdings: Petitions and Other Papers relating to County Courthouses and the Establishment of Counties, 1760-1858; and Petitions and Other Papers relating to Establishment of Municipalities and Municipal Boundaries, 1748-1859.

Wanna see what a petition for a new county looks like? In 1837, some folks living in Washington County, Texas, east of the Brazos, petitioned for the formation of a new county,4 and the Portal to Texas History has the image online. Trust me on this one: if you’re a descendant of James W. Parker or Luther Plummer or Abram Zuber or Joseph Henson or a whole bunch of others, you want this. Big time.

Sometimes kind souls will transcribe these petitions and put them online. Check out the petitions for the formation of Huntingdon County from the Pennsylvania State Archives, transcribed online at the Huntingdon History Research Network site. All five petitions for the division of Bedford County and the formation of a new County of Huntingdon are there, along with an additional 67 signers who opposed the new county.

But legislative petitions cover so much more than just creating new counties. The depth and breadth of these records are stunning.

On 22 October 1776, residents of Albemarle, Amherst and Buckingham Counties in Virginia signed a petition against established churches, and for religious equality.5 The Library of Congress’ American Memory Project has images of that petition online, courtesy of the Library of Virginia. If you descend from Charles L. Lewis, James Stephenson, John Harris, Thomas Benge, John Martin, Martin Brannen, Abraham Eads, Absalem McQuery, Andrew Spradley or any of dozens of other signers… you want that petition in your files. And there are literally hundreds of other petitions on religious issues in that one Library of Congress collection.

And speaking of the Library of Virginia, check out its legislative petitions database. Accomack County, 157 petitions. Albemarle County, 316. Alexandria Town, 190. Alexandria County, 37. Alleghany County, 79. And on and on. And they cover everything you can think of. In 1818, Susanna Carlton, widow of Henry Carlton of Botetourt County, filed a petition asking for a law authorizing her to sell his land in the Town of Salem.6 In May of 1782, residents of Fluvanna County asked for a delay in paying a tax.7 In December 1834, John Barns of Tazewell County asked for a divorce from his wife Lilly Heldridge. And he asked again in 1835. And again in 1836.8 (I didn’t check to see if Barns was on trial for murder in 1837…)

These petitions aren’t online, but they are on microfilm and the microfilm is available through Interlibrary Loan (ILL). The cost for getting five rolls at a time through ILL from the Library of Virginia? Nada. It’s free.

Whet your taste yet? How about a few more petitions with images online:

     • Liley, a slave, who saved enough to purchase her freedom, asked the Texas Legislature to allow her to be freed without having to leave the State. Some 80 people, including her owner, signed her petition for emancipation.9

     • Other Texans were looking for protection from Indian attack. In 1849, the citizens of Limestone County — folks like H.C. Walker and L.C. Pleasants and John T. Bennett and about 50 others — asked Governor Peter Bell to order the forces at Ft. Graham and Ft. Worth to “cause said Indians to be immediately removed above the line of Said Forts and to prevent any further encroachments by them in to our settlements.”10 There’s a transcription and digital images online.

     • And speaking of Texas, folks from Vermont weren’t entirely thrilled with the idea of annexing Texas. Some 27 residents of that northern state signed a petition in 1844 opposing the whole idea.11 It’s online, with many other petitions, in the Petitions and Memorials set of the National Archives photostream on Flickr.

     • You did known that Benjamin Franklin signed a petition to Congress asking for an end to slavery, right?12 No? Take a gander at the petition, and an explanation, online at the National Archives site.

You want more? Just look at these:

     • In Oregon, in 1854, the ladies wanted prohibition.

     • In Missouri, in 1842, people filed petitions for redress for property destroyed in the Mormon War.

     • In Alabama, in 1822, folks petitioned to pardon a man who bit off part of another’s ear AND to pardon another man who’d stolen a hog and horse since he’d already been whipped and branded.

     • In 1810, Daniel Boone asked Congress for a land grant in the Louisiana Territory.

Whenever you possibly can, you really want to go to the archives and hold the original of the petition in your hands. I can’t tell you the feeling you get when you sit there with the petition of your own fourth great grandfather to the North Carolina Legislature asking for relief because he’d lost everything in a house fire in Burke County, North Carolina, on Christmas Eve 1785.13

Oh… and that Virginia family I researched? None of ’em ever signed a petition to form any of the new counties they lived in. Two of ’em did sign a petition to create Roane County,14 but when Virginia did create Roane, it also created Calhoun County,15 and this family ended up in Calhoun. Go figure.


  1. The attribution to Bismarck is probably wrong. See “Laws are Like Sausages. Better Not to See Them Being Made,” Quote Investigator, posted 8 Jul 2010 ( : accessed 9 Feb 2012).
  2. Monongalia was created from Augusta and the District of West Augusta by Virginia Laws of 1776, chapter xlv, in William Waller Hening, compiler, “Hening’s Statutes at Law, Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia from the first session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619,” 14 vols. (1819-1823; reprint ed., Charlottesville: Jamestown Foundation, 1969), 9: 262. And Harrison from Monongalia. Ibid., Laws of 1784, chapter vi, 11: 366-368. And Lewis from Harrison. Joy Gregorie Gilchrist and Charles H. Gilchrist, Lewis County, West Virginia: A Pictorial History of Old Lewis County, The Crossroads of Central West Virginia (Virginia Beach, Virginia : Donning Co., 1993), 22. And Gilmer from Lewis. Act of 3 February 1845, Laws of Virginia, 1845, chapter 43. And Calhoun from Gilmer. Act of 5 March 1856, Laws of Virginia, 1856, chapter 108.
  3. United States Constitution, amendment 1.
  4. Petition of Washington County residents, 9 March 1837, to the Republic of Texas Congress; digital images, The Portal to Texas History ( : accessed 9 Feb 2012).
  5. Petition, 22 Oct 1776, Albemarle County and others; digital image, “Early Virginia Religious Petitions Collection,” American Memory Project, Library of Congress ( : accessed 9 Feb 2012).
  6. Petition, Susanna Carlton, 24 Dec 1818; Library of Virginia (LVA) legislative petitions reel 23, box 31, folder 24, Richmond.
  7. Petition, Inhabitants of Fluvanna County, 29 May 1782; LVA legislative petitions reel 57, box 78, folder 8.
  8. Petitions, John Barns, 4 Dec 1834, 15 Dec 1835 and 23 Dec 1836; LVA legislative petitions reel 192, box 243, folder 33.
  9. Petition for the Emancipation of Liley, 1 Nov 1847; Legislature, Memorials and Petitions, Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Austin; digital images, TSLA Online ( : accessed 9 Feb 2012).
  10. Ibid., Petition from the Citizens of Limestone County to Governor Peter H. Bell, 25 Dec 1849.
  11. Petition, Citizens of Vermont Against Annexation of Texas, Apr 1844; Records of the United States Senate, Record Group 46; National Archives, College Park, Maryland; digital images, National Archives photostream on Flickr (: accessed 9 Feb 2012).)
  12. Petition, Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, Benjamin Franklin, Society President, 3 Feb 1790; Records of the U.S. Senate, RG 46; NA-College Park; digital images, National Archives ( : accessed 9 Feb 2012).
  13. Petition of David Baker, 22 Oct 1790; GASR Nov-Dec 1790, Box 2; North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
  14. Petition of Citizens, 5 Dec 1855; LVA legislative petitions reel 173, box 220, folders 1-2.
  15. Act of 5 March 1856, Laws of Virginia, 1856, chapter 108.
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