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An ode to Virginia’s 20th century geeks

If you have Virginia ancestors the way I have Virginia ancestors, it’s easy to fall under the spell of those wonderful men who compiled valuable legal and genealogical resources in the 18th and 19th centuries like William Waller Hening and his Virginia Statutes at Large.1

It’s so easy in the process to overlook the contributions of more recent compilers, editors and archivists, two of whom either built on Hening’s work or made it more useful … or both!

So let’s hear it today for the 20th century geeks, in this case archivist-librarian geeks — men who may never stepped foot outside of archives and libraries — and without whom anybody who even tiptoes into Virginia genealogical research would be much poorer.

Winfree's Laws of Virginia

First, consider Waverly K. Winfree (1933-1993). As far as I can determine, Winfree held exactly two jobs as an adult: first for what was then the Virginia State Library (now the Library of Virginia) and then, for more than 30 years, for the Virginia Historical Society where he long served as the society’s curator of manuscripts.2

Born in Chesterfield County, Virginia in 1933, Winfree had an undergraduate degree from the University of Richmond and a master’s from the College of William and Mary. His obituary summed up his contributions to Virginia research and genealogy this way:

Waverly’s knowledge of Virginia and southern history was vast, and he became something of an institution for individuals using the historical society’s reading room. He published two research tooks, The Laws of Virginia: Being a Supplement to Hening’s The Statutes at Large, 1700-1750 (1971) and Guide to the Manuscript Collections of the Virginia Historical Society (1985), and was also a respected independent appraiser of manuscripts.3

It’s that first one for which legal genealogists need to tip their hats Winfree’s way. Though Hening did a terrific job collecting early statutes, Barbara Vines Little, CG, FNGS, FVGS, reminded me that:

Hening did not get them all. He compiled from a number of resources including what Jefferson had collected, but the multiple fires at Jamestown and Williamsburg that destroyed many of Virginia’s colonial records placed major roadblocks in his attempt to get them all.4

And, she noted, Winfree’s supplement to Hening’s Statutes contains “either laws missed by Hening or ones in which he made reference to by title only.”5

Winfree’s Laws of Virginia6 can be found in most major public and university libraries. Worldcat lists 182 separate repositories where the work can be found.7

Dr. Earl Gregg Swem (1870-1965)
Image: Swem Library, College of William and Mary
Creative Commons License

And if having somebody like Winfree isn’t enough, then consider Dr. Earl Gregg Swem (1870-1965). In the early years of the 20th century, he prepared a comprehensive index to seven of the most influential publications of Virginia law and genealogy, including Hening’s Statutes. The Virginia Historical Index was first published in two volumes by the Virginia Historical Society8 and has been reprinted many times since.

There’s a terrific guide to using the index online at the Library of Virginia, which explains that:

Earl Gregg Swem was a historian, bibliographer, and librarian who began his career as chief of the Catalog Division at the Library of Congress. He was named Virginia’s assistant state librarian in 1907 and worked at the Virginia State Library (now the Library of Virginia) for twelve years. In 1919, he joined the staff at the College of William and Mary, where he served as librarian until his retirement in 1944. Working with seven female researchers (including his wife, Lilia), Swem set to indexing selected Virginia journals and published records, recording the information on typed cards. He included references to people and society, as well as political events, believing that “the complexity of colonial life” could be best understood through “the history of individuals and families.”

Swem indexed the following publications and volumes: The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, volumes 1-38 (1893-1930); The William and Mary College Quarterly Magazine, first series, volumes 1-27 (1892-1919), and second series, volumes 1-10 (1921-1930); Tyler’s Quarterly Historical and Genealogical Magazine, volumes 1-10 (1919-1929); Virginia Historical Register and Literary Advertiser, volumes 1-6 (1848-1853); The Lower Norfolk County Virginia Antiquary, volumes 1-5 (1895-1906); Hening’s Statutes at Large, volumes 1-13 (1619-1792); and the Calendar of Virginia State Papers, volumes 1-11 (1652-1869).9

The current library at the College of William and Mary is named for Swem, who died the year before it was completed10 and whose own family papers are archived there.11 And, of course, among its holdings is the Virginia Historical Index.

If you can find the time, a trip to the Swem Library (and the Library of Virginia for that matter) is well worth the effort. If you can’t, the Virginia Historical Index is readily available in libraries almost everywhere. Worldcat lists more than 400 worldwide repositories for just one edition.12

Geeks. Where would we be without ’em?


  1. See William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the first session of the Legislature in the year 1619, 13 vols. (Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York, 1809-1823).
  2. Guy R. Swanson (Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond), Historical News and Notices: Obituaries, Journal of Southern History 60: (Feb. 1994), 194.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Barbara Vines Little, Virginia (e-address for private use), to Judy G. Russell, e-mail, 13 Apr 2012, “Re: The Legal Genealogist, Early Virginia Statutes;” privately held by Russell.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Waverly K. Winfree, compiler, The Laws of Virginia; Being A Supplement To Hening’s The Statutes At Large, 1700–1750 (Richmond : Virginia State Library, 1971).
  7., search for The laws of Virginia; being a supplement to Hening’s The statutes at large, 1700-1750 ( : accessed 22 Apr 2012).
  8. Earl Gregg Swem, Virginia Historical Index, 2 vols. (Roanoke, Va. : Virginia Historical Society, 1934-1936
  9. Minor T. Weisiger, “Using the Virginia Historical Index (Swem) at the Library of Virginia,” Library of Virginia ( : accessed 22 Apr 2012).
  10. See “Dr. Earl Gregg Swem,” Swem Library, College of William and Mary ( : accessed 22 Apr 2012).
  11. See ibid., “Earl Gregg Swem Family Papers, 1871-1984.”
  12., search for Virginia historical index.
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