Virginia court cases on CD
There is very little in this world that The Legal Genealogist likes better than published reports of old court cases. But fully searchable CD-ROM versions of lots and lots of early court cases definitely make the cut. And when those old court cases are from a place like Virginia, The Legal Genealogist can get positively giddy. (Can we say “burned counties,” boys and girls? I knew we could…)
Thanks to a cooperative publishing venture between the Virginia Genealogical Society and Archive CD Books USA, there are loads of early Virginia court cases in fully-searchable CD-ROM versions available right now — and more to come.
I first heard about this venture from Barbara Vines Little, CG, FNGS, FVGS, past president of the National Genealogical Society and former president and current governor of the Virginia Genealogical Society.1 It turns out that, in 2005, a member of the Virginia Genealogical Society, Ken Craft of Norcross, Georgia, donated a complete set of these early Virginia court reports to VGS in the hope that somehow the cases could be made more readily available to the genealogical community. His thinking was, perhaps, a general index. VGS ddid him one better: in 2008, it worked out an agreement with Archive CD Books USA to publish every last one of these 70-plus volumes in a fully-searchable digital format.2
To understand the way the set works, you need to know that in the early days, court cases were always compiled by official Reporters and the volumes containing each Reporter’s work would be named after the Reporter and numbered sequentially. So you’d have, for example, two volumes by a Reporter named Washington and they were known as 1 Washington and 2 Washington. There were six volumes by a Reporter named Call, and they were known as 1 Call, 2 Call, 3 Call etc.3 The entire set, originally published by the Michie Company in the early 1900s, is known as Jefferson-33 Grattan, 1730-1880.4 That’s because the first volume was reported by some guy you may have heard of once or twice by the name of Thomas Jefferson and it goes on through to Volume 33 reported by some guy with the improbable name of Peachy Ridgway Grattan.
In all, there are some 75 or more volumes included in the reports that will ultimately be on CD. I managed to get my hands on the full set of currently-available CDs from Archive CD Books USA at the National Genealogical Society 2012 Conference in Cincinnati two weeks ago. There are now four CDs (beginning with Jefferson’s volume and ending with Hening & Munford’s volume 4 — about 18 or 19 volumes so far). I’ve just had time to start poking around with these and oh boy… if you have Virginia ancestors, you want these. You definitely want these.
Why? Because almost every page has some little tidbit, some piece of information, some clue to who our ancestors were and how they lived that we could never ever put our hands on in any other way. That’s particularly true in Virginia where, we know, “the majority of the records of Virginia’s appellate courts were destroyed by fire in 1865. The reports are one of the few surviving sources for information on the cases heard on appeal.”5
And what a wealth of detail you can find in those reports. I’m just going to pick a few examples, literally at random, from these four CDs.
Marston v. Parish, Jefferson Reports 1 (1730). In John Williams’ 1713 will, he left four slaves to be divided equally between his wife and three children. After John’s death, three children were born to the slaves. John’s widow Anthany remarried to John Marston. Marston, believing Anthany to be with child, wrote a will in 1719 leaving all of the slaves to the child he believed his wife was expecting. He died, and it turned out Anthany was not with child. She married again, to Parish the defendant, and John Marston’s brother — his heir at law — sued to get the slaves. The court ruled against the brother — but man… one woman, three husbands, and seven slaves all identified by name.
Legaw and Armistead v. Newton, Jefferson Reports 17 (1735). Nope, nope, no genealogical information in this case. Let’s see… Land granted to Beheathland Gibson, by patent, 27 September 1667, when she was one year old. She died in October 1693, as the widow of one Stork, and devised her estate to her daughter Elizabeth, who was born in 1687, married in 1702 to the defendant’s father, who died in 1728, leaving a 33-year-old son, the defendant. Nope, move along here, nothing for a genealogist to see in this case.
Commonwealth v. Jacob Lester, 2 Va. Cas. 198 (1820). Jacob Lester of Lunenburg County didn’t much like Reuben Skinner. He went after him with a big stick of wood and broke his jaw bone “with intent to maim, disfigure, disable or kill” him. Problem is the indictment was based on a specific statute which didn’t say a word about jawbones. You couldn’t cut off somebody’s tongue, or put out an eye, or slit, cut off or bite off a nose, ear or lip, or disable a limb, or stab somebody or shoot him, but … nope, the statute didn’t say one word about breaking a jawbone. And the indictment said he broke it, not that he disabled it. The guy walked. Which, I suspect, greatly annoyed Skinner.
Sherrard et al. v. Carlisle, 1 Pat. & H. 12 (1855). Another one of those boring cases of no use to genealogists. In 1815, John Snyder of Hampshire County died leaving a will with one fifth of the proceeds of the estate to his daughter Elizabeth. Elizabeth married Jonathan Carlisle, who sold Elizabeth’s right to receive some of the estate money to John Sherrard. In August 1835, Elizabeth sued Jonathan for divorce in Bedford County, Pennsylvania, and in 1836 the court there granted it. A court case came up in 1837 about Elizabeth’s right to receive land from her father’s estate, but before things were completely resolved Jonathan died (in 1842) and Elizabeth died (in 1848). John S. Carlisle, Elizabeth’s only son and heir, survived her and continued to press for the inheritance. Now no matter who wins this suit, if you’re a Snyder or a Carlisle, you’ve got to be smiling, no?
Davies v. Miller et al., 1 Call 127 (1797). John Miller of King & Queen County made a will 21 February 1742 leaving a life estate in 100 acres of land to his daughter Mary Berry, wife of John Berry, and on her death the land was to pass to his son Christopher Miller. John Miller also had a grandson Christopher, eldest son of John’s eldest son. The grandson sued to get the land, but died before the case was heard. The grandson’s will purported to give the land to one party, the son’s will gave it to someone else, and the case came down to who had possession when. How do you feel about this case if you’re a Miller descendant from King & Queen County, where virtually all of the records were destroyed in fires in 1828 and 1865?6
Not good enough? Consider what else you can find out in these court reports. How about physical descriptions of persons accused of crimes? Details of business transactions of the day? What people wore? What medical treatment was given for specific wounds? Whether you could collect on a gambling debt? Who was entitled to inherit when there was no will? When and whether an Indian could be made a slave? What rights an illegitimate child had? When somebody first came to Virginia? Who lived next door?
Wonderful resources, fully annotated, chock full of information of immediate use to anyone with Virginia ancestors. There are alternative sources: you can buy each volume as a paperback at Amazon; many are online at Google Books or Internet Archive. The CDs aren’t free, and they aren’t particularly cheap (each CD is $19.95) but nothing else is as easy to use, and nothing else will let you still poke around in these wonderful old cases even when your Internet connection goes out.
Check ’em out. Archive CD Books USA, product 0623-1, -2, -3 and -4.
- Barbara Vines Little, CG, FNGS, FVGS, of Virginia to Judy G. Russell, CG, of New Jersey, e-mail, 13 Apr 2012, “VA Reports;” privately held by recipient. ↩
- See Barbara Vines Little, “Background: The Virginia Law Reports,” Archive CD Books USA (http://www.archivecdbooksusa.com/ : accessed 21 May 2012). ↩
- The early volumes have since been renumbered by order of the Supreme Court of Virginia dated 10 Jun 1910. See, e.g., “Citation of Virginia Reports,” 116 Va. iv (1915); digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 21 May 2012). ↩
- Jefferson-33 Grattan, 1730-1880, (Charlottesville, Va. : Michie Co., 1900-1904). ↩
- Little, “Background: The Virginia Law Reports.” ↩
- “Burned Record Counties (VA-NOTES),” Library of Virginia (http://www.lva.virginia.gov : accessed 21 May 2012). ↩