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Researching Virginia’s early laws

So The Legal Genealogist is off again this weekend (can you tell it’s conference season?) and this time to a state through which just about all of my mother’s ancestors passed at one point or another — Virginia.

I’ll be speaking Saturday, November 8, at the Genealogical Research Institute of Virginia Fall Conference at Clover Hill High School in Midlothian, and hope to see you there. (Walk-ins are welcome!)

And in honor of those ancestors and this weekend’s celebration of Virginia research, here’s a little tip on researching early Virginia records: thanks to a man named William Waller Hening, it’s really easy to find out what those records mean by looking at the laws of the Old Dominion that impacted them.

12HeningHening was born around 1750 and died 31 March 1828.1 He was admitted to practice law in Virginia in 1789, became a member of the Virginia House of Delegates in 1804, and served in public office until his death in 1828.2

And his most enduring legal legacy was a monumental 13-volume work containing the laws enacted by Virginia’s legislative bodies (the House of Burgesses and the General Assembly) between 1619 and 1792.

These 13 volumes are cited collectively as 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). For short, they’re referred to as Hening’s Statutes at Large. They were published by acts of the Virginia General Assembly dated 5 February 1808, 10 March 1819 and 24 January 1823 3 and have been referred to by a former Virginia State Archivist as “a signal contribution to southern scholarship” and “a work known to all historians.”4

Just about anything you may ever need to know about the colonial and early Commonwealth laws of Virginia, you can find in Hening’s Statutes at Large. Need to know when the town of Stevenburg was founded in Culpeper County? It’s in Volume 11, Laws of 1782.5 Want to see how the militia was organized in 1777? No problem. Volume 9, Laws of 1777.6 Trying to figure out when Randolph County was formed? Volume 12, Laws of 1786.7

Now, the volumes of the original Hening’s Statutes at Large are available online in digital image format. Through Google Books, you can find:

     • Vol. 1 (1619 – 1660)
     • Vol. 2 (1660 – 1682)
     • Vol. 3 (1684 – 1710)
     • Vol. 4 (1711 – 1736)
     • Vol. 5 (1738 – 1748)
     • Vol. 6 (1748 – 1755)
     • Vol. 7 (1756 – 1763)
     • Vol. 8 (1764 – 1773)
     • Vol. 9 (1775 – 1778)
     • Vol. 10 (1779 – 1781)
     • Vol. 11 (1782 – 1784)
     • Vol. 12 (1785 – 1788)
     • Vol. 13 (1789 – 1792)

You can also find the entire set of 13 volumes digitized online at Hathitrust (“a partnership of academic & research institutions, offering a collection of millions of titles digitized from libraries around the world”), from the University of Michigan Library here, and from the Harvard University Library here.

And a search for “Hening Statutes” at the Internet Archive will turn up these digital images as well.

A reprint series is available in most major libraries: William Waller Hening, ed., 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., reprint (Charlottesville : University of Virginia Press, 1969).

And there’s one more source for these early laws: a transcription of Hening’s statutes keyed in by Freddie L. Spradlin, Virginia state coordinator for the USGenWeb Project. This database, titled Hening’s Statutes at Large, is fully-word-searchable, though the results pages can be a bit hard to navigate.

So no excuses now… since we need to understand the laws when and where the record was created, those of us with Virginia ancestors need to get cracking…


  1. G. Brown Goode, Virginia Cousins: A Study of the Ancestry and Posterity of John Goode of Whitby, a Virginia Colonist of the Seventeenth Century, with Notes Upon Related Families, a Key to Southern Genealogy and a History of the English Surname Gode, Goad, Goode Or Good from 1148 to 1887 (Richmond : J. W. Randolph & English, 1887), 225; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 11 Apr 2012).
  2. William J. Van Schreeven, “William Waller Hening,” 22 William & Mary Quarterly 2d (April 1942) 161-164.
  3. 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, preface to the Second Edition, vol. I (New York : 1823), xxiii-xxiv.
  4. Van Schreeven, “William Waller Hening,” 161.
  5. Laws of 1782, chap. XIX, in Hening, Hening’s Statutes at Large, 11: 36-38.
  6. Laws of 1777, chap. VII, in Hening, Hening’s Statutes at Large, 9: 291-297.
  7. Laws of 1786, chap. CI, in Hening, Hening’s Statutes at Large, 12: 394-395.
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