Virginia Court Records
This entry was originally written by Johni Cerny and Gareth L. Mark for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
Most courts in America are courts of record, that is, they are required by law to keep a record of their proceedings. Virginia courts are no exception. Understanding Virginia’s court system is challenging; taken a step at a time, it can be unraveled. See Suzanne Smith Ray, Lyndon H. Hart III, and J. Christian Kolbe, comps., A Preliminary Guide to Pre-1904 County Records in the Archives Branch, Virginia State Library and Archives (Richmond, Va.: Virginia State Library and Archives, 1987) for a more detailed explanation of state courts.
County Court (1619–1902). County courts were the court of record used by most Virginians. In 1904, county courts ceased to exist, and their functions were taken over by the circuit courts.
County courts were established as the monthly court in the Great Charter of 1618. The monthly court was held in different precincts and heard petty civil and criminal cases. It served two primary functions: (1) it relieved the president and council of part of their duties as justices, and (2) it brought justice closer to all Virginians. When the eight original shires were formed in 1634, the monthly court was redesignated the court of shire, and by 1642 was called the county court. The county court was required to meet at least six times per year.
The justices, first known as commissioners, were appointed by the governor; in 1662 they were called justices of the peace. The court generally included eight to ten justices, with four justices appointed to the quorum. One member of the quorum in company with three other justices was sufficient to make up a valid court.
The county court also sat in special terms. These were well-publicized meetings of the court for specific functions. The orphans’ court, begun in 1642, reviewed annual accounts of orphans’ estates and ensured that guardians did not waste the estates or mistreat the orphans. Apprentices could appeal to the orphans’ court in cases of mistreatment or failure of masters to live up to their contracts. The court of claim was a special session for the county’s citizens to present monetary claims against the county before the levy was laid (see Virginia Tax Records). Beginning in 1645, the county court also sat as a court of probate, granting certificates of probate and administration, ordering inventories and appraisements, and settling estates.
President and Council (1607–19). Until 1619, the president and members of the council heard and decided all civil and criminal cases in Virginia. Unfortunately, no record of their proceedings has survived. When monthly courts were established in 1619, the president and council began to hear appeals of criminal and civil decisions made by those courts.
Quarter Court (1619–61). Starting in 1619, the president and council, and later the governor and council, sat as a quarter court in March, June, September, and December to handle major civil cases, chancery, and appellate matters. When they met in other months, they met as the Council. The quarter court was designated the general court in 1661.
General Court (1661–1851). This court had the responsibility of hearing county court appeals, major civil cases, capital crimes, and probate matters until 1851. Two other courts were established during the general court’s existence: (1) the high court of chancery, and (2) district courts. The high court of chancery took over appellate functions in county court chancery cases in 1777, and district courts took over appellate functions in county court common law cases in 1789.
The judges of the general court also sat on the district courts. They spent much of their time in the lower court until 1814, when the general court was made the supreme criminal tribunal in Virginia. The general court was abolished by the 1851 state constitution, and its functions were transferred to the state supreme court of appeals.
State Supreme Court of Appeals (1779-present). Since the state supreme court of appeals was created in 1779, it has had final jurisdiction in all civil cases. It has been the state’s only court of final appeals since the general court was abolished in 1851.
High Court of Chancery (1777–1802). At its creation in 1777, the high court of chancery assumed jurisdiction over all chancery cases in the state. It was abolished in 1802 and replaced by the superior courts of chancery.
Superior Courts of Chancery (1802–31). Originally, there were three chancery districts, with superior courts of chancery in Staunton, Richmond, and Williamsburg. Additional districts were added including Wythe County, Winchester, and Clarksburg in 1812, and Greenbrier County and Lynchburg in 1814. The Superior Courts of Chancery were abolished in 1831 and replaced by the nearest county’s circuit superior court of law and chancery.
District Courts (1789–1808). In 1789 Virginia was divided into eighteen districts, each including several counties. Courts were held twice each year, always in the same location. District courts were replaced by the superior courts of law in 1808.
The eighteen district courts were held at the courthouses in Charlottesville, Fredericksburg, Richmond, Williamsburg, Suffolk, Winchester, Staunton, Dumfries, Petersburg, and possibly others.
Superior Courts of Law (1808–31). Created in 1808, these courts met twice a year in each county and took over the functions of the district courts. They were sometimes called circuit courts because a general court judge rode a circuit throughout his district to hold these courts. These courts were replaced in 1831 by the circuit superior courts of law and chancery.
Circuit Superior Courts of Law and Chancery (1831–51). These courts were organized like the superior courts of law; sessions were held twice a year by a general court judge who rode a circuit. They assumed the functions of the superior courts of law and the superior courts of chancery. The state constitution of 1851 abolished these courts and replaced them with circuit courts.
Circuit Courts (1852-present). Courts were held twice a year in each county, and records were filed with the county. Originally, there were twenty-one judges who rode circuits to hold these courts.
The state constitution of 1902 did not include provisions for continuing county courts, and circuit courts took over their functions. The circuit courts are now the only court of record in Virginia’s counties.
Original court records are housed at the Library of Virginia; pre-1865 records are available on microfilm there and at the FHL. The Chancery Records Index at the Library of Virginia has extensive Chancery Court records scanned and available online at no charge. Many counties and cities are now available, though scanning is ongoing. Abstracts of early court records are being printed so rapidly that it is difficult to keep current. While it is always best to rely upon original documents for research, the condition of original court records varies considerably: some are still firmly bound and easy to read, some are faded and crumbling, some are torn or have missing pages, some have been restored, and many have been destroyed or lost. Because of these circumstances, printed transcripts can prove invaluable to researchers who know their limitations and use this resource wisely.
The Library of Virginia and the FHL have most published transcripts, while other libraries have fewer volumes. The best individual collection, published between 1937 and 1949, is Beverly Fleet’s thirty-four-volume series of Virginia Colonial Abstracts (1937–49; reprinted in 3 vols., Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000). This work brings together a wealth of data from the records of the Tidewater region of Virginia—birth, marriage and death records, tax lists, court orders, militia lists, wills, and deeds. The result of extensive research in county courthouses, municipal and state archives, and private collections, most of the abstracts were based on the earliest records known to exist. The reprinted collection has been rearranged and consolidated in three volumes, each with its own master index.
A similar compilation for the land west of the mountains can be found in Lyman Chalkley, Chronicles of the Scotch-Irish Settlement in Virginia, 3 vols. (1912; reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1999). Each volume is indexed separately.