By: Emily Croom
on November 1998
Last Updated: 2007-05-14 14:36:54
What a treasure for researchers! Literally thousands of ancestors lurk in the records of the old Virginia Land Office, housed since 1948 in the archives of the Library of Virginia. The 140-plus volumes of records fall basically into four groups: colonial patents and grants; deeds issued by Thomas Lord Fairfax, proprietor of the Northern Neck, beginning in 1690; grants by the Commonwealth of Virginia after 1779; and grants of Northern Neck lands after the Revolution.
The long-established idea that all English land was held by the Crown also governed distribution of land in colonial Virginia, first through the Virginia Company of London under its royal charter (1607-1624) and then through the king’s officials in the colonial government (1624 forward). The year 1624 marked the revocation of the charter of the Virginia Company and the beginning of royal administration of the colony.
The patent was the instrument by which land was transferred from the Crown to an individual. (The same principle governed the distribution of federal land from the United States government to private owners from the late eighteenth century forward.) During the early colonial period, Virginia settlers qualified for patents under basically two systems: headrights and treasury rights.
In the seventeenth century, most of the patents were issued under the headright system. The London Company and then the Crown allowed persons who paid their own passage to the colony to obtain fifty acres each and an additional fifty acres for each person whose way they paid. For example, in November 1651, Henry Soane received a patent for 297 acres in James City County for transporting six persons: himself, Henry Soane Jr., Judeth (sic) Soane Sr., Judeth Soane Jr., John Soane, and Eliza. (sic) Soane (Cavaliers and Pioneers, Vol 1:222). This abstract sends up a red flag for the genealogist to investigate the possibility or likelihood that these persons were Henry’s wife and children.
These headright claims could be held for months or years before being used or could be transferred to another individual, or assignee. In the example above, therefore, we cannot know from this source alone when Henry Soane first arrived in the colony or how long he waited to make his claim. When Daniell Coleman and Samuel Williams received 600 acres in 1703 for transporting twelve individuals, all of different surnames, the patentees themselves were not counted as headrights (Cavaliers and Pioneers, Vol 3: 74). We may believe, therefore, that Coleman and Williams were not new arrivals, but we cannot tell (1) whether they had paid passage for these headrights or simply acquired the rights from someone else, (2) whether they had any personal acquaintance with the headrights, (3) when the headrights arrived, (4) whether the headrights were new immigrants or settlers returning from a trip abroad, or (5) where any of the headrights were living in 1703. All we know for certain is that the patentees and the headrights were in Virginia by the date of the patent. Headrights included persons of all classes and stations: gentry, nobility, yeomanry, merchants, students, indentured servants, relatives, family servants, and, until 1699, Negroes.
In 1699, the government renewed treasury rights as a method of obtaining land without bringing in settlers. Under this system a person could purchase fifty acres from the government for five shillings. This program accounted for most of the Virginia patents issued in the eighteenth century.
The law required that the patentee, in order to keep his land, had to settle the land within three years and pay an annual quitrent to the crown, one shilling for each fifty acres owned. Settling was accomplished by “seating and planting.” Seating meant building a house and keeping livestock; planting meant clearing and cultivating the required number of acres, at first one acre per fifty and later three of each fifty owned.
Fortunately for researchers, most land patents from 1624 forward survived, at least long enough to be copied into the patent books as we know them. This process of transcription began in 1683, and it is these copies we read in the land office records. Some of them are written in that wonderful seventeenth century style handwriting, with its “backward” es and “old style” capital letters. The preliminary documents created in the process of obtaining the patent (certificates or warrants, surveys, and plats) no longer exist, unless the county kept a record of the survey.
These valuable records now exist in three forms: books, microfilm, and computer database available on the Internet.
The books, Cavaliers and Pioneers, are, in 1998, a five-volume set of abstracts covering patents and grants from the earliest to 1749. Two more volumes are planned. Usually, the abstracts give the patentee’s name and patent date; the size and location of the land, including adjoining neighbors; and, when applicable, the names of the persons brought into the colony whose passage qualified the applicant for headrights. The later abstracts also may mention the kind of patent being issued: new land, old land, part new and part old, resurveyed land, marsh or swamp land, lapsed land, or escheat land. Lapsed land was land that, once patented, had not been settled within the required three years and had reverted to the crown. Escheat land was land whose owner had died without heirs or, on rare occasions, had been convicted of a felony.
The published books have thorough indexes that offer the researcher a variety of options in using the abstracts. Most genealogists use the indexes to identify ancestors by surname and given name, to find their patents, or to learn where they are mentioned in patents of other people. For example, ancestors who had their passage to Virginia paid by someone else may be listed among headrights or “transported” persons. Ancestors may also be listed as adjoining landholders in a neighbor’s patent.
The indexes also facilitate the study of “neighborhoods” when we want to study the cluster of an ancestor’s relatives, neighbors, and associates. Since the abstracts note the bodies of water which form boundaries for much of the patented land, researchers can look up these features in the index and discover other landowners along the same bodies. The index covers creeks, branches, rivers, swamps and marshes, ponds, and springs, as well as roads and paths, counties, parishes, plantations, towns, and any other geographic names in the land descriptions.
Researchers may well want to begin with the abstract books to identify any ancestors who are included. Then, in Volume 4, pages xv to xxxvi, are the forms used for the different kinds of patents (escheat, resurveyed, new land, etc.). It is helpful to photocopy the one appropriate to each ancestor’s patent. It is both interesting and wise for us as researchers to look at the “originals” on microfilm; they are the primary source. Since some of the microfilmed patent books are faded, torn, or otherwise difficult to read, the photocopied formats and published abstracts facilitate our reading and understanding.
The patents read much like deeds. They give the name and often the residence of the patentee, the number of acres in the acquisition, its county and boundary descriptions, the former patentee if applicable, and the patent date. Like deeds, the patents also spell out the rights and privileges that go along with the land, including “hunting hawking fishing fowling and all other profits commodities and hereditaments whatsoever...to the same...belonging or anywise appertaining.” The documents also name any headrights attached to the transaction.
The complete microfilm set at the Library of Virginia encompasses patents from 1623 to 1948, of which Clayton Library has 12 rolls, covering the period 1623-1730. Each roll of microfilm reproduces one or two of the original patent books. Most of the patent books begin with indexes. The index entry gives the patentee’s name, the number of acres, and the page number where the document is found.
From the Library of Virginia home page on the Internet (http://leo.vsla.edu), researchers can access databases for the Northern Neck grants (1690-1874), copies of grants not called for (1639-1860), original patents and grants (1728-1933), index to land patents and grants (1623-1980), patents (1623-1774), index to land patents (Vol. 1-42), index to Charles City and Prince George County surveys, and abstracts of patents and grants by county, including some counties now in Kentucky and West Virginia. From a surname index, a searcher can read abstract cards for the patents and, if the user’s computer has the capability, images of the patents themselves. This database is an important one of a growing number of “real research” opportunities on the Internet.
In Virginia, the “Ancient Planters” and adventurers were the earliest arrivals who came between 1607 and 1624 and who, for us, largely remain nameless. So many had died from hunger, disease, accidents, and a 1621 Indian massacre that by early 1622 it was estimated that fewer than a thousand were left. Most of these survivors had arrived after 1616, and some were landholders. The introduction to Volume 1 of Cavaliers and Pioneers lists known Ancient Planters who arrived mostly between 1607 and 1616 and were still living in 1624.
The land patents form a remarkable record of immigration to colonial Virginia, especially since passenger lists and other records of immigration are rarities before 1820. They are also a valuable tool in the study of ancestors’ land transactions, holdings, and neighborhoods. In Houston, we are fortunate to have access to all three forms of these documents at Clayton Library.
Emily Croom is a member of Clayton Library Friends and the author of three widely known genealogy how-to and reference books: Unpuzzling Your Past, The Unpuzzling Your Past Workbook, and The Genealogist’s Companion & Sourcebook.