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Biographical Research at the Library of Virginia
The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Research Notes Number 16)

Catherine Drinker Bowen offered sage advice to researchers in her Adventures of a Biographer (1946). "In libraries it is not well to hurry," she wrote. "To the research worker, haste is fatal. The books have been where they are for a long time; they reveal themselves slowly, at their own pace." Those who undertake biographical research at the Library of Virginia—whether for a scholarly book, journal article, or family history—must take the time to examine a wide range of materials in a variety of formats.

Researchers may begin by searching the Library’s online catalogs for printed and manuscript sources, using the subject’s surname. The Virginia Historical Index is an especially useful guide for biographical and historical research. Earl Gregg Swem and his staff indexed selected Virginia journals and published records. 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).

Research into the history of early Virginia and its inhabitants rests on several categories of surviving manuscript records and printed materials from the colonial period:

The private correspondence of leading individuals (Richard Hakluyt, John Smith, and William Strachey, for example) and mercantile firms (Susan Myra Kingsbury, ed., The Records of the Virginia Company of London [1906–1935]). Also of interest are the published diaries and journals of major Revolutionary-era figures (including Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, James Madison, John Marshall, George Mason, Edmund Pendleton, and George Washington), planters (William Byrd II and Landon Carter), and tutors (Philip Vickers Fithian and John Harrower). Letters received by Virginia’s governors are available in the Archives Research Room; in addition, a searchable database and digital images of selected letters received (29 June 1776–30 November 1784) are available on the Library’s Web site. For additional information on governor’s papers (in manuscript, on microfilm, and in print), see Research Notes Number 11.

Williamsburg’s newspaper, the Virginia Gazette, published by a succession of editors between 1736 and 1780 and indexed in Lester J. Cappon and Stella F. Duff, Virginia Gazette Index, 1736–1780 (1950). Cappon and Duff indexed personal and place names, and also included subject entries and references to advertisements. See also Robert K. Headley Jr., Genealogical Abstracts from Eighteenth-Century Virginia Newspapers (1987).

British public records pertaining to Virginia (accessible through the Virginia Colonial Records Project).

The records of the colony’s own provincial government, chiefly those of the Assembly and the land patents.

A scattered group of vestry books and parish registers. Only in Charles Parish (York County) and Christ Church Parish (Middlesex County) have early county and church records survived. Family Bible records may also be of assistance in establishing dates of birth, baptism, marriage, and death.

County records, which enable researchers to understand everyday life better than any other source.

County court records are the principal source available for the study of Virginia social history in the colonial period. Few of the earliest records survive, especially in the counties on the peninsula between the James and York Rivers. The most complete records for the seventeenth century are those for Accomack and Northampton counties on the Eastern Shore and those for Norfolk on the south side of the James. There are extensive records for several other counties from the second half of the century, including Henrico, Lancaster, Northumberland, Surry, Westmoreland, and York. For an excellent example of research in early county and church records, see Caroline Julia Richter, "A Community and its Neighborhoods: Charles Parish, York County, Virginia, 1630–1740," PhD. diss., College of William and Mary, 1992. For a detailed county history based on primary research, see Darrett B. and Anita H. Rutman, A Place in Time: Middlesex County, Virginia, 1650–1750 (1984). Complete listings of microfilmed local records are available on the Library’s Web site.

Seventeenth-century tithable lists survive for Accomack, Charles City, Henrico, Lancaster, Louisa, Northampton, Pittsylvania, and Surry. An in-house guide to published, microfilmed, and original tithables is available in the Archives Research Room. A tithable was a colonial poll tax (or capitation tax) on members of the labor force, including free white males, African American slaves, and Native American slaves, all age sixteen or older. Owners and masters paid the taxes for their slaves and servants. Tithables did not enumerate individuals under the age of sixteen, and listed women only if they were heads of household.

Other seventeenth and eighteenth century records survive in the Colonial Papers (miscellaneous microfilm reels 609–612). This fragmentary collection consists of the surviving records kept by the clerk of the colonial council, House of Burgesses, the governor, and other officials. The records concern the government of the counties and the colony as a whole, and include petitions to the governor and House of Burgesses, court records, orders, proclamations, and correspondence. The papers are arranged chronologically from 1630 to 1778. A detailed guide is available in the Archives Research Room.

Nicholas Ferrar was a member of the Virginia Company and its deputy treasurer, 1622–1624. The Ferrar Papers include business records, family correspondence, and materials concerning the Virginia Company and the Somer Islands Company (miscellaneous microfilm 1163–1176). Recent research in the Ferrar Papers revealed the identities of fifty-seven women who arrived in Virginia in 1621 (David R. Ransome, "Wives for Virginia, 1621," William and Mary Quarterly 1991 48(1): 3–18.) A guide is available at the microfilm desk in the West Reading Room. The originals are housed at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Also of assistance are the largely mercantile and business materials collected by the Virginia Colonial Records Project (detailed in Research Notes Number 7). A searchable database and digital images of the survey reports are available on the Library’s Web site, and the microfilmed records are available through interlibrary loan. Records of interest include a 1623/1624 "list of the living and the dead in Virginia" (C.O. 1/3, survey report 624, reel 72, ff. 6–20); 1704 rent rolls (C.O. 5/1314, survey report 385, reel 38, ff. 394–435); and a list of 205 Huguenots who arrived in Virginia in 1700 (C.O. 5/1312, survey report 381, reel 37, f. 31).

Other early records indicate land ownership. A searchable database and digital images of Land Office patents and grants (beginning in 1623) are available on the Library’s Web site. Land Office records include grants issued for vacant lands, documents relating to bounty land warrants for military service during the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars, and records of the Northern Neck (or Fairfax) proprietary. For additional information, consult the Virginia Land Office Inventory (1981).

Tax records may also be of assistance in researching individuals. Annual lists of land and personal property owners for each county and city from 1782 (or the date of formation of county if after 1782) to the present are available for research in the Archives. A listing of land tax records on microfilm (including those for counties now part of West Virginia), 1782–1900, is available on the Library’s Web site; a listing of microfilmed personal property tax records (including those for counties now part of West Virginia), 1782–1870, is also available online. For additional information on the content and uses of tax records, see Research Notes Number 1 (land tax) and Number 3 (personal property tax).

Business records may also be of assistance in reconstructing eighteenth-century life. These accounts of everyday transactions—including the letter books of merchants David and William Allason (Accession 13), the ledgers of blacksmith George Buckner (Accession 20057), and the daybook of the Ship Tavern (Accession 29334)—offer a rich view of what individuals brought, drank, ate, and wore. For a guide to the Library’s holdings, consult the online catalog and A Guide to Business Records in the Virginia State Library and Archives (revised ed., 1994).

Information on buildings and their owners may be gleaned from the Mutual Assurance Society declarations and revaluations of assurance, 1796–1867. These records (from the second oldest fire insurance company operating in the United States) may help document property ownership and supplement the information found in land records and on tax lists. Declarations are indexed and are available on microfilm. Each application contains the name of the proprietor or occupant of the property, the signature of the applicant, the location of the property, a description and evaluation of the property, and often a drawing of the property.

A detailed bibliography of primary and secondary sources for eighteenth-century research is included in Warren M. Billings, John E. Selby, and Thad W. Tate, Colonial Virginia: A History (1986). Earlier, useful bibliographies of Virginia sources are included in Wesley Frank Craven, The Southern Colonies in the Seventeenth Century, 1607–1689 (1949) and Richard L. Morton, Colonial Virginia (1960). Seventeenth-century records from a variety of sources are published in Warren M. Billings, ed., The Old Dominion in the Seventeenth Century: A Documentary History of Virginia, 1606–1689 (1975), along with useful lists of suggested secondary readings.

Selected seventeenth- and eighteenth-century state papers have been published, including Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and West Indies, 1574–1736 (1860–) and William P. Palmer et al., eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts, 1652–1869 (1875–1893). Published records of the colonial council include Henry R. McIlwaine, ed., Legislative Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia (1918–1919; 2d ed., 1979); McIlwaine, Wilmer L. Hall, and Benjamin J. Hillman, eds., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, 1680–1775 (1925–1966); McIlwaine, ed., Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia, 1622–1632, 1670–1676, 2d ed. (1979); and McIlwaine, ed., Journals of the Council of State of the State of Virginia, 1776–1791 (1931–1982).

Published sources useful in researching Virginia’s colonial laws include 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 (1809–1823); Joseph J. Casey, Personal Names in Hening’s Statutes at Large of Virginia and Shepherd’s Continuation (1896); Waverly K. Winfree, comp., The Laws of Virginia: Being a Supplement to Hening’s The Statutes at Large, 1700–1750 (1971); Warren M. Billings and Jon Kukla, "Some Acts Not in Hening’s Statutes…," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 83 (1975): 22–76, 77–97; Peter C. Hoffer, ed., Criminal Proceedings in Colonial Virginia, Richmond County, 1710/11–1754 (1984); Acts of the General Assembly of Virginia (1730–); and the Index to Enrolled Bills of the General Assembly of Virginia, 1776 to 1910 (1911).

Published sources may also be of assistance in researching the House of Burgesses and the General Assembly. These include Henry R. McIlwaine and John Pendleton Kennedy, eds., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1619–1776 (1905–1915); Cynthia Miller Leonard, comp., The General Assembly of Virginia, July 30, 1619–January 11, 1978: A Bicentennial Register of Members (1978); Jon Kukla, Speakers and Clerks of the Virginia House of Burgesses, 1643–1776 (1981); Bruce F. Jamerson, ed., Speakers and Clerks of the Virginia House of Delegates, 1776–1996 (1996); and Louis H. Manarin, Officers of the Senate of Virginia, 1776–1996 (1997). Early petitions to the Assembly have been abstracted in Randolph W. Church, Virginia Legislative Petitions, 1776–1782 (1984). Early land office records have been abstracted in Nell Marion Nugent, Cavaliers and Pioneers: Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants, 1623–1732 (1934–1979). Continued by the Virginia Genealogical Society, the series currently covers patents granted through 1776.

For documentary materials on Bacon’s Rebellion and its participants, see Charles M. Andrews, ed., Narratives of the Insurrections, 1675–1690 (1915) and John D. Neville, Bacon’s Rebellion: Abstracts of Materials in the Colonial Records Project (1976).

Documents concerning Virginia’s role in the American Revolution have been printed in a variety of sources, including John P. Kaminski et al., eds., Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution by the States, Virginia, vols. 8–10 (1988–1993); William J. Van Schreeven, Robert L. Scribner, and Brent Tarter, eds., Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence (1973–1983); and Henry A. McIlwaine, ed., Official Letters of the Governors of the State of Virginia, 1776–1784 (1929–1939). Records of Revolutionary service (both military and public) are numerous, varied, and sometimes complex. There is no central index to Virginia’s Revolutionary War records; see Research Notes Number 8 for a description of the Library’s holdings and a listing of the available indexes to records of individual service and benefits, including bounty warrants, Land Office military certificates, and pensions. John E. Selby’s The Revolution in Virginia, 1775–1783 (1988) is an excellent reference source on the commonwealth’s role in the struggle for American independence.

For Virginians who were educated or trained abroad, the printed alumni records of Dublin, Cambridge, and Oxford are valuable for establishing birth dates and names and occupations of fathers. For general biographical reference, consult Virginia M. Meyer and John Frederick Dorman, eds., Adventurers of Purse and Person, Virginia, 1607–1624/25, 3d ed. (1987), which contains a transcription of the 1624/1625 muster; Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography (1915); Emily J. Salmon and Edward D. C. Campbell, Jr., Hornbook of Virginia History (4th ed., 1994), which lists executive officers of Virginia, parishes of the established church, county formations, and other useful information; Jane D. Carson, ed., Travelers in Tidewater Virginia, 1700–1800: A Bibliography (1965); and John T. Kneebone, J. Jefferson Looney, Brent Tarter, and Sandra Gioia Treadway, eds., Dictionary of Virginia Biography (1998–), the Library of Virginia’s ongoing biographical reference project.