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Using the Virginia Historical Index (Swem) at the Library of Virginia

One of the most important research guides for Virginia historical and genealogical researchers is the Virginia Historical Index compiled under the direction of Dr. Earl Gregg Swem (1870-1965). It is a comprehensive index to several publications concerning Virginia history and genealogy.

Earl Gregg Swem was a historian, bibliographer, and librarian who began his career as chief of the Catalog Division at the Library of Congress. He was named Virginia's assistant state librarian in 1907 and worked at the Virginia State Library (now the Library of Virginia) for twelve years. In 1919, he joined the staff at the College of William and Mary, where he served as librarian until his retirement in 1944. Working with seven female researchers (including his wife, Lilia), Swem set to indexing selected Virginia journals and published records, recording the information on typed cards. 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).

The Virginia Historical Index is published in four volumes, and entries are alphabetically arranged. Abbreviations for publications indexed in Swem are:

C   Calendar of State Papers
H Hening's Statutes at Large
N   Lower Norfolk County Antiquary
R Virginia Historical Register
T Tyler's Quarterly Magazine
V Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
W(1) William and Mary Quarterly, first series
W(2)    William and Mary Quarterly, second series

All entries in the index are referenced in the same way: volume number, abbreviation of publication title, and page number.   Sample entries would read "Nicholas, Wilson Cary 11V295" or "Cape Henry 7T22." Explanations of these abbreviations are found at the bottom of each page.

The various volumes indexed contain a wealth of Virginia data. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, the William and Mary Quarterly, and Tyler's Historical Quarterly contain articles on all facets of Virginia history, chiefly on the period prior to 1865, as well as genealogical information on many prominent families.

The Virginia Historical Register was the official publication of the Virginia Historical Society in the mid-nineteenth century. The Lower Norfolk Antiquary contains abstracts of records related to Norfolk City and Norfolk County. William Waller Hening's Statutes at Large are an important compilation of extant acts of the Virginia General Assembly (1619-1792). The Calendar of State Papers contains abstracts and transcriptions of the Virginia Colonial Papers (1652-1775) and selected correspondence received by Virginia governors (1776-1865).

While the arrangement of the index is easy to understand, a few features should be noted. Names of individuals are printed in full, with life dates, profession and title, if known. Otherwise, references to persons of the same name are grouped together.  Researchers are urged to search all variant spellings of surnames when looking up individuals.

Many "see also" references have been added to provide cross-references to subjects, making the index more comprehensive.  For instance, after "ships," a "see also" reference will give the names of all ships listed in the index.

Copies of the Virginia Historical Index and all the volumes cited are available in the East and West Reading Rooms.

An examination of Swem's Virginia Historical Index will provide invaluable information concerning almost any aspect of Virginia history and genealogy.

Compiled by Minor T. Weisiger
Revised June 2000