Walk the Land That Your Ancestors Trod
by Virginia Lee Hutcheson Davis
What became known as Black Point, Jamestown Island, Virginia was the first land of that island the settlers saw as they searched for a place to land in 1607. It was on this island they landed, and it became to site of the first permanent English settlement in North America. I have stood at the edge of the James River at Black Point, knowing it to have been owned by my ancestor before 1653. He came to Virginia quite early and also owned a house in James Towne (c.1640). It is a moving experience to look across the same river he must have gazed across, to feel a part of this person who dared to cross the Atlantic into the unknown, and to accept the challenge of being a part of building a new country.
Through intensive and innovation research in the extant records of the colony of Virginia, I have been able to walk where he walked and where each successive generation of his descendants lived and walked. His grandsons must have been imbued with the same independent adventuresome spirit, for they settled at the edge of the civilization in Hanover County. Their sons moved on into land still under attack by Indians; in the wilderness and isolation of Caroline County in the colony of Virginia.
It was this family that first gave me my true sense of identity and continuity as a Virginian. It was this family that piqued my curiosity, challenged my research skills, and caused me to learn about the surviving records of colonial Virginia. It also became necessary to learn about the laws and customs of tidewater Virginia families in order to understand these records. A number of the earliest counties have had all or many their early records destroyed by the three wars fought on their soil (and by courthouse fires). There are few counties in colonial Virginia where one can follow the continuity of the usual record search for successive generations. The search of the identity of early Virginia ancestors and connecting generations is frustrating and difficult; but not impossible.
Cavaliers and Pioneers, by Nell Marion Nugent (2:112), in her abstracted land patents, with the originals on microfilm in the Library of Virginia (LVA), includes a description of the Black Point land patent and the descent from father to son. An identification of the legacy left by this ancestor in the ownership of Black Point is found in a late 1600s copy of a deed among the Ambler Manuscripts in the Library of Congress. The deed describes the transfer of this land from father to son and ultimately to grandson. This same Black Point is a stop on the Island Road in the US National Park at Jamestown today. It is a challenge, both creative and scholarly to find available authoritative information. It is more rewarding, perhaps, because of its difficulty.
Primary source records may be found in the Archives and Records Division of The Library of Virginia, as well as in the Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of the counties. Many of these are on microfilm and the holdings of the LVA are listed in A Preliminary Guide to Pre-1904 County Records, compiled by Suzanne Smith Ray, Lyndon H. Hart III, and J. Christian Kolbe and the companion, A Preliminary Guide to Pre-1904 Municipal Records, compiled by Lyndon H. Hart and J. Christian Kolbe. While wills and deeds may yield much information, the county court order books may provide the only record of a given colonial county, and they must be painstakingly read, page by page. The serious researcher will want to search these in any case. Legislative petitions and land tax records and personal property tax records all yield information that may not have survived in other records. Two pamphlets published by the Library of Virginia: Virginia Personal Property Tax Records by Minor T. Weisiger and Virginia Land Tax Records, by Conley L. Edwards, explain these records in detail.
Loose papers in the LVA yield many unexpected finds: court papers and chancery suits may include lists of heirs to an estate, family letters, copies of wills, deeds and even plats. These court cases may have been carried to other counties as people migrated and copies of documents were preserved that have been lost in the county of original residence. Such holdings in the LVA must be used with the permission from the clerk of the circuit court of the appropriate county. In some cases such records may still be found at the county courthouse. In the search of an ancestor's land one must not overlook the Personal Papers in the LVA, nor the Manuscript Collection. These collections offer copies of records that were assembled and preserved where county court records have not survived.
The laws of the Church of England required that records be kept, not only of the vestry meetings, but also of the vital records of the communicants. A Guide to Church Records in the Archives Branch of Virginia State Library and Archives, compiled by Jewell T. Clark and Elizabeth Terry Long lists the extant parish records, as well as other church records. While only a few of the early parish registers are extant, they read much like the later vital statistic records that have been ordered kept by the Commonwealth. It is from the extant parish vestry books, especially in the counties where few of the court records have survived, that one finds valuable information about property locations and neighbors, as well as the service of the citizens to their church and community.
Those persons fortunate enough to be descended from members of the Society of Friends will find vital records of their ancestors among the most complete of those in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The Quakers not only kept themselves "apart", but kept detailed records of the lives and business of their communities in their monthly meeting minutes with vital statistic records and records of who associated with whom, where the county records do not contain this information.
Newspapers in the late 1700s were scarce; the Virginia Gazette of Williamsburg was perhaps the earliest and the one in more continuous publication, covering the entire state. Since the business of government was conducted in Williamsburg, many people came and went, and clues may be found about where folks were and when, from the notices published regularly in the paper. Almost all of the Virginia newspapers began publishing no earlier than 1785. Most of them covered a larger geographic area than the name would imply. The book, Genealogical Abstracts from Eighteenth Century Virginia Newspapers by Robert Headley lists them. Estate sales are included, which are especially helpful in identifying and describing the homeplace of an ancestor.
Fire insurance records may provide information, not only about the individual, but about his place of residence. The Mutual Assurance Society, Against Fire on Buildings, of the State of Virginia was incorporated by the General Assembly in December 1794. (For a complete description of these records see Conley L. Edwards, Gwendolyn D. Clark, and Jennifer D. McDaid, A Guide to Business Records in the Archives Branch, Virginia State Library and Archives, 1994). These records can be found in the LVA and give definitive information concerning the location of homes, and a description of the buildings insured.
One may progress from the early map holdings of the LVA to modern maps of the counties, published by the Virginia Department of Transportation to establish the location of land holdings. Spanning the years are: the Fry-Jefferson map of 1751, maps of 1827 by the Board of Public Works, Civil War maps, and USGS topographical maps that show all of the creeks, branches and other land marks. Many of these names have been carried since early colonial times.
The identification of Black Point as the land of an early ancestor became a legacy, not in the actual possession of the land, but in absorbing this background of history and the sweep of the intervening years. The act of identifying and describing the lives, customs, and inter-relationships of these early Virginia families has provided a sense of personal fulfillment, identity and appreciation of a heritage. One becomes truly a synthesis of all of the generations of one's past; and of the lands on which these generations lived. To actually walk the land verifies this connection. It then should become a mission of preserving this heritage that may not otherwise survive for future generations.