Colonial Virginia

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Colonial English Research

This article is part of a series.

Overview of Colonial English Research
Colonial New Hampshire
Colonial Massachusetts
Colonial Rhode Island
Colonial Connecticut
Colonial New York
Colonial New Jersey
Colonial Pennsylvania
Colonial Delaware
Colonial Maryland
Colonial Virginia
Colonial North Carolina
Colonial South Carolina
Colonial Georgia
List of Useful Colonial English Resources

This article originally appeared in "Colonial English Research" by Robert Charles Anderson, MA, FASG in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

Jurisdictional History

The first settlement in Virginia, at Jamestown, was undertaken in 1607 by the Virginia Company of London. (Thus, like New Amsterdam and Massachusetts Bay Company, Virginia began life as a business operation.) The company was reorganized and rechartered in 1618, but in 1624 the charter was revoked, and Virginia became a royal colony for the remainder of the colonial period.

The county system in Virginia was not created all at once but grew in a series of stages from about 1618 to 1642. The Virginia Company in 1618 ordered the organization of the colony into four jurisdictions known as cities or boroughs. Based on this beginning, various courts were established, which formed the basis for the full-blown counties.<ref>Edgar MacDonald, 'The Myth of Virginia County Formation in 1634,' National Genealogical Society Quarterly 92 (2004): 58'63. </ref> By the end of this period, nine counties existed from which all other Virginia counties were descended: Charles City, Elizabeth City, Henrico, Isle of Wight, James City, Northampton, Northumberland, Warwick, and York.


In Virginia, the principal method for transferring land from the colony to individuals for the first century or so of the colony's existence was the headright system, in which land was awarded for each person transported into the colony. A single grant of land might be based on a head of household, the remaining members of the household, and a number of servants, and so might run to many hundreds of acres. (Less important were grants of land based on military service. Later in the history of the colony, rights to acquire land could be purchased.) After the Crown took over Virginia in 1624, these transfers of land were referred to as 'crown grants,' except for the land distributed after 1649 by the Northern Neck Proprietors, which became known as 'proprietary grants.' This separate proprietary land office was established by Charles II in that year as part of his political maneuvering in his attempts to regain the throne.

The actual process of making the grant of land was divided into four steps. First, the person or group of persons wishing to exercise a headright or a military right submitted to the land office a petition that stated the number of acres requested and described the location of the land desired. In the case of headright grants, the petition also included the names of the persons upon whom the claim was based. The land office then issued a warrant, authorizing a surveyor to lay out the land. When the survey was completed and returned, the land office then issued a patent, which became the legal basis for ownership of the land.

The massive collection of Virginia land patents, from the years 1623 to 1776, has been abstracted and published in seven volumes, the first three volumes of which were edited by Nell Marion Nugent.<ref>Nell Marion Nugent, ed, Cavaliers and Pioneers: Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents, 7 vols. (Baltimore, 1963'99).</ref> Several of these volumes contain extensive and useful introductory essays on the records and the system that created them.

The Northern Neck land office, eventually controlled by the Fairfax family, covered an area in northern Virginia that was eventually divided into nearly two dozen counties in Virginia and West Virginia. The grants made by the Northern Neck propriety have also been published.<ref>Nell Marion Nugent, Supplement, Northern Neck Grants No. 1, 1690'1692 (Richmond, 1980); Gertrude E. Gray, Virginia Northern Neck Land Grants, 1694'1775, 2 vols. (Baltimore, 1987, 1988).</ref>

In 1987, Richard Slatten published 'Interpreting Headrights in Colonial-Virginia Patents: Uses and Abuses,' an article that described the granting process in detail and demonstrated techniques for interpreting the patents in the solution of genealogical problems.<ref>Richard Slatten, 'Interpreting Headrights in Colonial-Virginia Patents: Uses and Abuses,' National Genealogical Society Quarterly 75 (1987): 169'79.</ref>

This same system, with variations, was used in all colonies other than the four New England colonies (although there were other important landgranting processes in New York and New Jersey). From one colony to another there might be differences in terminology, but the underlying process was much the same. For instance, the initial petition might also be called the 'entry' and the survey might be designated the 'plat.'


Kentucky was admitted to the Union in 1792 as the fifteenth state. When European settlement of the region that would become Kentucky began, the area was under the jurisdiction of Virginia and was first considered to be part of Augusta County. This situation continued until 1772, when Fincastle County was erected, to include all of what became Kentucky. In 1777, Montgomery County was formed, and the Fincastle records came into the possession of that county.

Case Studies

Charles E. Drake, 'Drakes of Isle of Wight County, Virginia: Reconstructing an Immigrant Family from Fragile Clues,' National Genealogical Society Quarterly 79 (1991): 19'32. The author carefully analyzes scattered clues from early deed, probate, and patent books of Isle of Wight County and of the colony of Virginia to estimate the ages of a group of early Drake immigrants to that county and colony. Combining this information with a 1658 passenger list led to the discovery of the English origin of these Drakes. This research was followed up with a study of the early generations of the family, again using a similar range of records.

Margaret R. Amundson, 'The Taliaferro-French Connection: Using Deeds to Prove Marriages and Parentage,' National Genealogical Society Quarterly 83 (1995): 192'98. The author employs a plenitude of deeds and wills from several early Virginia counties, along with a few church records and entries from court order books, to identify the spouses of several members of the French and Taliaferro families of early eighteenth-century Virginia.