Virginia Land Records

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This entry was originally written by Johni Cerny and Gareth L. Mark, in Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
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the Virginia Family History Research series.
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Virginia is a State-Land State.

The original Virginia Charter, granted to the Virginia Company of London in 1606, included provisions for granting land to settlers, called planters, and investors, called adventurers. The revised charter of 1609 specified that planters were to receive fifty acres and adventurers a hundred acres per share, but that all lands were to be held in common for another seven years. About 1614, Sir Thomas Dale began rewarding industrious planters with three-acre plots. John Rolfe's successful experiments with tobacco led many planters to plant their 'gardens' with tobacco. Grants of land by the London Company began about 1616; the earliest surviving grant is to Simon Codrington in March 1615/6. The Great Charter of 1618 divided Virginia into four boroughs and set aside land within each borough for public use. The governor and council were given the authority to allot land to individuals within the boroughs. Two copies of each patent were made; one was given to the grantee as proof of title, and the other was retained for company records.

Virginia became a royal colony in 1624. In 1627 Sir George Yeardley determined that, as governor, he had the power to issue patents for settlers who met the old company definition of a planter. In 1654 the Privy Council finally agreed, and millions of acres were granted to individuals claiming headrights during the seventeenth century.

The headright was the 'right' to claim fifty acres for every 'head' arriving in the colony; most headrights were claimed by the person who paid the passage. Headrights of indentured servants may have been claimed more than once: by the master of the transporting ship, by the merchant who sold the indenture, by the person who bought the indenture, and/or by the servant. Headrights could be bought and sold; many people who paid their own transportation sold their headrights for money to establish themselves in the colony.

The patenting process required several steps, and most of those steps generated a record. The prospective patentee first petitioned the county court for a 'certificate of importation.' The certificate, often recorded in county court minute books, was considered proof of the number of headrights claimed. The patentee then carried the certificate of importation to the Secretary of the Colony, who issued a 'right' of fifty acres per headright. Once he had a 'right,' the patentee took it to the county surveyor, who surveyed the chosen land and created a plat. The patentee returned all of these papers to the secretary, who made two copies of the patent. One was signed by the governor, sealed, and delivered to the patentee. The other copy was retained in the secretary's office and was supposed to be recorded.

Once the patent was issued, the patentee had three years to seat and plant the land. 'Seating' required payment of the quitrent (see Virginia Tax Records), an annual payment to the crown of one shilling for every fifty acres. 'Planting' required either cultivating one acre or building a house and keeping livestock. Orphans had three years after their majority to take possession and plant land. Widows could get extensions of the three years by petitioning the county court.

By the end of the seventeenth century, population growth in the colony of Virginia no longer depended on immigration. Native Virginians wanted new land for tobacco, and the crown wanted to expand the colony, so the treasury right was created. Anyone who wanted new land could receive a 'right' to fifty acres for a payment of five shillings. After about 1715, most land was patented by treasury right instead of by headright. See also The Virginia Land Office (Research Notes Number 20) online at

Virginia grants and deeds are readily available to researchers, including original patents and land grants from 1619'1921; survey plats from 1779'1878; Northern Neck (the area between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers) land grants from 1690'1862; Northern Neck surveys from 1722'1781 and 1786'1874; land warrants from 1779'1926; and miscellaneous land records from 1779'1923. Original land office records are housed at the Library of Virginia. See Daphne S. Gentry, comp., Virginia Land Office Inventory, 3d ed., revised and enlarged by John S. Salmon (Richmond, Va.: Virginia State Library and Archives, 1981).

The Library of Virginia has a searchable online index to land patents issued prior to 1779; land grants issued by the Virginia Land Office after 1779; grants issued in the Northern Neck from 1692'1862; and original and recorded Northern Neck surveys (1786'1874). The original Land Office Grants and Patents and the Northern Neck Grants and Surveys have been scanned and appear in chronological order as TIF files. Users must have a Tiff viewer for the images to appear on screen. Instructions on how to obtain a viewer and use the records appear at Tiff Tips

Many patents have been abstracted and published. They are included in Nell Marion Nugent, Cavaliers and Pioneers, Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants, 3 vols. (1934; reprint, Richmond, Va.: the Library of Virginia, 1992). Vol. 1 covers 1623 to 1666; vol. 2, 1666 to 1695; and vol. 3, 1695 to 1732. The project concluded with Denis Hudgins, ed. Cavaliers and Pioneers, Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents, 4 vols. (Richmond, Va.: Virginia Genealogical Society, 1999); vol. 4 covers 1732 to 1741; vol. 5, 1741 to 1749; vol. 6, 1749 to 1763; and vol. 7, 1762 to 1775. The Virginia Genealogical Society published abstracts of the material contained in these two volumes in The Magazine of Virginia Genealogy. The Virginia Genealogical Society sponsors a continuation of Cavaliers and Pioneers, with abstracts of land patents and grants published regularly in The Magazine of Virginia Genealogy. Northern Neck land grants are abstracted and published in Nell Marion Nugent, Supplement, Northern Neck Grants No. 1, 1690'1692 (Richmond, Va.: Virginia State Library and Archives, 1980), and Gertrude E. Gray, comp., Virginia Northern Neck Land Grants, vol. 1, 1694 to 1742 and vol. 2, 1742 to 1775 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1987, 1988). In addition, Peggy Shomo Joiner, 5008 Dogwood Trail, Portsmouth, VA 23703, has privately published abstracts for Northern Neck warrants and surveys.

When land was sold, the transaction was recorded in county, town, or independent city deed books. Rentals and leases were rarely recorded in deed books, excluding many people from land records. Most deed books are indexed individually, and most Virginia cities and counties have general indexes to grantees and grantors to facilitate research. Copies of deeds can be obtained from county clerks, but most pre-1865 county records in Virginia have been microfilmed and are available at the Library of Virginia and the FHL.