, 2014

Lost and found: Historic
court records on display

by Audrey Thomasson

LANCASTER—A cache of Lancaster’s historic documents from as early as the 1700s, including papers signed by Patrick Henry, Benjamin Harrison, James Madison and James Monroe, was uncovered last year and turned over to the Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP) at the Library of Virginia in Richmond.

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Lancaster County Clerk of Circuit Court Diane Mumford found the documents about a year ago as she unpacked the last box of court records from the move to the new Judicial Center.

Mumford immediately recognized some of the papers as survey plats that were separated from case papers turned over to the Library of Virginia in the mid-1990s. She was also surprised to find chancery records and appointments signed by the Commonwealth’s first governors.

The documents, many in delicate condition, were turned over to the Library of Virginia’s records director, Carl Childs, for restoration and preservation.

The Library of Virginia serves the work-related information needs of members of the General Assembly, state employees and state agency libraries. They provide research assistance, access to online resources, and work with Circuit Courts to provide a repository for record-keeping.

“They were very excited about the find,” said Mumford, who serves on the Library’s Circuit Court Restoration and Preservation Grants Committee.

“The plats are pretty impressive. These are unlike any others—they’re wonderfully artistic,” said Childs. “For some reason, surveyors in the area of Lancaster, Middlesex and Northumberland spent a great deal of time with details while other surveyors around the state did simple plats.”

He noted the work of surveyor Thomas Dunaway, who took the time to fill the corners with designs of colorful flowers and leaves, color in bodies of water, embellish the compass and include a small rendering of the home.

According to the director, plats were used extensively in the state’s early history.

“Records document the history of a locality,” said Childs. But in the 1990s when Lancaster’s case papers arrived without the plats, “...there was no way of knowing why they were created. Putting them together with the records, we’re able to solve some of the mysteries,” he explained.

The Library’s records include documentation of divorces, appointments, and freedom records of slaves.

“If it was heard in Circuit Court it would be in the records,” he said. “Court records were critical to prove if someone was native-American versus African-American, slave or free. It was life or death for some people.”

Today, anyone can access the Library’s archives of seven million chancery documents from 57 localities and trace family and property histories. Childs said many people utilize the archives to research family genealogy.

Lancaster’s documents were sent to the conservation lab where they were mended and cleaned, documented, scanned and full size color copies were made. Preservationists then put the full-size color copies in display books or frames and returned them to the Lancaster County Clerk of Circuit Court office, where they are now displayed.

A digital repository of the historic documents, along with others from across Virginia, can be viewed at lva.virginia.gov.

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