There is a new online resource for genealogists and historians to utilize in their local and family history research.

Several years ago, representatives from the Library of Virginia gave a presentation to the Smyth County Genealogical Society about the Chancery Records Digitization Project. At the time, very few counties were included in the database. After several years of undergoing the scanning process at the Library of Virginia, the records are finally available.

A detailed description of the Chancery Records Project is offered on the Library of Virginia’s website. “The Chancery Records Index (CRI) is a result of archival processing and indexing projects overseen by the Library of Virginia (LVA) and funded, in part, by the Virginia Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP). Each of Virginia's circuit courts created chancery records that contain considerable historical and genealogical information. Because the records rely so heavily on testimony from witnesses, they offer a unique glimpse into the lives of Virginians from the early 18th century through the First World War.

“The original court papers are flat-filed, indexed, and conserved using a set of standards developed by the LVA. Since the tri-folded records are often in poor condition, special attention is paid to preparing them for digital reformatting. This laborious process is undertaken so that the best quality images can be captured in one effort. The valuable original records are then retired to secure storage.

“The reformatted images—whether digital scans or microfilm—can be viewed at the Library of Virginia, at the circuit court clerk's office, or, in the case of digital images, from any internet-connected computer. The indexed but-not-yet-reformatted original records in the Library's care can be viewed in the Archives Research Room prior to reformatting. During reformatting, some or all of the original records may be unavailable for viewing; however, the full index will remain available for research purposes. Information is added to the CRI in such instances to alert researchers regarding a collection's availability.

“There are over 246,000 cases indexed in the database and nearly 10 million images of chancery causes available online.”

Why are the chancery records so valuable to researchers and what kind of information do they contain? A chancery case was “one that could not be readily decided by existing written laws. A judge, not a jury, determines the outcome of the case. These types of court documents are useful when researching genealogical information and land or estate divisions and may contain correspondence, lists of heirs, or vital statistics, among other items. Cases in chancery often address estate and business disputes, debt, the resolution of land disputes, and divorce.

“A chancery case began with the bill of complaint, explaining the background of the action, followed by an answer from the parties being sued. Court appointed commissioners decided a fair and equitable settlement of the case based on the evidence presented and reported their findings to the court. The court’s decision or final decree was the last step in the proceedings of a chancery case. Cases in chancery could be heard in any court.”

There are a couple of cases within the Smyth County chancery records that provide examples of the typical content to be found in this online collection. These are the records where the stories reside. They go beyond providing basic information, such as dates and places and expose more of the details of our ancestors’ lives.

A divorce case from 1888 reads, as follows: “In October 1865, the parties were married. Since that time, the plaintiff has lived with her said husband near Saltville, Virginia, until she was driven from home by him, as will hereinafter be more fully shown, and has been to him a true, constant, faithful, devoted and dutiful wife, and has borne unto her said husband four children, to wit: Floyd, aged about 21 years; Eliza, now about 18 years of age; Lucy, about 15 years old, and Shadrack, about five years old.

“She would further show that her said husband has never since their marriage treated her kindly, but has frequently subjected her to insufferable abusive and violent treatment, at times choking her and having her without anything to eat…and also has been unfaithful to her, at one time by his adulterous conduct, contracting a venereal disease; that although an able-bodied and capable laborer and work hand, and usually commanding good wages, her said husband has but poorly provided and scantily contributed toward the support, maintenance, and education of their children and has left the burden of so providing upon his wife. She has always been willing and sought to be a true helpmate to her husband, and notwithstanding the cruelty, abuse, infidelity, and other shortcomings of her husband, she has been forbearing, forgiving, and as dutiful and obedient to him as she could possibly be and has not given him just cause or provocation for his misuse and ill treatment of her, which has continued from time to time as aforesaid. Finally, in June 1887, her said husband became so violent and abusive that on the night of said day, her said husband threatened her with great bodily harm and injury, telling her if she stayed in their home, she would stay with a sore back and head, at the same time striking her with his fist. She avoided his blow, which was received by their daughter Eliza. He then seized a stick and drove her out of the house, accompanying his aforesaid treatment with vile and insulting abuse.”

This chancery case continues for 38 pages, drawing upon the testimony of witnesses and providing even greater details of the divorce proceedings.

The chancery cases of a well-known Smyth County resident are contained within this online collection. The financial troubles of Abijah Thomas, owner of the Octagon House, are documented in great detail. One of these cases was filed in 1870 by John C. Killinger.

The bill of complaint states that “on the 8th day of May 1859, John C. Killinger and H.J. Killinger conveyed to one Abijah Thomas a parcel of land with a mill thereon lying on the Middle Fork of the Holstein river in Smyth County for the sum of thirteen hundred dollars, three hundred dollars of which has been paid. For the residue of the said, Thomas on the 18th day of January 1859 executed his note payable on or before the 1st day of September 1859. The note not having been paid at that time, the plaintiff instituted a suit against said Thomas in the County Court of Smyth, thereupon and on the 21st day of March 1861, a judgment was rendered in favor of the plaintiff against said Thomas for the sum of $1,000, with legal interest thereon from the 1st day of September 1859.”

This particular case is 30 pages long, full of witness testimony. It is just one example of the stories that are waiting to be discovered in this special collection on the Library of Virginia website. You may be surprised to find your family included in some of the court cases.

To access the collection, go to lva.virginia.gov/chancery, select Smyth County and enter your family surname in the search box. For more help in navigating this database, follow the String of Pearls Facebook page, or contact me at mwlinford@yahoo.com.

 

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Margaret Linford is a professional genealogist and is president of the Smyth County Genealogical Society.

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