Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Tuesday's Tip : Get to Know the Time Period

A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia ... drawn by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson, 1751
Library of Congress American Memory, Early Virginia Map Collection.

Lately I've been thrashing around trying to learn more about my 5 GreatGrandfather William Reid and other Reid family members who had resided in colonial Virginia. I was constantly being reminded that researching records from that time period were not like researching the birth, marriage, and death records of relatives in the 19th and 20th centuries.

One interesting resource I came across was Chronicles of the Scotch-Irish Settlement in Virginia by Lyman Chalkley. The transcriptions of all three volumes were found on rootsweb.(1) Since I knew that my Reid ancestors had lived in Augusta County, VA, this resource seemed like it would be worth my time to look through, especially as the opening page stated 
"The Chronicles of the Scotch-Irish Settlement in Virginia: 1745 to 1800 by Lyman Chalkley is really the best starting place for anyone researching ancestors in Augusta County during this time period. This three volume series contains most of the abstracts of court records in Augusta County between those dates."
I started with volume I, searching page after page using the Google find feature to locate Reed/Reid information. After going through Court Book XVII and 228 pages of abstracted records, I still had not found anything related to my ancestors. However, each page seemed to contain an interesting record that provided a closer look at life in Colonial Virginia. 

In the records for February 1745/1746, I kept coming across the term "freedom dues". After checking several online genealogy glossaries, I finally found more information in the online Encyclopedia Virginia. Freedom dues were the payment given to an indentured servant at the completion of his contract or term of service. Usually it was money, but freedom dues could also include clothing, tools, or animals.

While looking for Reids/Reeds, I can across several records concerning William Morrison (not a relative) who was seeking to obtain his freedom dues from Donald Davis. First Davis was called into court to show cause for not paying freedom dues to his indentured servant William. Another court record showed Morrison's attempt to be paid the dues from Davis' estate. Several months later, a third court record showed that William Morrison was finally paid his freedom dues of just over £3. Continued reading showed that William Morrison was one of many indentured servants who had to use the legal system in order to obtain what was due them.

The Chronicles provided a variety of records that could be proof of residence for someone's ancestors, especially in the days before the first US census of 1790. There were records in Book 1 that listed members named to that session of the County Court. Other records provided the names of court appointments such as Sheriff, deputies, attorneys, or surveyors. Also included were records of those selected as officers in the militia. Even a listing of family members newly immigrating to join a county resident were part of the court records. 

Some of the cases brought before the court were not much different from what passes through our legal system today. A wide variety of cases was handled through the Augusta County court with more serious cases being referred to the higher court in Williamsburg. Charges of drunkenness, swearing, adultery, or loose behavior. Individuals being charged with murder or theft. Property disputes. Requests for garnishment or child support. Petitions for tax relief for the elderly or infirmed. Claims for losses (due to Indian raids). Requests for building permits. Wills presented for probate. Petitions for bankruptcy. Even seemingly frivolous suits such as the case of an attorney charged with interrupting another (he was fined 5 shillings).

It was clearly a different time and place as seem through other court records. Some of the suits were hard to imagine such as the woman suing to regain her clothes which had been taken to settle a debt incurred by her late husband. As early as 1746, individuals were being brought before the court and accused of speaking "treasonable words". Taxes were levied as "six pounds of tobacco [to] be collected from every person that has not delivered in his crows heads or squirrels scalps, according to law". There were charges for conspiring with one Indian tribe against other tribes. The penalty for stealing lace was "39 lashes". One group of men, found guilty of breaking into a dwelling, was sentenced to having their ears chopped off!

Colonial jail, personal photo

A number of cases involved children being indentured by their family to another individual, usually because the family was unable to support the child. I read of one child who was brought by the parish church to be indentured to a gentleman after the child's father had "run away according to law". Still others, as young as two and three, were indentured because they were orphans in need of a home.

Smallpox continued to be a concern for the residents of Augusta County, Virginia. Court records showed that individuals coming from an area in which smallpox had been found were ordered to be removed from Augusta County by the Sheriff. Other records granted approval for doctors to inoculate any one in a specific area against smallpox.

Chalkley's court record abstractions proved to be worth the time I spent looking over them. That hour or two provided me with a better understanding of just how similar and yet how different life in the twenty-first century is when compared with that of the eighteenth century. As I continue to research ancestors living in colonial times, thanks to Chalkley, I have a clearer view of the legal system, the militia structure, and the relationship between the church and state as well as of everyday life in colonial Virginia.

(1) Chalkley, Lyman, Chronicles of the Scotch-Irish Settlement in Virginia. Commonwealth Publishing, 1912; accessed on http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~chalkley/index.htm.