The Virginia Historical Society is pleased to have you use our genealogical resources. It should be noted, however, that the principal center for genealogical research in Virginia is the Library of Virginia, located in Richmond at 800 East Broad Street.
Genealogical resources located at the Library of Virginia include:
Nevertheless, the VHS does have numerous materials helpful to genealogists. They include:
It should be noted that most of our collections have not been digitized and thus are not available for viewing online.
Please note that we have closed stacks. This means that researchers must fill out call slips in order to request and examine materials from the library collections. Learn more about our library procedures.
Listed below are some of the resources we have to offer at the VHS to help you with your genealogical research.
The VHS now has a subscription to the genealogical database, Ancestry.com. Thanks to the National Society Daughters of Colonial Wars, visitors to the VHS library will now have the opportunity to use Ancestry.com.
The VHS has indexes to all Virginia census records from 1810 through 1920. The census records are on microfilm.
The 1790, 1800, and 1890 records were destroyed by fire; however, there is a list of taxpayers for 1787 (Ref. HA 683 C81 v. 1–3). Other substitute census records include:
The only Virginia census of the seventeenth century was taken in 1624/25. It is published in Adventures of Purse and Person Virginia 1607–1624/5 (Ref. F229 J4 1987) and names 1,218 persons who were living in Virginia at that time; it also lists four generations of descendants of those settlers.
The records of the Virginia Land Office, which oversaw land transactions in the colonial era, are located at the Library of Virginia, which has now made many of those records available online. A description of the records may be found on the Library of Virginia's website.
During most of the seventeenth century and until approximately 1715, the "headright" system was the common method of obtaining land in Virginia. Each individual who paid the transportation costs of an emigrant received fifty acres of land. The term "headright" refers both to the imported person and the claim. Headright lists constitute almost the only record of early emigration to Virginia. (NOTE: The patent was not necessarily issued the year the immigrant arrived.)
The headright system was not used in the Northern Neck (the area lying between the Potomac and the Rappahannock rivers). Beginning in 1690, land grants in the Northern Neck were issued by agents and maintained separately. The abstracts of land grants from 1690 to 1692 are published in the supplement to Cavaliers and Pioneers. Some important published sources based on these records, and available in the reading room of the Virginia Historical Society, are:
Before 1820, the arrival of immigrants was not documented. Very few authentic records of passenger arrivals in Virginia exist. The list of headrights mentioned above constitutes a record of immigrants, but it does not give the date or place of origin or arrival or the name of the ship. Not all headrights were immigrants, and some arrived long before the patentee entered the claim for the land.
The VHS has a variety of materials related to military history, but it doesn't have copies of the service records of individuals, often called "compiled service records." The National Archives holds extant compiled service records for all wars in which the United States has fought. The Library of Virginia has microfilm copies of the compiled service records for Virginians in Confederate forces during the Civil War. The following published materials, available in the VHS reading room, include registers of Virginians who served in various wars.
Are you interested in viewing additional Civil War resources?
Microfilm copies of military service records for Virginians who fought in the Civil War are located at the Library of Virginia. These records often include such information as date and place of enlistment, date of birth, occupation, and listing of wartime duties.
Other sources which may be helpful are:
The VHS has a limited number of wills in its collection. They can be searched under the subject heading "wills" followed by the name of the county. Virginia wills before 1800 are listed in Clayton Torrence's Virginia Wills and Administrations, 1632–1800 (Ref. F225 T85). There are a few omissions in Torrence, and the Library of Virginia has a card file of these. Virginia wills during the period 1800–65 are listed in Index to Virginia Estates, 1800–1865 compiled by Wesley E. Pippenger (Virginia Genealogical Society, Ref. F225 P665 2001). Wills are county records and are on microfilm at the Library of Virginia.
A card index to Virginia marriages and obituaries from Virginia newspapers, 1736–1820, is located in the reading room at the far end of the card catalog. The drawers have yellow labels. This index is approximately 50 percent complete. Genealogical information is copied in full on the cards.
Published indexes to marriages and obituaries in Virginia newspapers are shelved together in the reading room next to the Swem Index.
Published lists or abstracts of marriage records can be found under the subject headings MARRIAGE LICENSES or MARRIAGE RECORDS in the card or online catalog.
Microfilm copies of all county court records (wills, deeds, marriage bonds, and court orders) are at the Library of Virginia. Many court records, however, have been abstracted and published. They are cataloged under the subject heading COURT RECORDS—VIRGINIA, followed by the name of the county.
In the reading room, there is a separate card index for all entries in Bibles in our collection. The index is in the last row of the card catalogs. Patrons can check the online catalog for Bible records by conducting a search with the surname (entered as "smith family") in the subject box, with the phrase "bible records" in the keyword box. It should be noted, however, that Bible records have not been digitized and thus are not available for online viewing.
Some researchers have donated research notes to us, which are often cataloged with our manuscript collections. Patrons can check the online catalog for genealogical notes by conducting a search with the surname (entered as "taylor family") in the subject box, with the phrase "genealogical notes" in the keyword box. It should be noted, however, that genealogical notes have not been digitized and thus are not available for online viewing.
Early records of births and deaths in Virginia are almost nonexistent. Official records of births and deaths were not kept until 1853. An index to birth records between 1853 and 1896 is available on microfilm at the Library of Virginia. Death records are not indexed. Microfilm copies of birth and death records from 1853 to 1896 are at the Library of Virginia.
From 1896 to 1912, there was no statewide recording of births and deaths. Records of births and deaths after 1912 are available from the Virginia Department of Vital Statistics (2001 Maywill St., Richmond, VA 23230)
In the reading room, there is a card index to newspapers in the "Special Catalogs" row. The index is arranged by year, then alphabetically by place. Patrons can consult the online catalog to check our newspaper holdings. It should be noted that the phrase "Dates of Publication" does not indicate that we possess every issue within that time span. Only the phrase "VHS Holdings" in the citation indicates the issues of the newspapers the VHS possess. Moreover, as mentioned above, we have not digitized the vast majority of our holdings—including newspapers. The most efficient means for searching the online catalog for newspapers is by entering a place of publication—such as "richmond (va)"—in the subject box with the title of the newspaper—such as "enquirer"—in the keyword box and restricting the search to "newspapers" by checking the box toward the bottom of the search screen.
In the reading room, there is a section of the card catalog devoted to maps. It begins immediately after the manuscripts catalog section, and cards are arranged by locality (city, state, county, etc.) and then by date.
African American genealogical research should be approached initially just as any genealogical research is begun: start with your immediate family and work backward, generation by generation. African Americans are usually able to trace their ancestry back to the end of the Civil War without too much difficulty by using census records, county court records (deeds, marriages, wills, etc.), church and cemetery records, and vital statistics (birth and death).
Before the Civil War, free blacks were documented in public records, such as those listed above. Pre-1865 slave families, however, seldom appear in public records because they could not own property and had few legal rights.
Slavery was legalized in Virginia in the 1660s. Between 1700 and 1773, 80,000 or more slaves were imported into the colony. After 1773, Virginia virtually stopped importing slaves. Because of the natural increase of slaves, many Virginians became active slave traders, and many slaves were sold to states farther south, particularly in the nineteenth century. In 1808, Congress outlawed the importation of slaves into the United States, thus making the domestic slave trade much more important. The two groups of people who dominated interstate slave trade were professional slave traders and southern planters.
Deeds were one means of transferring ownership of slaves. Recording of slave sales was not required in Virginia, however, so very few deeds for sales exist. Some deeds have survived in collections of family papers. These are useful only if the name of the slaveowner is known. Occasionally slave sales are recorded as part of land deeds or estate settlements. Slaves are not named in personal property tax records after 1810.
Identifying slaveowners is very difficult. Sometimes collateral research (whole families including spouses and in-laws) can lead to the name of the slaveowning family. If you are able to identify the owner of your ancestor, you might be able to find records pertaining to the slaveowners as well as to the slaves (such as plantation records, wills naming slaves, etc.). Searching for slave ancestors always requires a thorough investigation of the white slaveowning family in all records. You should also investigate the slaveowner's extended family including their spouse's family.
At the time of emancipation, slaves adopted surnames. They did not usually take the surname of their most recent owner but sometimes took the given name of their father or the surname of an earlier owner, a prominent local citizen, or a prominent American (such as Washington or Lincoln). For this reason, it is usually not profitable to try to match black surnames with those of plantation masters. One should try instead to trace a freed slave to his or her mother. The slave mothers' owner usually has a different surname than the freedman. Records to use in order to find a slave mother are census records for 1870, birth records (after 1853), and marriage records (after 1865). Marriage records of black couples following the Civil War usually provide the names of their parents. The VHS has only the census records.
If a slave was born after 1852, his or her name, birth date, and mother's name might be recorded in the register of births, which is available on microfilm at the Library of Virginia. (NOTE: We do not have birth records at the VHS.) Not all slave births after 1853 were reported. Many were reported but do not name the child or mother.
The first listing of all African Americans by name in a federal census was in 1870. In l850 and l860 slaves were counted in separate slave schedules, but the census schedules did not list slaves by name; they were listed, usually unnamed, in age and sex categories under the name of the owner. If the slaveowner is known, these schedules are useful, however, as evidence that a slave of a certain age and sex was the property of a particular owner in 1850 (Mss 10: no. 45) and 1860 (Mss 10: no. 383).
Free blacks who were heads of households were listed by name from 1790 to 1840 and the names of all free household members were included in the l850 and l860 census schedules.
Slaves are often mentioned in wills because slaveowners frequently made wills specifying the distribution of their property, including slaves, among their heirs. If the owner died without a will, the court appointed an administrator to compile an inventory of the estate and arrange for the sale or distribution of property. These estate records often listed the slaves. Most wills and inventories are at the Library of Virginia. Those at the VHS may be found by looking in the catalog under the subject headings WILLS and INVENTORIES OF ESTATES, followed by the name of the county and the property owner.
The VHS has many collections of family papers that contain plantation records. Often these include references to slaves, such as registers or lists of slaves, family Bible records of slave births and deaths, and deeds of slave sales. Although the number of these collections is very small when compared with the large numbers of slaveholders in Virginia, they are useful if the name of the slaveowner is known. The Guide to African American Manuscripts in the Collection of the Virginia Historical Society contains a description of, and index to, these records. They are more fully described in the manuscript catalog.
The library has an extensive collection of state and county histories, genealogies, and published records. Until recently, these sources only occasionally included the names of African Americans. These sources may include information on slaveowning families and plantations. In addition to looking up names and localities in the book catalog, other useful subject headings include AFRICAN AMERICANS—GENEALOGY and AFRICAN AMERICANS—VIRGINIA.
A good starting point for patrons new to African American genealogical research is the book Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity (Ref. E185.96 .W898 1999).