“Parish Vestry Books Mitigate Lost Virginia County Records,” by Virginia Lee Hutcheson Davis

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Saint John's Church 1835

With the transcription and publication of The Albemarle Parish Vestry Book, 1742-1786 [Virginia] the last of the colonial Virginia vestry books is accessible to researchers. Complete with an every-name index for ease in finding persons, this publication represents a boon to researchers searching for ancestors in Surry and Sussex counties, Virginia, as well as neighboring Dinwiddie and Prince George counties. Like the other vestry book transcriptions, The Albemarle Parish Vestry Book helps to compensate for the loss or destruction of so many early Virginia county records.

After the colonial government established Surry County from James City County on the south side of the James River, that part of Surry lying on the south side of the Blackwater River was constituted as Sussex County in 1754. A distinct parish of the Anglican Church named Albemarle was also created, its ecclesiastical boundaries conforming to the political boundaries of Sussex County. Sussex, many of whose records are lost, adjoined the counties of Dinwiddie and Prince George, where virtually none of the early records are extant. Many of the residents of Albemarle Parish were descendants and relations of Dinwiddie and Prince George countians who had moved on to settle in Sussex County. In this fashion, the Albemarle Parish Vestry Book became a means of identifying these people and of providing information about their lives that is available nowhere else.

When considering the importance of parish vestry books, researchers must recognize that the relationship between the established Church of England (the Anglican Church), the colonial General Assembly, and the county courts was interwoven. Each institution assumed roles that do not exist with our contemporary separation of church and state. Moreover, where so many of the early county court records have not survived, the parish records and the relationship between the church and the civil laws may provide the only insight available to the researcher (1).

For instance, Virginia General Assembly statutes, notices, advertisements, and even punishments were posted on the door of the church because this was the one place they would be seen by everyone. Announcements were also made from the pulpit; thus the minutes of the vestry meeting hold valuable information about all aspects of members’ lives. The General Assembly of the Colony of Virginia set the laws governing the lives–not only civil but also religious–of the colonists from the very earliest days of settlement. It was through the parish vestries that these laws were carried out. The surviving parish records of colonial Virginia are of great value to the genealogist, especially in the counties where so many of the court records have been lost or burned (2).

Many of the responsibilities of the vestries were both civil and ecclesiastical and reached into the everyday lives of parishioners. Their duties included the election of the church wardens and the appointment of their minister; they also investigated moral offenses and cared for the indigent of the parish. The clerk was required to keep records of marriages, burials, and christenings, which may be found in the parish registers (3). The vestries transacted the business of the parish and the purchase of land for houses of worship and for the glebe, as well as the building and repair of the churches (4).

The parish’s civil responsibilities extended to the laying of the public and county levies; this is the origin of the term “tithable,” which was used even in the tax levies for county expenditures. Also, the parish levy, based on the expenses of the parish, was set by the parish vestry and recorded in the vestry minutes. (The disbursements of civil and ecclesiastical accounts were, however, kept separate.)  The parish’s findings concerning moral offenses were presented to the county court, which set the punishment. The church wardens were obligated to oversee the processioning of land and record the reports therefrom. The vestry was further required to see that land owners assumed their share of the work necessary to build, repair, and maintain the roads. They ordered ferries established so that parishioners could attend church.

All of the interwoven obligations of the parish vestries generated records–from the General Assembly to the county court and to the vestry books and registers of the Anglican Church parishes. These records of the substantial responsibilities of the church wardens thus translated into sources of useful information for family researchers.

Vestry books, in fact, provide an extraordinarily good glimpse of everyday life in colonial Virginia. For example, there is the date and record of Mr. Meriweather admitted as a vestryman in the room (?) of Mr. Henry Chiles lately deceased; of  Major Hockaday for digging a grave for Mary Richardson; and of Sarah Lafoon for burying Sarah Taylor. Similarly, the churchwardens were ordered to pay for the keep of the children (who were named) of William Goff.

In the absence of census or tax lists, the vestry books list the tithes collected and the disbursements of the parish. Sometimes these entries refer not only to evidence of the presence of various persons in the county and parish, but often of vital records and relationships of the parishioners. The more prosperous citizens were those selected to serve as vestrymen, and the listing of these persons and their presence at the meetings give further insight regarding time, place, and social position.

Another public service administered through the vestry was the maintenance of the roads by the appointment of Overseers of the Roads in each precinct. These records identified the area in which these persons lived. Persons appointed to assist the overseers would be neighbors and residents of the same precinct. A further benefit of these records is some insight into who was related to whom and who may have married whom. Customs of the times indicate that most of the marriages of the settlers took place between close neighbors. Of course, both the court and the church had an interest in seeing that the roads were maintained for easy travel to church and to transact business.

A unique function of the vestry was the oversight of the Processioning of the Land. (The term “processioning” referred to the practice of walking in single file around the boundaries, marking trees or noting other landmarks that would survive time.) This meant that periodically the landowners were ordered at a designated time to appoint two persons to walk the bounds of their land holdings.  Generally, older sons and and/or a responsible neighbor were selected so that the bounds could continue to be identified; this also meant that there were significantly fewer controversies regarding the boundaries of the property. Read carefully, for a wealth of information can be found in these records: who was living at a given time, where they lived, and who their neighbors were.

Researching church vestry books takes patient reading and meticulous attention to detail. It is often helpful to plot the dates, locations, and all of the entries of the parishioners you are interested in. One must be very careful not to make assumptions or draw conclusions that cannot be drawn from vestry records, but it can be rewarding and exciting to find clues that further one’s research where this is the only source of information available. Through the use of these vestry minutes it may be possible to fill in a missing generation in a family or to replace a family tradition with documented information. In short, never underestimate the potential of a vestry book to enable you to correct misinformation and reconstruct ancestors’ lives accurately with documentation!

(1) Davis, F-111. NGS Conference, Baltimore Conference Center, Baltimore, MD, 2-5 June, 1993. Syllabus, 289-292.

(2) See “The Parishes of Tidewater Virginia.” Tidewater Virginia Families: A Magazine of History and Genealogy, 1 (1992): 109-119.

(3) See the Library of Virginia Archives publication, “Guide to Church Records,” for the listing of photostatic and microfilm copies housed in the Library of Virginia Archives. Few parish registers and vestry books from a given county have survived, but there are instances where one or the other is extant and has been transcribed and published.

(4) See “The Influence of the Church in the Lives of Early Tidewater Virginia Families.” Tidewater Virginia Families: A Magazine of History and Genealogy, 4 (2001): 207-216.


For more information about The Albemarle Parish Vestry Book, 1742-1786 and other Virginia parish vestry books or parish registers, please access the links below:

The Albemarle Parish Vestry Book, 1742-1786 [Virginia]

The original Albemarle Parish Vestry Book begins with November 16, 1742, some four years after the parish’s formation, and runs to 1786. Like most vestry books, Albemarle Parish’s recounts parish business, such as payment and exemptions of levies, appointment of collectors, processions of land, construction of churches, and so on. While it does not contain many references to blood relationships, it has the virtue of placing individuals in Albemarle Parish in the 18th century. Given the scarcity of Sussex County records for the period under investigation, researchers should welcome the opportunity to investigate the roughly 6,500 Surry/Sussex county inhabitants identified in this meticulously transcribed and indexed work. VIEW BOOK DETAILS

 

Births, Deaths and Sponsors, 1717-1778 from the Albemarle Parish Register of Surry and Sussex Counties, Virginia

This is the only existing complete parish register for the section of Virginia south of the James River extending from Brunswick to Princess Anne counties.  It is alphabetically arranged by family name and includes names, dates of births and, less frequently, deaths, names of parents, and the names of all sponsors at christenings–nearly 11,000 persons in all.  VIEW BOOK DETAILS

 

The Vestry Book of Blisland (Blissland) Parish, New Kent and James City Counties, Virginia, 1721-1786

This book contains the oldest known records pertaining to Blisland Parish. The transcriptions relate to the following issues growing out of the business affairs of a colonial parish vestry, namely, payments to persons for services rendered to the parish, oaths and lists of oath-takers, news of the arrival of ministers, the appointment of church wardens, issues related to indentured servants, lists of tithables, payment of salaries and other obligations, the formation of parish precincts with the names of the families apportioned therein, the warding of children, and so on.  These records establish the existence of thousands of Virginia inhabitants, each of whom is easily found in the index at the back of the book. VIEW BOOK DETAILS

 

The Vestry Book and Register of Bristol Parish, Virginia 1720-1789

Mr. Churchill G. Chamberlayne’s transcription of “The Vestry Book and Register of Bristol Parish” contains almost all the minutes of the vestry meetings from October 30, 1720, to April 18, 1789, a register of births and baptisms, and a few deaths spanning the period 1720 to 1798. The parish register, in particular, consists of more than 3,000 records of birth and baptism, giving for each the name of the child, names of parents, date of birth, and date of baptism. VIEW BOOK DETAILS


Cumberland Parish, Lunenburg County, Virginia 1746-1816 [and] Vestry Book 1746-1816

Cumberland Parish was coextensive with Lunenburg County from its inception in 1745, and Landon Bell’s history of the parish and transcription of its oldest vestry book are of the first importance. The vestry book itself is replete with records of birth, baptism, marriage, and death, as well as an abundance of land transactions. To this, Mr. Bell has added extensive genealogical sketches of families who furnished vestrymen to Cumberland Parish. VIEW BOOK DETAILS

 

Kingston Parish Register, Gloucester and Mathews Counties, Virginia, 1749-1827

Gloucester County was erected in 1651 and consisted of four parish subdivisions, including Kingston Parish, which was cut off from Gloucester in 1791 to form the present county of Mathews. The Register of Kingston Parish is one of the few colonial records from this area to have survived more or less intact. The authors have painstakingly copied the marriages, births, and deaths recorded in the Register, with the result that 530 marriages, 1750 births, and 120 deaths are incorporated into this present work. Some 6,000 persons are cited in the index. VIEW BOOK DETAILS

 

The Vestry Book of St. Paul’s Parish, Hanover County, Virginia, 1706-1786

The transcription of this vestry book is in all respects similar in arrangement and contents to that of “The Vestry Book of Petsworth Parish, Gloucester County” described above. VIEW BOOK DETAILS

 

St. Paul’s Parish Register (Stafford-King George Counties, Virginia) 1715-1798

St. Paul’s Parish, which occupies land in what is now King George County, was in Stafford County until 1777. Since most of the early records of Stafford County were destroyed, the 4,000 birth, marriage, and death records found in this transcription are of great importance. VIEW BOOK DETAILS

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