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240K historic records from Va town put online

Friday - 8/3/2012, 1:05pm  ET

PETERSBURG, Va. - Nearly a quarter of a million historic court documents from Petersburg detailing early struggles in the rail and mining industries and with free African Americans are now available online.

The Library of Virginia recently completed Petersburg's chancery records digitization project, in which nearly 240,000 documents from the 1700s through the 20th century are available for free through the Virginia Memory Web portal at http://www.virginiamemory.com.

The Progress-Index reports ( http://bit.ly/QmCSr9) that the project took more than 10 years to compete. It was partially funded by a $155,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"These chancery records are so important because they represent a major part of the documented history of Petersburg and its inhabitants," said Carl Childs, director of Local Records Services at the Library of Virginia. "To truly understand the history of a locality, a person must research the records of the local circuit court, particularly the chancery records, as they provide critical information for historians, genealogists, and other researchers."

This collection joins 56 other Virginia localities whose chancery court records have been preserved and made digitally accessible through this unique statewide project. To date, 7 million documents have been posted for 125,621 lawsuits, providing researchers a trove of primary source information.

The records are comprised of case files from the Petersburg Court of Chancery, 1787 to 1912, and include bills of complaint, affidavits, wills, business records, correspondence and photographs.

The documents include lawsuits involving the early rail and mining industries and a wealth of documents revealing the lives of African-Americans during that time. Prior to 1860, Petersburg had the largest population of free people of color in the Mid-Atlantic states. The suits document this aspect of Petersburg's robust and diverse population as free African-Americans, as well as its women, laborers, and artisans, who used the courts to recover debts, settle estates, divorce spouses, assert land ownership, or dissolve partnerships.

"There is so much history that lies here in the city of Petersburg, which is now available to the public," said Shalva J. Braxton, Petersburg's Circuit Court clerk.

The documents also shed light on Petersburg's enslaved population. The court records include two lawsuits from "Jane," the slave of Edwin Lanier of Sussex County, who became free upon his death in 1828. The only one of Lanier's slaves to be set free, she sued the administrator of his estate to receive the property and case bequeathed to her in his will. In a second lawsuit, filed six years later, the estate sued Jane for debts, initiating the re-enslavement of her and her children.

More than 40 of the lawsuits involve railroads, which loomed large in Petersburg's growth. One lawsuit details the conflict that arose between the old and new: a dispute between the mule- and gravity-powered Chesterfield Railroad Co. and the steam-powered Richmond & Danville Railroad Co. over access to the Manchester coal yards on the James River.

The project was overseen by the Virginia Circuit Court Records Preservation Program at the Library of Virginia. Each of Virginia's 120 circuit courts is eligible to receive a grant from the program to process and index the pre-1913 chancery records located in the circuit court clerk's office.

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Information from: The Progress-Index, http://www.progress-index.com


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)