Background: The Virginia Law Reports
Virginia law is based upon English common law. It has evolved over time through the enactment of statutes by legislative action (statute law) and the interpretation of those statues by the judiciary (case law). While the interpretation of the law in an individual case is not binding on other cases, it does set precedent and is often used as a basis for the interpretation of new cases. Case law, unlike statutes, is difficult to track; thus through the years, the individual opinions have been collected by various "reporters," at first informally and later more formally into collections called reports. These reports include, unlike the official court orders, an explanation of the reasoning behind the interpretation. A history of the evolution of the Virginia reports is available in Bryson's Virginia Law Books: Essays and Bibliographies
The particular value of the Virginia reports lies in the fact that the majority of the records of Virginia's appellate courts were destroyed by fire in 1865. The reports are one of the few surviving sources for information on the cases heard on appeal. And while the reports focus is the law, in the process of presenting the law, they frequently provide information about individuals, families and family relationships (sometime multi-generational) that are unavailable elsewhere.
Between 1900-1903 the Michie Company republished in 26 volumes, as the Virginia Reports Annotated
, the first 74 volumes of the court reports covering the period through 1880. These include a volume by Jefferson which reports on some colonial decisions between 1730 and 1772, the remainder are post colonial. However, the information presented in the court cases often span a number of decades and consequently, often include events and data about individuals in the early 1700s.
In 2005 Ken Craft of Norcross, Georgia, donated a complete set of the Virginia Reports Annotated
as well as 6 other volumes (three of which are reviewed below) to the Virginia Genealogical Society in the hope that they could arrange for material to be made more readily available to the genealogical community through the compilation of a general index or by other means. In 2008, the society entered into an agreement with Archive CD Books, USA to publish the volumes in a fully-searchable digital format. The following volume is among the first to be released from that collection. See also Reports of Criminal Trials of the Circuit, State, and United States Courts, held in Richmond, Virginia
. Other volumes from the collection will be released as they are available.Review
R. T. Barton, ed., Virginia Colonial Decisions: the Reports by Sir John Randolph and by Edward Barradall of Decisions of the General Court of Virginia 1728- 1741
(Boston, Mass.: the Boston Book Company, 1909) fully searchable digital edition by Archive CD Books, USA, 2009.
The General Court of Virginia which like the county court, was a court of original jurisdiction, also dealt with criminal cases and heard cases on appeal from the county courts. Its records are no longer extant. Since this court dealt with the cases that often involved tangled legal questions, the details of cases and the basis for decisions were used by the judges to decide later cases. Notes or "reports" were kept of the more important cases. The reports kept by Sir John Randolph and Edward Barradall which provide details of cases argued before the General Court from 1728 through 1741 are the only surviving colonial reports except for Jefferson's notes. Although the cases were argued in the 1700s, events detailed in the cases frequently date to the 1600s. And, although the point of the "reports" was to record the basis for the decision, intertwined in the legal description of the basis for the case and the points that were argued are tantalizing tidbits, sometimes even family lineages such as that described below in the case of Booth v Dudley which is concerned with the transfer of title to a tract of land owned by Peter Ransome.
Peter Ransom was seized of 1100 acres of Land having Issue, James, George and Wm. by his last Will and Testam't Devised 350 Acres the Land in Question to George and his Heirs forever and died; . . . George. . . by his last Will & Testam't. Devised this Land . . . to Eliz'a his only Child; . . . George died and Elizabeth his Daughter and Heir. . . Intermarried with Rob't Dudley some time in the year 16__. and they had Issue Rob't Dudley. . . . Robert Dudley and his Wife [Elizabeth, daughter of George Ransom] by Deeds . . . Convey[ed] this 350 Acres of Land to James Ransom and his heirs with . . . Deeds . . . acknowledged in Gloucester Court . . . [on]16 August 1694. . . . James Ransom . . . by his last Will and Testament Devised the Land to his 3 sons George, Robert and Peter.
The case also notes that Elizabeth Dudley's first husband died on 20 October 1701, her second husband died in 1710 and she married within a year or less Thomas Elliott who died 19 November 1716. Elizabeth died 23 December 1718. Details such as this are hard enough to come by in any county much less a burned county like Gloucester.
Women and, more importantly, women's maiden names, also appear frequently in these cases. For example, we learn that Rebecca, daughter of William Pinkethman who died testate in York, married after his death Robert Cobbs and that Rebecca and Robert's daughter Elizabeth Cobbs married James Shields. And, even when the married name(s) of the daughters (or sisters) are not given, the style of the suit will often suggest the surname name of the husband.
Although many points of law presented in these pages are complex, others explain concepts of the law in easily understood terms: "If a Man by his Will devises all his Lands and afterwards Purchases other Lands the new purchased Lands shall not pass [by will], for a Man can't give that which he has not, and which was void in its original can never be good. If an Infant makes a Will it's void, tho' he come of full age before he die. So of a feme Covert [married woman]."
For those who wish to learn more about the law of entail and inheritance, the rules regarding the heir-at-law's right to property, dower and courtesy rights, these cases can be especially helpful. Rules regarding the inheritance of slaves and how the law of inheritance differed during that period when they were considered real property are also discussed in some of the cases.
In addition to the reports, this two-volume set contains an extensive 250 page discussion of the colonial government providing a history of the transcripts of the reports, and a discussion of the land, the people, the government, church, the city, education, the law and lawyers, the courts and the reporters. This is an excellent resource for those interested in the history of the courts and the laws.1
W. Hamilton Bryson, "Reports of Cases," Virginia Law Books: Essays and Bibliographies (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2000), 86-136.
Summary by Barbara Vines Little, CG
for the Feb 2009 issue of the Virginia Genealogical Society newsletter.
Reprinted here by permission.
The CD includes high-quality images of every page as originally published (not just a transcript) and is fully searchable using Adobe Acrobat Reader (version 5 or later recommended) on any Windows, Macintosh, or Unix computer. The data on this CD is completely self-contained, and requires no installation.