At some point in everyone’s research, you want to delve into the land records. This is very natural and is frequently very rewarding as to the information that is gleaned from the records themselves. I have seen deeds for a church that not only gave the donor of the property, but also the early history of the congregation. They church was actually abandoned in the late 20th century and so this was the best record of its history. Just make sure that you consult the original deed since an abstraction will leave out a lot, and sometimes the most important parts are left out due to space and the transcribers interest in the deed itself.
Virginia is like most all states in having deeds back to the beginning of the settlements of that area. Along the eastern shore, there are many deeds that go back to the early seventeenth century. In fact, there are “patents” for property in Virginia that will not exist in other states. A patent is the first time that land is sold or gifted to another person. The sales were always in the name of the crown or the official company given the task of land transaction. There are also land grants which are general gifts or the right to pay for the land. In Virginia, you will also have “head rights” that need to be examined as they were quantities of land given to someone for paying the passage of others to come to America. A number of acres are granted to someone for the price of passage. In turn, the immigrant had to work out this passage with so many years of service and then they would receive a small amount of land free of charge. The Northern Neck, which is about the top two thirds of the eastern shore area was a separate area with their own records.
In general, each county has their own deed records and in some cases, they will hold the records of larger areas when other counties were formed from their boundaries. Each county holds these records because the land is the basis for ownership of property. If you do not have a recorded deed, then you don’t have ownership of the property where you live. This is frequently complicated by ownership via heir rights where you inherit the land from family somehow. As an example of how this works, one of my ancestors died and his will was probated in April 1865. In his will he gave each of his twelve children ten slaves and $25,000 in Confederate money. He also had a third codicil that gave one of his grandsons the plantation of about 6,000 acres. Be sure and note the timing of the probate. You can see who came out of this smelling like a rose.
Grants were important in the early days of the Old Dominion. It is noted that the states of Kentucky and West Virginia came directly out of the states’ registry. Many other states came from the territory that once was Virginia, but went through the Territory North of the River Ohio or Northwestern Territory. Following many of the early conflicts in Virginia’s history, land was given as grants to pay the soldiers for their service, namely the French-Indian Wars and the American Revolutionary War. To the leaders of the combat units, there might be as much as several thousand acres at stake. It was not uncommon for these soldiers to sell their grant without ever seeing the land or stepping foot on the property. I have a member of our family who purchased five Revolutionary War grants of twenty-thousand acres each. He then took a map and sketched out where the property was to be and filed this with the court. Neither the original soldier nor the purchaser set foot on the land. The courts granted my family member the deed to the property which he promptly sold to Light Horse Harry Lee. Only in later years did General Lee discover that the property had prior claims and other deeds filed on the property. The settlement of this property was not completed until the early part of the twentieth century.
There are many other records dealing with land other than the deeds and grants in Virginia. You need to consult things like “surveyor’s plat books and related records” or “entry books” or “escheat records”, State Court Records, Virginia Auditor Records of Public Accounts like tax list, and delinquent tax list. In West Virginia you might want to look into the “re-recorded grants”, “land tax records” or “sales for non-payment of taxes.”
Just remember that in Virginia, you have access to most of the original records on micro-film from the State Library in Richmond on inter-library loan. Study their holding carefully and delve into the history of the area in question as the early deeds may be in a different county than you are researching. Using this service allows you access to the original documents which is very important.