As North and South clashed during the Civil War, court officials across Virginia sent their records to Richmond, hoping to keep them away from invading Union armies.
“It seemed to be common practice that the invading army would go straight to the courthouse,” said Carl Childs, director of local records services with the Library of Virginia. “It was a symbol of power. You’re basically creating chaos. That was part of the intent.”
But not all state courthouses sent their records to the capital. In particular, the Northampton County courthouse on the Eastern Shore refused to send the documents. And nearly 150 years later, that small act of defiance turned out to have huge historical significance.
Because much of Richmond was burned during the Civil War, many Virginia courthouses lost some of their early court records in the fires, said Circuit Clerk Traci L. Johnson.
But not Northampton County. Its court records are still intact, making them the oldest continuous records in the United States. (See photo album)
“We didn’t send ours and that’s why we don’t have that gap that most other records have,” said Johnson, who has maintained the records for the past 10 years. “We have all the records from 1632 to 2012. And we’re pretty proud of that.”
Northampton’s oldest court documents date back nearly 400 years ago, when the area was known as Accawmacke County and was one of the eight original shires created by the House of Burgessess in 1634. Northampton County, located in the southern half of the Eastern Shore, wasn’t created until 1663.
Johnson said every year loads of tourists visit Northampton County Circuit Court on bus tours, as do numerous students on school field trips. Johnson said the visitors are curious about the historic documents, hoping to glimpse a few of the handwritten lines that were scrawled centuries earlier, and maybe even learn a little about court cases that were resolved long ago.
“It’s a most amazing archives,” said University of Richmond Law Professor John Pagan. “They are very much working documents. They were on open shelves, the originals. Most of the originals are in good shape.”
Pagan said it’s a miracle the documents survived the centuries. Besides escaping destruction during the Civil War, the records also escaped ruin during the American Revolution and were spared bug infestations, fires and flooding.
“A lot of it you can point to good stewardship,” Childs said. “Being on the Bay and on the Atlantic, they survived a humid environment. The records were exposed to a lot. It’s remarkable they have held up so well.”
While the original records are kept in the records room in Northampton County Circuit Court on the Eastern Shore, microfilm copies of the documents can also be found at the Library of Virginia in Richmond.
Pagan used the historic county court records to help research his book about an indentured servant who came to Virginia from England around 1660.
“Anne Orthwood’s Bastard: Sex and Law in Early Virginia” was published in 2003. Pagan had spent the previous 14 years researching court cases dating back to that period, spending countless hours in the Northampton County Circuit Court’s record room.
Those early court records helped Pagan understand how the colonial court system worked.
“As far as the legal records go, it’s a complete picture,” Pagan added. “You know the evidence that was introduced. You know the result. It gives you a wonderfully complete example of the way litigation was.”
With so much interest in the records, in 2008 the Northampton County Circuit Court used grant funding to publish a book – “Exploring the Oldest Continuous Records” – that details some of the more interesting historical nuggets found in the archives.
The book highlights historic Eastern Shore events which are included in the county court records, such as who personally witnessed a courthouse reading of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
“They were coming on horseback,” Johnson said. “So it wasn’t until August that they got here to Virginia.
They read it at each county seat. It says who was in attendance for the actual reading of the Declaration of Independence.”
Other tidbits in the book include court filings from frontiersman Daniel Boone, Johnson said. Other records were signed by an Indian chief who used a little caricature.
“It’s like a little stickman,” Johnson said of the chief’s signature. “That was their mark and that’s how they signed everything.”
For the past 10 years, maintaining the historic documents – the centuries-old wills, deeds and civil and criminal court cases – has been part of Johnson’s responsibility. Helping preserve the documents and teaching others about the history associated with them is important, she said.
“There’s always been a clerk and it was the clerk’s job to keep them safe,” she added.
In 2006, the Northampton County Circuit Court moved into its sixth courthouse. It had been in the previous building since 1899.
Johnson helped oversee the transition of the records from the old space to its new climate-controlled environment. The new Circuit Court’s temperature-controlled records room should help preserve the documents in the years to come, Johnson said. The records are kept on open shelves there, in metal bound, canvas-covered books. And every court record is encased in archival-safe sheet protectors, so the historic records will be protected from oily fingers and the environment.
But Northampton County’s old court records detail much more than just the outcomes of legal cases.
“What these court records do is enable you to see how law was practiced and the structure of society,” Pagan said. “You can find out as much about the evolution of the Eastern Shore from the early 17th century as you can from some of the more famous places like Plymouth. It’s an amazingly rich source.”
- By Rita Frankenberry