Peter Elder of Virginia

Interpretive Aids

Immigration and Headrights

"The persons brought to Virginia as headrights received no land, only those who paid their own passage. The right to land due by importing headrights could be sold (assigned) to another person before the patent was issued. Patents were often issued years and even decades after the names of headrights were submitted, and the headright did not necessarily reside on the land described in the patent."

[Library of Virginia, Research Notes Number 20, "The Virginia Land Office", page 2,]

Immigration to the Chesapeake colonies was heavily concentrated in the third quarter of the seventeenth century. The great mass of Virginia's immigrants (more than 75 percent) came as indentured servants.

[David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 226-227].

Indentured service

From 1643 to 1658, indentured servants brought to Virginia without indenture agreements served for 4 years if above 20, served 5 years if 12 to 20, and served 7 years if under 12.

[Act XXVI of Virginia Assembly Session beginning 2 March 1642/43 – see Henning's Statutes, volume 1, page 257].

As of 1658, indentured servants brought to Virginia without indenture agreements served for 4 years if above 16 and served until age 21 otherwise.

[Act XVIII of Virginia Assembly Session beginning 13 March 1657/58 – see Henning's Statutes, volume 1, pages 441-442].

There were several reasons why it was unwise for a man to come direct from England to patent land the year he came over. Malaria, typhoid fever, and other diseases played havoc with the newcomers before they became "seasoned" to the new climate and mode of living. For a man to thrust himself into the forest digging stumps and clearing a house site with little or no shelter while doing it with food of a new kind, often poorly prepared, was most unwise. He must master the mode of growing tobacco, the art of building log houses and rail fences, and learn something of the wild life of the country. The indenture years of training proved a practical method of meeting these needs.

At the completion of service, a master was required by law to provide a good gun with powder and shot, two new suits of clothes (one for Sunday and one for work), two suits of underwear and linen, two new shirts, and two bushels of corn. Some servants had it written into their contracts that they would be given 50 acres of land at the completion of their service.

[Thomas Hoskins Warner, History of Old Rappahannock County, Virginia, 1656-1692, 1965, pp. 87-88 (condensed)].

Legal age

"... under English Common Law a witness did not have to be 21 to qualify as such. An 'infant', the legal term for anyone under 21, could testify at any age when understanding was presumed, and under common law the age of 14 was accepted without question as the age of discretion."

"The general assumption by many genealogists that 21 was the universal age for civic activities is simply erroneous. While a male had to be that age to vote, he was taxed at 16, and frequently he was mustered into the militia at 16. For most of his activities concerning his personal affairs, the colonial male in Virginia, and elsewhere, was eminently qualified to affix his name to public documents at the responsible age of 14."

Edgar MacDonald, "Misconceptions Concerning 'Legal' Ages", Magazine of Virginia Genealogy, volume 25, #3, August 1987, page 52. See also: Edgar MacDonald, "Estimating Ages in Colonial Virginia – Some Reservations", Virginia Genealogist, volume 49, #2, April-June 2005, pages 83-94.


Some of the earliest laws enacted in the colony of Virginia were concerned with marriage. Governor Francis Wyatt received orders from the Virginia Company of London in 1621 to make a "catalog of the people in every plantation, and their condition, and of deaths, marriages, and christenings." Few records survive from these early decades.

Virginia's population continued to expand after it became a royal colony in 1624, and the House of Burgesses found it necessary to pass laws related to the act of marriage. The first definitive marriage laws were passed in 1632 and remained in effect through the nineteenth century. Virginians were forbidden to marry without a marriage license or the publication of banns (a public notice of intended marriage published, verbally or by written notice, for three consecutive meetings at the churches of the bride and groom). Ministers were to keep a record of marriages performed and were required to present these registers at the court that convened in James City each year on the first of June. These records are not extant, and there are very few records of marriages in Virginia prior to 1715. Most counties have incomplete marriage records until after the Revolutionary War.

Attempts at regulation did not eliminate all of the problems associated with the act of marriage. As per English law, Virginia law made it illegal for indentured servants to marry without their master's consent and bigamy was outlawed. Written or verbal permission from a parent or guardian was needed for individuals younger than twenty-one. The General Assembly emphasized by law the need for parents to consent to their children's marriages, especially if they were under the age of sixteen ...

... the General Assembly granted county courts the authority to issue marriage licenses. Couples marrying by license had to give bond with sufficient security that there was no lawful reason for the marriage ceremony not to be performed: for example, that there was no existing marriage; the parties were of age; and, if not, they were marrying with permission. Beginning in the 1670s, the General Assembly required colonists marrying by license to obtain the marriage license from the county in which the bride resided. These early records do not survive.

Marriage Bonds: the first law requiring a bond was enacted in 1660/61. It required the perspective groom to give bond at the courthouse in the bride’s county of residence. The bond was pledged, with two or more sufficient securities (or witnesses), but no money was exchanged. A license was then prepared by the clerk and presented to the minister who performed the ceremony. This practice was discontinued in 1849, although in some communities bonds were pledged into the 1850s.

[Library of Virginia, Research Notes Number 26, "Early Virginia Marriage Records",]



The acquisition of land with its abundant resources was one of the primary motivations behind the settlement of Virginia. The 1606 charter of the Virginia Company of London and the renewal charter of 1609 granted vast areas of land stretching as far west as the Pacific Ocean. Initially land granted to stockholders and settlers was held in common, but beginning in 1614 small private grants began to be made to settlers and investors. Very few copies of grants made prior to 1624 are extant.

In that year Virginia became a royal colony, and all land issued was in the name of the crown and by the royal governor. A method of private land distribution quickly evolved, known as the headright system. Each person who entered Virginia to settle was given fifty acres, but in practice the land was awarded to the person who paid the cost of transportation of the emigrant. An annual quitrent was to be paid to the crown for each fifty acres owned, and the land was to be settled and cultivated within three years.

The headright system remained the chief method of land acquisition in Virginia for almost a century. This system involved several steps resulting in the issuance of a patent (the colonial word for grant), which conferred legal title to the land. The potential patentee had first to present proof to the county court that a stated number of persons had been imported into the colony at his expense. Virtually no records are extant of this proof. The court issued a certificate of importation, which was in turn presented to the secretary of the colony in Williamsburg, who then issued a right. This was presented to the county surveyor. The land was surveyed and all papers were returned to the secretary. If all was in order, then a patent to the land signed by the governor was issued to the patentee, and a copy was entered into a patent book. Most patents typically contain the name of the king or queen in whose name the patent is issued, the name of the patentee, the size, location, and description of the land, and the date. Information concerning the land title, the patentee, and adjoining landowners may be included. The persons who are claimed as headrights are also named, and these names constitute the best surviving proof of immigration to Virginia in its early years ...

By the first quarter of the eighteenth century, the demand for land led to the establishment of the treasury right, which allowed the purchase of land directly from the crown. This quickly became the preferred method of land acquisition...

Colonial Virginia patents are almost complete from 1623 to 1776, and exist in a variety of formats. Patents were recorded in record books, and these are available on microfilm at the Library and through interlibrary loan. These images are also available on the Library's Web site, where they are searchable by name. Cavaliers and Pioneers is an excellent multi-volume set of printed abstracts for patents, 1623–1782. All of the documents that accompanied the patents, including warrants and surveys, were annually destroyed prior to 1779.

[Library of Virginia, Research Notes Number 20, "The Virginia Land Office", pages 1-2,]

Virginia Quit Rent Rolls

During the colonial period all land owners in Virginia paid to the King an annual "quit rent" of one shilling for every fifty acres. The list of the land owners and the amount each owned was prepared by the sheriffs of the various counties and delivered to the Receiver-General, who collected the quit rents and transmitted the lists, with his accounts, to the English government.

It is singular that, as lists must have been sent annually, only one, that of 1704, has been discovered ...

It can be readily seen that this quit rent roll is of considerable interest and value. Unfortunately it does not include the counties between the Rappahannock and the Potomac to their headwaters. These counties were Lancaster, Northumberland, Westmoreland, Richmond and Stafford. The quit rents for this section—the Northern Neck—were paid to the proprietors, the Culpeper and Fairfax families successively.

NOTE: thus absence from the 1704 roll implies nothing about the life or death of a resident of the Northern Neck counties in 1704—BE.

[Virginia Quit Rent Rolls, 1704, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. XXVIII, July, 1920, No. 3, pages 207-208]

Census Records

Virginia was included in U. S. Censuses from the initial Census of 1790. The original manuscript schedules for the First and Second United States Census Returns for Virginia, taken in 1790 and 1800, were destroyed when the British Army occupied Washington, D.C., in August 1814.


Virginia records for the 1810 Census are available.

Tennessee became a state in 1796. The territorial census schedules and the 1800 census were lost or destroyed. The 1810 census of Tennessee was also lost, except for Grainger and Rutherford counties, which have been indexed.