Make your own free website on
by Barbara Vines Little

[Barbara Vines Little, M.Ed (University of Virginia), has published three volumes of Virginia court records and edited others for publication. She is past-president of the Virginia Genealogical Society , editor of the quarterly MAGAZINE OF VIRGINIA GENEALOGY, and editor of the bi- monthly "Virginia Genealogical Society Newsletter," in Vol. XXV, No. 2 (April 1999) of which "Virginians and Their Land" first appeared. It is reprinted here with the author's permission.]

Virginia's early land records are one of the few surviving colonial record groups. They are also one of the most misunderstood. While there are a number of sources of information on the land grant system, the best overall source of information is a small book reviewed in the last issue of this newsletter , VIRGINIA LAND GRANTS: A STUDY IN CONVEYANCING IN RELATION TO COLONIAL POLITICS by Fairfax Harrison. First printed in 1925, Harrison intended the book to be a comparison of Virginia's two land grant systems -- the Northern Neck Proprietary and the Royal patents. However, it is also a history of the systems, and in developing the history of the evolvement of the two systems. Harrison provides the reader with the information needed to understand the conditions under which individuals (our ancestors) obtained land grants and discusses the additional information that can be gleaned from the records.

Harrison begins with a history of land granting under the Virginia Company and then speaks to one of the more common misunderstandings of the land grant system -- the researcher who identifies an ancestor as having been "given" a grant of land by King George. Grants were issued for "charter importation rights," treasury rights or military service. Harrison notes that importation rights were used primarily in the seventeenth century and treasury rights in the eighteenth, but that all three continued to the end of the colonial period. Many researchers are unaware that importation rights were still used in the eighteenth century, yet a survey of the patents abstracted in volume six of CAVALIERS AND PIONEERS shows a number of entries for importation rights. The history of each of the rights is treated in detail so that the reader can follow the evolvement of each and hopefully will learn to look for the information that defines the type of right under which the grant was obtained.

Not only should the researcher pay attention to the type of right used to obtain land, but to where the land was located. Was it in an area that was already well populated, one that was just developing or an area that was on the frontier and free of taxes for the next seven years? Other questions should look at the size of the grant in relation to others in the area, the counties of residence of adjacent landowners and whether the grants were primarily by land speculators or people moving into the area for settlement. Politics played an important roll in the land grant system and the researcher needs to be aware of this. In no other single place can one get a better introduction to the politics of the land grant system than in Harrison's VIRGINIA LAND GRANTS.

Although Fairfax Harrison has the most comprehensive explanation of the land grant system, there are a number of other sources of information. The 18-page introduction to Daphne Gentry's VIRGINIA LAND OFFICE INVENTORY, revised and enlarged by John S. Salmon and republished by the Library [of Virginia] in 1981, but currently out-of-print, provides an overview of the Virginia land grant system and includes information on the major land grants issued to Beverley and Borden and later grants to the Greenbrier and Loyal land companies. The land office inventory itself provides useful information on the paperwork generated by the system.

The introductions to the first three volumes of CAVALIERS AND PIONEERS (abstracted by Nell Marion Nugent) each provide additional information. The introductions to the remaining four volumes of the colonial patent abstracts (Dennis Hudgins, editor) provide additional information. These were written by Daphne Gentry, Robert Young Clay, and John Hemphill II, all of whom have studied the subject in depth. The abstracts themselves provide additional information in regard to the system and the politics surrounding it.

Further information on settlement patterns can be gleaned by studying county and regional patent maps created for various counties throughout Virginia. Among those available are Fairfax, Loudoun, Orange, Westmoreland, Greensville, Goochland. Two of the previous are Northern Neck Proprietary counties. The two major record groups of the papers of the Northern Neck Proprietary have been abstracted and published. The Northern Neck survey and warrants (which do not survive for the colonial patents -- they were burned annually) were abstracted by Peggy Shomo Joyner and published in a five-volume series. The grants were abstracted by Gertrude E. Gray in four volumes. . .

In addition to these references, students of the land grant system need to look at the various bounty warrant compilations, the lodged and caveated surveys abstracted in the MAGAZINE OF VIRGINIA GENEALOGY as well as the abstracts of the preemption warrants. A familiarity with the various aspects of the land grant system in Virginia provides the student of colonial history with the information necessary to understand the driving forces behind settlement patterns in Virginia and will in many cases help the researcher find the origins of his frontier ancestors.


Gentry, Daphne S. comp., rev. by John S. Salmon. VIRGINIA LAND OFFICE INVENTORY, Third Edition. Richmond, Va.: Virginia State Library and Archives, 1988.

Harrison, Fairfax. VIRGINIA LAND GRANTS: A SURVEY OF CONVEYANCING IN RELATION TO COLONIAL POLITICS. 1925; reprint, Westminster, Md: Willow Bend Books, 1998.

Vernon, Robert. "How Land Was Granted in Colonial Virginia," CENTRAL VIRGINIA HERITAGE. vol. 12 (winter 1994) pp.1-11. Contains a list of extant county survey books.

Hughes, Sarah F. SURVEYORS AND STATESMEN: LAND MEASURING IN COLONIAL VIRGINIA, Richmond, Va.: Virginia Surveyors Foundation and Virginia Association of Surveyors, 1979.

Robinson, W. Stitt, Jr. MOTHER EARTH: LAND GRANTS IN VIRGINIA, 1607-1699 Williamsburg, Va.: n.p., 1957.


Bushman, Katherine G. "Minutes of the Commission Appointed to Settle Claims to Unpatented Lands on the Western Waters of Virginia, January-April 1780." AUGUSTA HISTORICAL BULLETIN. 13(1977)1:37-57, 2:26-42.

Nugent, Nell Marion. CAVALIERS AND PIONEERS, 1623-1732. 3 vols. 1934-79; reprint, Richmond, Va.: Virginia State Library and Archives, 1992.

Hudgins, Dennis. CAVALIERS AND PIONEERS: ABSTRACTS OF VIRGINIA LAND PATENTS AND GRANTS, 1732-1776. 4 vols. Richmond, Va.: Virginia Genealogical Society, 1994-9.

"Inquisitions on Escheated Land," VIRGINIA GENEALOGIST. 19(1975): 128-136, 179-184, 255-260; 20(1976):21-28, 109-116, 169-176, 258-262; 21(1977):28-35.

MacDonald, Edgar. "Defective Surveys 1761-1799" MAGAZINE OF VIRGINIA GENEALOGY. 30(1992):318-323.

MacDonald, Edgar. "Copies of Grants Not Called For," MAGAZINE OF VIRGINIA GENEALOGY. 30(1992):131-136.

Slatten, Richard. "Lodged Land Surveys: A Series," MAGAZINE OF VIRGINIA GENEALOGY. 26(1988):179-194, 273-283; 27(1989):44-51, 114-119, 206-215, 282-289; 28(1990):37-47.

Slatten, Richard and Edgar MacDonald. "Caveated Land Surveys" MAGAZINE OF VIRGINIA GENEALOGY, 28(1990):159-164, 281-6; 29(1991):72-6.

Slatten, Richard. "Caveated Surveys Settled in the General Court, 1782-1788." MAGAZINE OF VIRGINIA GENEALOGY. 28(1990):17-26.

Slatten, Richard. "Interpreting Headrights in Colonial-Virginia Patents: Uses and Abuses," NATIONAL GENEALOGICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY. 75(1987):169-79.


Nugent, Nell Marion. SUPPLEMENT, NORTHERN NECK GRANTS, NO. 1, 1690-1692. Richmond, Va.: Virginia State Library and Archives, 1980.

Joyner, Peggy Shomo. ABSTRACTS OF VIRGINIA'S NORTHERN NECK WARRANTS & SURVEYS. 5 vols. U.S.A.:, n.p. 1985-95.

Gray, Gertrude Entz. VIRGINIA NORTHERN NECK LAND GRANTS 1694-1862. 4 vols. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc., 1987-93.

WebSite Navigation