Searching for People

Searching for People


The Virginia Museum of History & Culture (VMHC) is pleased to have you use our family history materials such as published abstracts of official records, compiled genealogies, Bible records, research notes, etc. It should be noted, however, that the principal center for genealogical research in Virginia is the Library of Virginia, located in Richmond at 800 East Broad Street.

Genealogical resources located at the Library of Virginia include:

  • County records (including wills, deeds, and marriage bonds)
  • Military service records
  • Church records
  • Land Office records (patents and grants)
  • Tax records
  • Census records
  • Genealogical notes and charts

Nevertheless, the VMHC does have numerous materials helpful to genealogists:

Additional resources include:

It should be noted that most of our collections have not been digitized and thus are not available for viewing online.

Please note that we have closed stacks. This means that researchers must fill out call slips in order to request and examine materials from the library collections. Learn more about our library procedures.

Listed below are some of the resources we have to offer at the VHS to help you with your genealogical research.

The VMHC has a subscription to the genealogical database, Thanks to the National Society Daughters of Colonial Wars, visitors to the VMHC Research Library will now have the opportunity to use


Virginia Historical Index (Swem's Index)

Index to several publications in the VMHC, including:

  • Tyler's Quarterly Historical and Genealogical Magazine, 1919–1929
  • Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, v. 1–38, 1893–1930
  • William and Mary Quarterly, series I and II, 1892–1930

Census records

The VMHC has indexes to all Virginia census records from 1810 through 1920. The census records are on microfilm.

The 1790, 1800, and 1890 records were destroyed by fire; however, there is a list of taxpayers for 1787 (Ref. HA 683 C81 v. 1–3). Other substitute census records include:

  • Early Virginia (Ref. HA 682 E3)
  • Virginia in 1740: A Reconstructed Census (Ref. HA 683 T11 1740).

The only Virginia census of the seventeenth century was taken in 1624/25. It is published in Adventures of Purse and Person Virginia 1607–1624/5 (Ref. F229 J4 1987) and names 1,218 persons who were living in Virginia at that time; it also lists four generations of descendants of those settlers.

Land records

The records of the Virginia Land Office, which oversaw land transactions in the colonial era, are located at the Library of Virginia, which has now made many of those records available online. A description of the records may be found on the Library of Virginia's website.

During most of the seventeenth century and until approximately 1715, the "headright" system was the common method of obtaining land in Virginia. Each individual who paid the transportation costs of an emigrant received fifty acres of land. The term "headright" refers both to the imported person and the claim. Headright lists constitute almost the only record of early emigration to Virginia. (NOTE: The patent was not necessarily issued the year the immigrant arrived.)

The headright system was not used in the Northern Neck (the area lying between the Potomac and the Rappahannock rivers). Beginning in 1690, land grants in the Northern Neck were issued by agents and maintained separately. The abstracts of land grants from 1690 to 1692 are published in the supplement to Cavaliers and Pioneers. Some important published sources based on these records, and available in the reading room of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, are:

  • Nugent, Nell Marion. Cavaliers and Pioneers: Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants, 1623–1782. 8 vols and supplement (vols. 4–8 published by the Virginia Genealogical Society, Dennis Hudgins ed.) (Ref. F225 N841)
  • Gray, Gertrude. Virginia Northern Neck Grants, 1692–1862. 4 vols. (Ref. F225 N841 G79)

Ship passenger lists and immigration lists

Before 1820, the arrival of immigrants was not documented. Very few authentic records of passenger arrivals in Virginia exist. The list of headrights mentioned above constitutes a record of immigrants, but it does not give the date or place of origin or arrival or the name of the ship. Not all headrights were immigrants, and some arrived long before the patentee entered the claim for the land.

  • Coldham, Peter. The Complete Book of Emigrants (4 vols.) (Ref. E 187.5 C7). These four volumes covering 1607–1776 contain virtually every reference to English emigrants of the colonial period that can be found in England. They identify only 100,000 emigrants, a small fraction of the total number.
  • Coldham, Peter. The Complete Book of Emigrants in Bondage, 1614–1775 (Ref. E 187.5 C6 1988). Lists names of approximately 50,000 Englishmen who were sentenced by legal process to be transported to the American colonies between 1614 and 1775.
  • Coldham, Peter. More Emigrants in Bondage, 1614–1775 (Ref. E 187.5 C61 2002). Lists 9,000 additions and amendments to the earlier work, compiling names of Englishmen sentenced to be transported to the American colonies.

Military records

The VMHC has a variety of materials related to military history, but it doesn't have copies of the service records of individuals, often called "compiled service records." The National Archives holds extant compiled service records for all wars in which the United States has fought. The Library of Virginia has microfilm copies of the compiled service records for Virginians in Confederate forces during the Civil War. The following published materials, available in the VMHC reading room, include registers of Virginians who served in various wars.

Colonial wars

  • Bockstruck, Lloyd D. Virginia's Colonial Soldiers. Baltimore, 1988. (Ref. E197 B67)

American Revolution

  • Abercrombie, Janice. Virginia Publick Claims. (The Virginia Revolutionary War Public Service Claims Court Booklets) (Ref. E255 A48). These booklets, arranged by name of county, contain names of Virginians who requested compensation for supplies and services furnished to the army chiefly during the years 1779–81. Not everyone who supplied articles to the armies is listed in the surviving records, and not everyone who supplied articles to the armies did so willingly. Also see Index to the Virginia Revolutionary Public Claims County Booklets (Ref. E255 A49 1992).
  • Brumbaugh, Gaius M. Revolutionary War Records. Vol. 1, Virginia. Washington, D.C., 1936 (Ref. E263 V8 B8).
  • Burgess, Louis A. Virginia Soldiers of 1776. Richmond, 1927–29. (3 vols.). Contains information on bounty land. (Ref. E263 V8 B9).
  • Dorman, John F. Virginia Revolutionary Pension Applications, Abstracted (51 volumes to date covering A–Har). (Ref. E206 D85). Index vols. 1–51. 4 vols. (E206 D85 Index).
  • Eckenrode, H. J., ed. Virginia Soldiers of the American Revolution (and supplement). Richmond, 1989 (Ref. E263 V8 E232 1989 v. 1–2).
  • Gwathmey, John H. Historical Register of Virginians in the Revolution. Richmond, 1938 (Ref. E263 V8 G9).
  • Hopkins, William L. Virginia Revolutionary War Land Grant Claims, 1783–1859 (Rejected). Richmond 1988 (Ref. E263.8 V8 H77).
  • McAllister, J. T. Virginia Militia in the Revolutionary War. Bowie, Md., 1989. Almost no records have survived for those men who served in the county militia units. This book contains names of officers of some county militia units and some Virginia militia pensioners. (Ref. E263 V8 M1 1989).
  • National Geographic Society. Index of Revolutionary War Pension Applications in the National Archives. Washington, D.C., 1976 (Ref. CS42 N44 no. 40).
  • Pierce, A. T. Selected Final Pension Payment Vouchers, 1818–1864. Virginia. Athens, Ga., 1996 (Ref. E255 P61 1996).
  • Sanchez-Saavedra, E. M. A Guide to Virginia Military Organizations in the American Revolution, 1774–1787. Richmond, 1978. Lists regiments and companies and a brief history of each unit. Deals with the Virginia Continental Infantry and Militia, Virginia State Line, Va. Militia, etc.; not a register. (Ref. E263 V8 S25).
  • Wardell, Patrick G. Virginia/West Virginia Genealogical Data from Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Records (6 vols.) Bowie, Md., Heritage books, 1988–98 (Ref E263 V8 W21). Genealogical data extracted from Revolutionary War pension records at the National Archives.

War of 1812

  • Butler, Stuart Lee. A Guide to Virginia Militia Units in the War of 1812. Athens, Ga., 2011. Contains information about units; not a roster. (Ref. E359.3 V8 B971 2011).
  • Butler, Stuart Lee. Virginia Soldiers in the United States Army, 1800–1815. Athens, Ga., 1986 (Ref. E359.5 V8 B97).
  • Muster Rolls of the Virginia Militia in the War of 1812 . . . Richmond, 1852 (Ref.E359.5 V8 V82).
  • Pay Rolls of Militia Entitled to Land Bounty Under the Act of Congress of September 28, 1850. Richmond, 1851 (Ref. E359.5 V8 V8).
  • Wardell, Patrick G. War of 1812: Virginia Bounty Land and Pension Applicants. Bowie, Md., 1987 (Ref. E359.5 V8 W21).

Mexican War

  • Johnson, William Page. Off to War, the Virginia Volunteers in the War with Mexico, or Fuera de Guerra, la Virginia Volentarios en la Guerra con Mexico. Westminster, Md., 2002 (Ref. E409.5 V8 J71 2002).
  • White, Virgil D. Index to Mexican War Pension Files. Waynesboro, Tenn., 1989 (Ref E409.4 W589 1989).
  • Service records are at the National Archives.
  • A card index of Virginia Mexican War soldiers is at the Library of Virginia.

Civil War

Microfilm copies of military service records for Virginians who fought in the Civil War are located at the Library of Virginia. These records often include such information as date and place of enlistment, date of birth, occupation, and listing of wartime duties.

  • Roster of Confederate Soldiers 1861–1865. Wilmington, N.C., 1995–96 (16 vols.) (Ref. E548 R83 1995) This cumulative index to the compiled military service records of all Confederate soldiers is based on the records at the National Archives. The Roster lists only the name and unit in which the soldier served.
  • If you don't find the name you're looking for in the published roster cited above, you should check the card index called Confederate Rosters located at the Library of Virginia, which is now available online, and following the prompt to "Index to Virginia Confederate Rosters." This list was generated by the state of Virginia and includes some names that aren't in the records at the National Archives.
  • Regimental histories can be searched through the online catalog by entering the name of the unit (for example: "28th Virginia Infantry") in the subject box.
  • Military service records for Confederate soldiers from Virginia can be searched through Fold3 (a subscription database).

Other sources which may be helpful are:

  • Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion. Washington, 1901 (128 vols.) (Ref. E464. U6 1985). A compilation of all field reports, correspondence, military orders, memoranda, etc. Indexed.
  • Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Washington, 1922 (31 vols.) (E591 .U58). Indexed.
  • To look up a regiment in the index of the Official Records, look up the state and find the designation "Troops" followed by (C.) or (U.) indicating Confederate or Union. Individual names are also indexed.
  • Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Wilmington, N.C., 1994–2001 (Ref. E464 .U6 1985 Suppl.). Part I. Reports, vols. 1–12 (Index, vols. 11, 12). Part II. Record of Events, vols. 1–69, serials 13–81. Arranged by name of state and unit. These volumes are also located in the reading room.
  • Confederate Veteran, 1893–1932. The official publication of the United Confederate Veterans, the Confederate Southern Memorial Association, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Includes reminiscences of soldiers and civilians, reports on southern patriotic organizations, reunions, etc. Genealogical information is often included, and many obituaries of veterans are published. See also: Cumulative Index to the Confederate Veteran (Ref. E482 C74 and E482 C74 Index).
  • Southern Historical Society Papers, 1876–1959 (52 vols.) The S.H.S.P. include official reports, personal recollections, unit rosters, correspondence, etc. (Ref. E483.7 S76)
  • Robertson, James I., Jr., An Index-Guide to the Southern Historical Society Papers, 1876–1959. Millwood, N.Y., 1980 (2 vols.) (Ref. E483.7 S76 R62)
  • Wallace, Lee A. A Guide to Virginia Military Organizations, 1861–1865. Lynchburg, Va., 1986. Identifies Virginia regiments, battalions, and companies that existed during the Civil War. Not a roster (Ref. E581.4 W25 1986)


The VMHC has a limited number of wills in its collection. They can be searched under the subject heading "wills" followed by the name of the county. Virginia wills before 1800 are listed in Clayton Torrence's Virginia Wills and Administrations, 1632–1800 (Ref. F225 T85). There are a few omissions in Torrence, and the Library of Virginia has a card file of these. Virginia wills during the period 1800–65 are listed in Index to Virginia Estates, 1800–1865 compiled by Wesley E. Pippenger (Virginia Genealogical Society, Ref. F225 P665 2001). Wills are county records and are on microfilm at the Library of Virginia.

Marriages and obituaries

A card index to Virginia marriages and obituaries from Virginia newspapers, 1736–1820, is located in the reading room at the far end of the card catalog. The drawers have yellow labels. This index is approximately 50 percent complete. Genealogical information is copied in full on the cards.

Published indexes to marriages and obituaries in Virginia newspapers are shelved together in the reading room next to the Swem Index.

Published lists or abstracts of marriage records can be found under the subject headings MARRIAGE LICENSES or MARRIAGE RECORDS in the card or online catalog.

County court records

Microfilm copies of all county court records (wills, deeds, marriage bonds, and court orders) are at the Library of Virginia. Many court records, however, have been abstracted and published. They are cataloged under the subject heading COURT RECORDS—VIRGINIA, followed by the name of the county.

  • Surname Index of Antient Press Publications (Ref. Z232 A62 S73) is a name index to 214 books containing abstracts of records (deeds, wills, and orders) of sixteen Virginia counties and two cities. (The counties are: Albemarle, Caroline, Culpeper, Essex, Fairfax, King George, Lancaster, Loudoun, Madison, Middlesex, Northumberland, Orange, Prince William, Old Rappahannock, Richmond, Spotsylvania, and Stafford; cities: Fredericksburg and Petersburg.) The abstracts cover varied spans of years.

Bible records

In the reading room, there is a separate card index for all entries in Bibles in our collection. The index is in the last row of the card catalogs. Patrons can check the online catalog for Bible records by conducting a search with the surname (entered as "smith family") in the subject box, with the phrase "bible records" in the keyword box. It should be noted, however, that Bible records have not been digitized and thus are not available for online viewing.

Genealogical notes

Some researchers have donated research notes to us, which are often cataloged with our manuscript collections. Patrons can check the online catalog for genealogical notes by conducting a search with the surname (entered as "taylor family") in the subject box, with the phrase "genealogical notes" in the keyword box. It should be noted, however, that genealogical notes have not been digitized and thus are not available for online viewing.

Birth and death records

Early records of births and deaths in Virginia are almost nonexistent. Official records of births and deaths were not kept until 1853. An index to birth records between 1853 and 1896 is available on microfilm at the Library of Virginia. Death records are not indexed. Microfilm copies of birth and death records from 1853 to 1896 are at the Library of Virginia.

From 1896 to 1912, there was no statewide recording of births and deaths. Records of births and deaths after 1912 are available from the Virginia Department of Vital Statistics (2001 Maywill St., Richmond, VA 23230)


In the reading room, there is a card index to newspapers in the "Special Catalogs" row. The index is arranged by year, then alphabetically by place. Patrons can consult the online catalog to check our newspaper holdings. It should be noted that the phrase "Dates of Publication" does not indicate that we possess every issue within that time span. Only the phrase "VHS Holdings" in the citation indicates the issues of the newspapers the VHS possess. Moreover, as mentioned above, we have not digitized the vast majority of our holdings—including newspapers. The most efficient means for searching the online catalog for newspapers is by entering a place of publication—such as "richmond (va)"—in the subject box with the title of the newspaper—such as "enquirer"—in the keyword box and restricting the search to "newspapers" by checking the box toward the bottom of the search screen.


In the reading room, there is a section of the card catalog devoted to maps. It begins immediately after the manuscripts catalog section, and cards are arranged by locality (city, state, county, etc.) and then by date.

African American genealogy

African American genealogical research should be approached initially just as any genealogical research is begun: start with your immediate family and work backward, generation by generation. African Americans are usually able to trace their ancestry back to the end of the Civil War without too much difficulty by using census records, county court records (deeds, marriages, wills, etc.), church and cemetery records, and vital statistics (birth and death).

Before the Civil War, free blacks were documented in public records, such as those listed above. Pre-1865 slave families, however, seldom appear in public records because they could not own property and had few legal rights.

Slavery in Virginia

Slavery was legalized in Virginia in the 1660s. Between 1700 and 1773, 80,000 or more slaves were imported into the colony. After 1773, Virginia virtually stopped importing slaves. Because of the natural increase of slaves, many Virginians became active slave traders, and many slaves were sold to states farther south, particularly in the nineteenth century. In 1808, Congress outlawed the importation of slaves into the United States, thus making the domestic slave trade much more important. The two groups of people who dominated interstate slave trade were professional slave traders and southern planters.

Deeds were one means of transferring ownership of slaves. Recording of slave sales was not required in Virginia, however, so very few deeds for sales exist. Some deeds have survived in collections of family papers. These are useful only if the name of the slaveowner is known. Occasionally slave sales are recorded as part of land deeds or estate settlements. Slaves are not named in personal property tax records after 1810.

Identifying slaveowners is very difficult. Sometimes collateral research (whole families including spouses and in-laws) can lead to the name of the slaveowning family. If you are able to identify the owner of your ancestor, you might be able to find records pertaining to the slaveowners as well as to the slaves (such as plantation records, wills naming slaves, etc.). Searching for slave ancestors always requires a thorough investigation of the white slaveowning family in all records. You should also investigate the slaveowner's extended family including their spouse's family.

At the time of emancipation, slaves adopted surnames. They did not usually take the surname of their most recent owner but sometimes took the given name of their father or the surname of an earlier owner, a prominent local citizen, or a prominent American (such as Washington or Lincoln). For this reason, it is usually not profitable to try to match black surnames with those of plantation masters. One should try instead to trace a freed slave to his or her mother. The slave mothers' owner usually has a different surname than the freedman. Records to use in order to find a slave mother are census records for 1870, birth records (after 1853), and marriage records (after 1865). Marriage records of black couples following the Civil War usually provide the names of their parents. The VMHC has only the census records.

If a slave was born after 1852, his or her name, birth date, and mother's name might be recorded in the register of births, which is available on microfilm at the Library of Virginia. (NOTE: We do not have birth records at the VMHC.) Not all slave births after 1853 were reported. Many were reported but do not name the child or mother.

Census records

The first listing of all African Americans by name in a federal census was in 1870. In l850 and l860 slaves were counted in separate slave schedules, but the census schedules did not list slaves by name; they were listed, usually unnamed, in age and sex categories under the name of the owner. If the slaveowner is known, these schedules are useful, however, as evidence that a slave of a certain age and sex was the property of a particular owner in 1850 (Mss 10: no. 45) and 1860 (Mss 10: no. 383).

Free blacks who were heads of households were listed by name from 1790 to 1840 and the names of all free household members were included in the l850 and l860 census schedules.

Wills and inventories of estates

Slaves are often mentioned in wills because slaveowners frequently made wills specifying the distribution of their property, including slaves, among their heirs. If the owner died without a will, the court appointed an administrator to compile an inventory of the estate and arrange for the sale or distribution of property. These estate records often listed the slaves. Most wills and inventories are at the Library of Virginia. Those at the VHS may be found by looking in the catalog under the subject headings WILLS and INVENTORIES OF ESTATES, followed by the name of the county and the property owner.

Plantation records

The VMHC has many collections of family papers that contain plantation records. Often these include references to slaves, such as registers or lists of slaves, family Bible records of slave births and deaths, and deeds of slave sales. Although the number of these collections is very small when compared with the large numbers of slaveholders in Virginia, they are useful if the name of the slaveowner is known. The Guide to African American Manuscripts in the Collection of the Virginia Historical Society contains a description of, and index to, these records. They are more fully described in the manuscript catalog.


The library has an extensive collection of state and county histories, genealogies, and published records. Until recently, these sources only occasionally included the names of African Americans. These sources may include information on slaveowning families and plantations. In addition to looking up names and localities in the book catalog, other useful subject headings include AFRICAN AMERICANS—GENEALOGY and AFRICAN AMERICANS—VIRGINIA.

A good starting point for patrons new to African American genealogical research is the book Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity (Ref. E185.96 .W898 1999).