Land Grants and Deeds in Hampshire County

Researching Early Land Grants, Deeds,
Warrants and Surveys

by Charles C. Hall


In order to follow the trail of land ownership, one must first understand the system of land grants and transfer of ownership. Although the Colony of Virginia had several proprietors and systems of land grants in it's earliest days, researchers in western Virginia and West Virginia are primarily concerned with the Northern Neck Land Grants. Sometime after the Restoration in England, Lord Fairfax became the Proprietor of the Northern Neck of Virginia, and, as such, the sole authority for granting ownership of land.

Warrants

The system of granting land was relatively simple. The prospective landowner would first ascertain that land was available in a specific area. He would then apply to the Proprietor's agent at the Land Office for a "Warrant". The Warrant was simply the right to get land; it was not the title of ownership. The warrant might be bought, or it might be received as a consequence of military service or by head right. The Warrant was a legal document and could be sold or transferred by will; however, any transfer was to be registered with the land office. Anyone who gained secondary possession of a Warrant was called the "Assignee" of the original owner. Warrants issued by the State of Virginia after the Revolution were called Land Office Treasury Warrants.

Surveys

Once someone had a warrant it was their responsibility to secure the services of a surveyor and survey the land they desired. The surveyor would try to engage neighbors already in possession of adjoining land to help with the surveying. These people were engaged as "Chain Carriers", or "Markers", or "Pilots". Chain Carriers carried the surveyor's measuring chain. Markers marked the trees and stones which were corner marks. Pilots led the party through unfamiliar territory. The names of these helpers were noted on the survey because they added to the authority or expertise of the survey. If an adjoining neighbor was a Chain Carrier, one was supposedly assured of having found the neighboring corners and lines.

Grants

When the survey was completed and written out, the Warrant holder would go to the Land Office with both the Warrant and the Survey, and, if there was no "Caveat" on file, they would be issued a Land Grant. A Caveat was a warning issued by either a neighbor disputing the availability of the land or someone contesting the Warrant.

Residents Rights

Another thing that could keep someone from obtaining a grant was the presence of an individual resident upon the property. Even if this "squatter" had not obtained a warrant or grant, he had some right of possession. He would have to publicly surrender his rights in person at the land office before some else could obtain title to the land. There were a number of such surrenders noted in the list of grants. In some cases this may be the only public notice that an individual was once a resident of a county.

The Land Grants issued by the Proprietor of the Northern Neck are available for research on microfilm at the Handley Library Archives in Winchester, Virginia and at the Berkeley County Historical Society Library in Martinsburg, West Virginia. There is also a microfilm copy of most of the Surveys related to the Land Grant.

Land Grant Index

The easiest first step in searching for a Northern Neck Land Grant is to look in the four volume work:

Virginia Northern Neck Land Grants, compiled by Gertrude E. Gray; Baltimore, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1987.

This is a comprehensive listing of pertinent information on all surviving grants. The grants are listed chronologically by Grant Book and sequential grant number. The volumes are divided by date and each volume is indexed. However, one must note that no distinction is made in the index between an entry for a grantee and an entry listing adjacent landowners, Chain carriers, etc. An individual might have a dozen entries in the index, but only have one land grant.

The book contains information from the grants on date, acreage, location, and adjacent landowners. Occasionally, there may be more information provided. Once you know the Grant number, it is relative easy to find the grant on microfilm.

Index of Warrants and Surveys

The grants are not the only source of information on the land and on the landholder. The papers connected with the warrant and the survey are sometimes more informative than the grant.

Abstracts of Virginia's Northern Neck Warrants and Surveys, compiled by Peggy Shomo Joyner; published by the author

is the only readily available source of concise information on warrants and surveys. Volume II of this work deals with Frederick County 1747-1780, and volume IV contains information on Hampshire County. One must note that Hampshire County was created from Frederick County in 1754.

This book of Abstracts lists the date of the warrant, the acreage, location, surveyor and helpers, and adjacent landowners. There may also be information on assignees, heirs, trustees or other information pertaining to transfer or lapse of the warrant. Usually the information on location is very informative since some surveys note proximity to major landmarks. Ms. Joyner also gives a good explanation of the Colonial Virginia land grant system in the beginning of the volumes.

Both of these sources are far more extensive than the older Sims Index to Land Grants in West Virginia, published by the State of West Virginia in 1952. The Sims Index is available in the Hampshire County Courthouse; the Sims Index and the other two indexes are available in the Hampshire County Library and the Handley Library.

Survey Books

After the American Revolution the system remained somewhat similar, although the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia was the official grantor. In the Courthouse in Romney one will find the Survey Books which reference a Land Office Treasury Warrant as the authority for the survey. There are five Survey Books (A-E) and each has an index. However, some of the indexes are not in good shape and often the name is hard to read. It is expected that an index of the Survey Books of Hampshire County will be published in the near future.

Deeds

The Deed Books in the Courthouse begin with Book 1. This book records deeds from 1757. It is important to note that grants were still being issued in some areas while not far away land may have passed through several owners. There is a separate set of Indexes to the Deeds, and they may take a bit of getting use to. The books are divided into Grantor Indexes and Grantee Indexes. If you are tracing from early times forward to today, you will need the Grantor Indexes. They list the owner who is granting the land to a new owner.

If you are tracing from present times back to earlier years, you must use the Grantee Indexes. These index the person receiving the land from the earlier owner.

The earlier Index books are alphabetized by first letter of the last name and then by first letter of the first name. The later ones are alphabetized in the more conventional manner by last name. Just ask one of the clerks for help if the system is puzzling to you.

Not all land transfers are in the deed books. Occasionally, a deed would not be recorded. More often the reason for transfers not being in the deed books is that transfers can be made by will upon the death of a landowner. In this case, you must know the previous owner and look up his or her will to see if the land was passed in this manner. Fortunately, many transfers by executors for an estate are indexed by the deceased as well as by the executor or trustee.

Problems

The tracing of land ownership is complicated by several factors. One of the most common is our forefathers seeming unconcern for proper spelling. It is not uncommon to find a name spelled several ways among documents and occasionally within a single document. In some cases the more common spelling is in fact incorrect. A researcher should always check indexes for every possible spelling.

A similar problem is the fact that some of the people hired as clerks responsible for transferring deeds and wills and surveys to the court's books had terrible handwriting. If you can read the names involved, it is sometimes possible to go forward or backward in the line of ownership to find a more legible document.

As one gets further into researching land records it becomes clear that precision was not as common as we expect today. It is not unusual for deeds to describe tracts which will not close or contain a gross error in determining the acreage. One hopes that the information concerning owner's names and other particulars is more precise.

Sometimes the sheer number of entries in an index is enough to discourage the researcher. Although the newer indexes often give the acreage and location so you can distinguish which deed you are looking for, earlier indexes do not. Land was often granted in large plots and quickly divided up into smaller acreages. Also some people made land speculation and sales their business. Tracing individual plots for some of these individuals can be very time consuming.

An example of this problem is the case of Christopher Heiskell who began buying land in eastern Hampshire County in the early 1800s. There are 62 entries for Heiskell in the index book with no hint of which one you might be looking for unless you know the exact year of transfer. Another case is that of Elisha C. Dick. He can not be found in any of the histories of Hampshire County, but for a short period of time he was a major landholder. He had six or seven tracts of land totaling about 40,000 acres between North River Mills and the Hardy County line. He transferred them all in one deed, but there have been hundreds of deeds flowing from that transfer. If one is tracking a small part of that holding, one could spend many hours trying to determine the exact location of meets and bounds.

Information Available

If one perseveres in the search for early deeds and surveys, one may find a bounty of information. Deeds and Wills are a primary source of genealogical information. Deed descriptions are often the only remaining record of the location of important buildings, mills, springs, roads, etc. For example, the deed for Poston's mill on the North River has boundary lines running through the head race and through the tail race and one even runs through the mill house. In North River Mills one individual apparently had quite a well known garden, because it is mentioned in the deed of an adjoining property.

As mentioned earlier, the reference to an individual's surrendering his rights as resident on a parcel, or his being mentioned as an adjoiner to a parcel may be the only existent mention of his having lived for a time in a particular place. This is why the researcher needs to search for not only grantees and grantors, but also for assignees and adjoiners.

The information gleaned from the records of the transfer of land often is corroborated in marriage and death records. On the other hand, the information gleaned can provide insights that will send the researcher to other sources. There are occasional references to wills or court documents that can prove informative. Modern researchers are even using early deeds and surveys to gain information on the status of the environment in colonial times.

If one is willing to tackle the system of records, one may well be surprised at the amount of information available. It is time well spent, and, for many researchers, the challenge of the search is great fun. One last suggestion: make sure that you check the local library, especially the manuscript collection. You may find that someone has preceded you in the search and has left some notes for you that will save you countless hours.

Update - Internet sources

This article was written August, 1994. Since then we have had the wonderful opportunity to find much information on the Internet. Please make use of the following links:

Land Grants Search at Library of Virginia - http://lva1.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/F/?func=file&file_name=find-b-clas30&local_base=CLAS30

Northern Neck Grants and Surveys Index (if you know the book number) http://image.lva.virginia.gov/LONN/NN.html

Intro to Northern Neck Land Proprietary Records: http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/rn23_nneckland.pdf

About the Virginia Land Office Patents and Grants/Northern Neck Grant and Surveys - http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/opac/lonnabout.htm

Books available in our Romney Library or other libraries:

The warrants and surveys prior to 1781 have been abstracted by Peggy S. Joyner, Abstracts of Virginia’s Northern Neck Warrants and Surveys; 5 vols. Portsmouth, Va., 1985–1987.

Grants are abstracted in Gertrude E. Gray, Virginia Northern Neck Land Grants, 1694–1862; 4 vols. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Pub. Co., Inc., 1987–1993.


For current land ownership and other maps in Hampshire County see the County GIS interactive map at: http://www.hampcowv.com/gis/

For sites on the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office map of Historic Inventory locations go to: http://157.182.4.178/shpo/