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1607-1650s: Governor and council. In the earliest period the governor and council heard all civil and criminal cases and appeals from the county courts.
1618-1902: County courts. These courts were originally called monthly courts (1618-34) and later courts of the shire or county courts. These courts handled minor civil and criminal cases and equity, probate, and orphan matters. The county courts' duties were assumed by the circuit courts in 1902.
1618-1661: Quarter courts. These courts first met quarterly in England and later met in September, December, March, and June in Jamestown. They handled major civil matters, capital crimes, and chancery and appellate matters. The name was changed to general court in 1661.
1661-1851: General Court. Appeals of county court cases could be made to the general court or the general assembly (an elected legislature). The general court had statewide jurisdiction over major civil cases, capital crimes, death records (until 1814), and probate matters.
1705-1850: Hustings courts. These courts for independent cities were separate from the county courts but had the same functions. In 1850 the hustings courts were replaced by the corporation courts.
1777-1802: High court of chancery. This court had appellate authority over chancery cases from the county courts until 1802. This court was replaced by the superior courts of chancery from 1802 to 1831.
1788-1808: District courts (I). These courts handled non-capital crimes, major civil cases, and equity cases until 1808. They were replaced by the superior courts of law from 1809 to 1831. The superior courts of law met in each county. The first set of district courts had 18 districts.
1802-1831: Superior courts of chancery. These courts met at the district level. They were combined with the superior courts of law in 1831 to form the circuit superior courts of law and chancery.
1808-1831: Superior courts of law. These courts assumed the duties of district courts and met at the county level. Superior courts of law were merged with the superior courts of chancery in 1831 to form the circuit superior courts of law and chancery.
1831-1851: Circuit superior courts of law and chancery. These courts combined and replaced the duties of the superior courts of law (previously district courts) and the superior courts of chancery. In 1851 the circuit superior courts of law and chancery were replaced by the circuit courts.
1850-1902: Corporation courts. These courts for independent cities were separate from the county courts but had the same functions. In 1850 the corporation courts replaced the hustings courts. In 1902 circuit courts assumed the duties of the corporation courts.
1851-present: Circuit courts. In 1851 the circuit superior courts of law and chancery were replaced by the circuit courts. In 1870 they assumed the duties and received the records of the district courts (II). In 1902 they also assumed the duties of the county courts and corporation courts. Records of these courts are at the Library of Virginia.
1852-1870: District courts (II). The second set of district courts had only ten districts. Some of these had similar district names and partially overlapped old district court (I) jurisdictions. In 1870 the district courts (II) were replaced by the circuit courts. District court (II) records were delivered to the circuit courts.
Most of the early council and general court records have been lost or destroyed. A few surviving records have been published (see the “Public Records” section of this outline for more information).
Most of the pre-1865 county, district, and circuit court records have been transferred to the Library of Virginia. The Family History Library has microfilm copies of most of these. For example, from Fairfax County, the Library has indexes to court orders and minute books, 1749-1871, on more than 600 microfiche and has the court order books, 1749-1867, on microfilm. This includes surname and subject indexes.
Some Virginia court records have been published. An excellent example is:
Chalkley, Lyman. Chronicles of the Scotch-Irish Settlement in Virginia: Extracted from the Original Court Records of Augusta County, 1754-1800. Three Volumes. 1912. Reprint, Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing, 1980. (FHL book 975.5916 F2c; films 162043-44.)
An index to 214 court record abstracts of deeds, wills, order books, fee books, tithables, account books, and digests for 18 counties and cities is:
Sparacio, Ruth and Sam Sparacio. Surname Index of Antient Press Publications. 11 volumes. McLean, Virginia: R. & S. Sparacio, 1993–1997. (FHL book 975.5 P22s.) Indexes Albemarle, Caroline, Culpeper, Essex, Fairfax, Fredricksburg City, King George, Lancaster, Loudoun, Madison, Middlesex, Northumberland, Orange, Petersburg City, Prince William, (Old) Rappahannock, Richmond, Spotsylvania, and Stafford counties. These volumes cover surnames A through Zui in the alphabet.
Online Virginia Court Records