What are Chancery Records and Why Should I Use Them?

By:  Carolyn L. Barkley

When I began my genealogical research many years ago, like many other beginners, I focused on marriage records, birth and death records when they were available, as well as wills. With experience came more knowledge and I began to use deeds and other land records. As I started research in Virginia I attended various workshops and seminars in order to become more knowledgeable about the specific records available in that state. One of my educational goals was to learn about those things called “chancery records” that I kept hearing my colleagues discuss. By doing so, I was able to add depth and detail to my research, learning to piece together information about individuals who might have otherwise gone unknown and their stories untold.

To understand these records, a definition of chancery, or chancery courts, is necessary. Not all courts judge cases in the same manner. Some courts decide cases based on the written laws that either specifically allow or specifically proscribe various actions in certain circumstances. There is no latitude for judicial interpretation in these cases; there is no “grey area” as the legal requirements are defined quite clearly.

Other courts, however, deal with issues of equity or fairness and these courts are called Chancery Courts (in Virginia and Tennessee, for example), Courts of Pleas and Quarter Sessions (in North Carolina, for example), or some other name or distinction. According to Black’s Law Dictionary, justice in these courts is “administered according to fairness, as contrasted with strictly formulated rules of common law.” In other words, codified law cannot decide these cases readily and a judge must weigh all the elements and decide what a fair resolution is for the complainants and defendants. Chancery Courts handle such types of suits as divisions of estates, land disputes, divorce petitions, and business partnership issues.

Chancery suits are initiated by a bill (bill of complaint or injunction) which outlines the plaintiff’s grievances against the defendant. The defendant then responds to the complaint and, after consideration of all the evidence presented, a judge issues a final decree or decision. The case file may include subpoenas, depositions of witnesses, affidavits, reports of court-appointed commissioners, a docket listing plaintiff and defendant names, and dates of court actions. In land disputes, a plat or survey may be attached; in other instances wills, deeds, receipts, accounts, and other types of records necessary to fully document the case are also included. By identifying a pertinent chancery case and reading the entire record for the suit, you may discover biographical, genealogical, and historical information that will further your research.

The Library of Virginia in Richmond makes a wonderful resource available through its Virginia Memory site, namely, the Chancery Record Index, an ongoing archival processing and indexing project covering cases from the early eighteenth century through World War I. The database indexes 188,000 cases with four million associated images.

Since I live in Nelson County, Virginia, I decided to search that county for a chancery suit to use as an example for this article. As I did not have a specific individual or case in mind, I decided to search for the surname “Rose,” one of the historical names in the county. First, however, I searched the “what’s available” link to see if Nelson County chancery cases had been completed. Since Nelson County was not included, I decided to search its parent county of Amherst. I found an 1803 complaint (numbered 1803-18) by Robert H. Rose, son of Hugh Rose of Amherst County, brought against the executors of his father’s will, Patrick Rose and William Cabell, as well as Caroline M. Rose, his mother and the widow of Hugh Rose, who was added to the list of defendants during the course of the case.

In his suit, Robert indicated that his father’s will specified that land owned in Henry County was to be sold and the proceeds used to pay his debts. In addition, Robert also noted that his father, in addition to land, left him a negro, Joshua. Although the executors had sold Hugh’s personal property and applied the proceeds to the outstanding debts of the estate, they had also sold Robert’s legacy – Joshua. Moreover, they had not sold the Henry County lands “refusing to do so unless compelled by legal action,” i.e., a decree from a court of equity. Robert requested that the court compel the executors to sell the land as per the conditions of the will and to reimburse him for the value of Joshua when sold, or the sale price plus interest from the time of the sale.

In an undated entry, Carolina Matilda Rose, who held life estate in the Henry County land under the terms of the will, answered the complaint by indicating that she had no objection to the sale of the land in Henry County and that she would “cheerfully join in any instrument of writing for conveying her right and interest in the same” as long as she received a part of the sale equal to her interests in the property. She would rely on the court to decide the proper proportion and indicated that she was free of any fraud in the matter.

Patrick Rose and William Cabell, the executors, answered the complaint in a document sworn in court on  21 June 1803. They agreed with the major points of the complaint, specifically the sale of personal property and the application of the proceeds to Hugh Rose’s debts and the sale of Joshua and the application of the proceeds to the estate’s debts. However, with regard to the Henry County land, they stated that it had remained unsold because Caroline Rose, the widow, refused to join in the sale. They went on to state that the she had now agreed to the sale and that the land had since been sold for £800 which they believed sufficient to pay all debts. They agreed to repay Robert the sum of Joshua’s sale of £125 that had occurred about 12 September 1797. However, they outlined several credits they expected to receive against that amount including £33/7/3 that Patrick Rose had lent to Robert on 29 November1794 and which remained unpaid plus interest; £4/6 which Robert had spent at the sale of his father’s personal property on 30 November 1795, but that also remained unpaid plus interest; and £60 which the executors had paid Robert in 1801. They noted that they held Robert’s bond of £15 for the hire of Joshua before his sale. Patrick and William felt “doubt as to the propriety of compelling the complainant to pay the bond,” but wished “to act properly and correctly” leaving it to the Court to decide.

In addition to these documents, the case file also includes various summonses for the parties to appear in court, receipts, several accounts of Hugh Rose’s estate and Robert’s payments and receipts, and a copy of Hugh Rose’s will, dated 16 October 1794 and probated 19 January 1795. Various court actions and hearings were held in November/December 1802, January/February 1803, and March/April 1803. In June 1803 [specific date is illegible], the court issued a final decree in which Robert would recover £4/5/1 from the executors, which represented the balance owed him. Caroline initially was apportioned one-fifth of the value of the sale of the Henry County land, or £160. This decree was later revised on 24 June with the consent of all parties, and Caroline received one-quarter of the value, or £200.

An in-depth reading of this case provides several pieces of useful information and suggests other information to be pursued in further research:

  • Relationship between Robert Henry Rose and his father Hugh
  • Name of Hugh Rose’s wife, Caroline Matilda Rose
  • Death of Hugh Rose between 26 October 1794, and 19 January 1795
  • Will of Hugh Rose, including notation of land owned and the names of  his children:
    • Judy
    • Nancy
    • Robert Henry
    • Caroline, married to ____ Turpin
    • Sukey
    • Polly
  • Information for further research:
    • Other undefined names from Hugh Rose’s will: Henry Rose (no relationship given), Gustavus (no last name or relationship given)
    • Henry County deeds
    • Deeds for Harris Creek land in Amherst County (previously given to Robert)
  • Relationship of Robert Henry Rose and Patrick Rose

Clearly, this suit contains considerable information about the Rose family and poses potential avenues for research.

In conducting chancery or equity research, you will want to determine the correct court and location of such suits for the state and county appropriate to your research. You should then ascertain if suits have been digitized and made available online, or if you will need to visit the courthouse in person. Regardless of method of access, chancery records will prove very helpful in your research.

There are many published indices and abstracts of chancery suits. Some of these include William Ronald Cocke’s Hanover County [Virginia] Chancery Wills and Note: a Compendium of Genealogical, Biographical and Historical Material (Genealogical Publishing Company, 2005) and Thomas E. Partlow’s Wilson County, Tennessee Chancery Court Records 1842-1892 (Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997). You will also want to search Google for chancery court records your counties of interest and check for possible links on Cyndi’s List.

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