Colonial Virginia

Virginia Historical Index – A Major Source for Colonial Virginia Research

Editor’s Note: The following is a lightly updated article by the late Carolyn L. Barkley. As she mentions, many of us tracing our roots here in America will find the path leads back, through, or is otherwise tied to Colonial Virginia. While there are resources available for specific periods dealing with Colonial Virginia, such as Early Virginia Immigrants 1623-1666, or those that address not just a time period but specific family names, like Adventurers of Purse and Person Virginia 1607-1624/5. Fourth Edition. Volume One, Families A-FThe publication Virginia Historical Index is considered one of the most important resources for Virginia research. Ms. Barkley explains why in the post below. 

Despite your ancestors’ more recent geographical locations, for many of you, the research trail leads back to Virginia. One of the most important sources for Virginia research is Earl Gregg Swem’s Virginia Historical Index, often simply referred to as “Swem.” Worldcat, the international cooperative cataloging database, includes entries for several editions held by numerous libraries worldwide. One edition is held by 246 libraries representing forty states, the District of Columbia, Australia, Canada and Germany.

Dr. Earl Gregg Swem (1870-1965) began his bibliographic career in Chicago after graduation from Lafayette College in 1893. Between 1903 and 1919, he worked first at the Library of Congress and later at the Virginia State Library where he served as Assistant State Librarian. In 1920, he became librarian at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is noted for the significant growth in the college library’s book and manuscript collections during his tenure, but in particular, for his completion of the Virginia Historical Index. Dr. Swem died in 1965, the year before the completion of the college’s new Swem Library, named in his honor.

The Library of Virginia calls Swem’s index “one of the most important research guides for Virginia historical and genealogical researchers.” Sixteen members of the Virginia Historical Society established a fund that enabled Dr. Swem to begin his indexing project. These funds were supplemented by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. In describing his methodology, the Library of Virginia states: “Working with seven female researchers (including his wife, Lilia), Swem set to indexing selected Virginia journals and published records, recording the information on typed cards. He included references to people and society, as well as political events, believing that ‘the complexity of colonial life’ could be best understood through ‘the history of individuals and families.’” The sheer number of indexed cards completed by the end of the project is difficult to imagine. Published between 1934 and 1936, the index includes 1,000,000 entries from seven publications that are known for their scholarly articles on Virginia genealogy and family history:

  • Calendar of State Papers containing abstracts and transcriptions of the Virginia Colonial Papers (1652-1775) in addition to selected correspondence of Virginia’s governors (1776-1865);
  •  Hening’s Statutes at Large, a compilation of acts of the Virginia General Assembly from 1619 to 1792;
  •  Lower Norfolk County Antiquary containing abstracts of records relating to Norfolk City and Norfolk County, Virginia;
  •  Virginia Historical Register, the nineteenth-century official publication of the Virginia Historical Society;
  •  Tyler’s Quarterly Magazine, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, and the William and Mary Quarterly (series one and two), all three containing articles on Virginia history and genealogy, primarily for the period prior to 1865. Tyler’s Quarterly is indexed through 1929; the William and Mary Quarterly and the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography are indexed through 1930.

A detailed “Biographical Description of the Volumes Indexed in the Virginia Historical Index” appears at the beginning of Volume 1.

Access to Swem is uncomplicated. Index entries are arranged alphabetically. Each entry includes a name or subject and a citation providing volume number, an abbreviation for the publication title, and a page number. As you use the index you do not need to keep your finger stuck awkwardly in the abbreviation’s list in the front of the volume. Instead, the abbreviations are included across the bottom of every two-page spread.

Searching for Barclays, I found 24 entries for Thomas Barclay, agent in France, including a citation for 3C353, 384, 458 (volume 3 of the Calendar of Virginia State Papers, pages 353, 384, and 458). Another entry is for Doctor Barclay, owner of Monticello (after Thomas Jefferson and before the Levy family) providing a citation to 14W(1)234 (volume 14 of the first series of the William and Mary Quarterly, page 234). Several entries are included for “Barclay family” including a citation for 38V19 (volume 38 of Virginia Magazine of History, page 19). A “see also” reference referred me to “Barkley” where I found 21 additional entries for George including a citation for 7H198 (volume 7 of Hening’s Statutes). An additional “see also” reference at the end of the Barkley entries alerted me to Berkeley as a spelling variant. Please note that at the end of the lengthy list of Berkeley entries, the “see also” references listed 10 additional variant spellings. You will want to search each variant spelling, always checking the variant spellings at the end of the entry as they may include different information from that found in previous entries. As I continually search for information about George Barkley of Isle of Wight County, I found six individual citations for a George Barclay, three for George Barkley, and four for George Berkeley. When I check other variant spellings, I may locate still more. Perhaps one will prove to be about my illusive George!

Additional index entries provide an idea of the issues of interest to colonial legislators (one of my favorites is “an act for destroying crows and squirrels”), as well as such interesting information as the rewards offered for the apprehension of counterfeiters (1778), for the apprehension of deserters (1762), for the apprehension of horse thieves (1789), and for the capture of Benedict Arnold.

Nelson County entries include citations for a list of William and Mary college students from that county, the Monocan Indians, the Massie family, land grants, formation of the county, etc. Be sure to look for entries for former Virginia counties that later became counties in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia. For example, entries for Monroe County, West Virginia, include citations for various local families such as the Beirnes and the Royalls, for unionists in 1862, and for county formations.

Subject entries are also very informative. Index entries for the Revolution include citations for British outrages, bounty lands for service in the war, the value of money, Virginia officers and soldiers, an act to provide for the wounded, and many more. More mundane subjects such as apples provide citations for apple brandy, apple orchards, apple pie, apple trees, and apple turnovers! Under the entry for utensils, a long list of see also references to specific utensils such as apostle spoons, butter plates, gilt goblets, magoreen dishes, waffle irons, and Queen’s china bowls may prove helpful in understanding the contents of an inventory or estate sale.

The two volumes of The Virginia Historical Index is a seminal work for Virginia research. You will find it useful to research genealogical information and historical events, as well as to add historical content to your family history.

Image Credit: John Farrer’s 1667 map, showing presumed location of Pacific Ocean just west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Library of Congress, A mapp of Virginia discovered to ye hills, and in it’s latt. from 35 deg. & 1/2 neer Florida to 41 deg. bounds of New England.




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