Introduction to Virginia Land History
24 Sep 1996
The first English settlement in the New World was made in Virginia,
and it's not surprising
that Virginia's history of settlement has a few twists and turns while the
King and the English government figured out how to manage colonization of the
vast new American lands.
And though we are focusing on Virginia, let's not forget that the
states of Kentucky and West Virginia were originally part of Virginia.
What's more, much of the land in the Northwest Territories was considered
Virginia as well, so the territory in which land was being granted
Though it was one colony, Virginia had two rather different personalities during
its early settlement. The majority of the colonial land was granted by
the King through the colonial government, but in the Northern Neck it was
granted out of a private proprietorship.
Land companies and speculators also played an important role in the
settling of the colony.
An Outline of Virginia Land History
- Land was not granted in any consistent fashion during the earliest
years of the colony when the Virginia Company of London had the rights
to settle the land. In 1624 the Company's charter was terminated and the
colony became part of the manorial holdings of the King. (This is rather
unusual. The King did not govern Virginia as sovereign of England, but
as a feudal lord! See our feudal systems for more
- In 1627 Governor George Yeardley began the headright system
of granting land to those who brought people into the colony. Land could
be taken out at the rate of 50 acres per imported person. Grantees
had to pay annual quitrents (a kind of real estate tax), and
"plant and seat" the land in order to keep it.
- In 1649 exiled King Charles II gave the "Northern Neck", the area
between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, to seven of his supporters
including Thomas, Lord Culpeper. Over the years Culpeper purchased
the shares of the others.
By 1690 it became associated with Thomas, Lord Fairfax, and grants in
this huge (over 5 million acre) proprietorship were begun. Because of the
proprietorship, grants in the Northern Neck are not found
at the Virginia archives. There were basically two separate colonies
operating in Virginia from the point of view of land grants. For example,
headrights were never recognized in the Northern Neck.
- There was substantial disagreement over the boundaries of the Northern
Neck Proprietary. In 1730 Fairfax's son, also named Thomas, got into a legal wrangle
with Virginia over the extent of his domain, its size being defined by the
location of two rivers whose
sources were unknown at the time Charles had made his grant.
Fairfax argued that the Rapidan River was the real Rappahannock, thus enlarging
the proprietorship. Incredibly, he won his case in 1745, throwing into
tumult the legal status of land granted by Virginia in the fork of the
Rappahannock. Many residents repatented under Fairfax. Others ended up
- In 1699 a new system of treasury rights (or treasury
warrants) came into being, and it
effectively did away with the headright system. Anyone could purchase
rights to land for 5 shillings for each 50 acres. As before they were
liable for quitrents and settling the property otherwise the land would
revert to the Crown.
- A law of 1705 forbade the granting of patents in excess of 4000 acres,
but a number of companies and individuals were occasionally given
permission to take out large tracts. Land companies and speculators
played an important
role in facilitating the settlement of the land because it was easier
for immigrants to buy from the company (which had already purchased the
treasury rights) than to go to Williamsburg.
John Vanmeter (in the fork of the Shenandoah River), Robert Beverley (in Augusta
County), and Benjamin Borden (Rockbridge County) obtained large grants
of approximately 100,000 acres starting in the 1730's.
- The Loyal Land Company was granted 800,000 acres in 1749,
the Greenbrier Company got 100,000 acres in 1751, both in the western part
of the colony. They were given four
years to survey the tract and purchase treasury rights but this time limit
was extended up to the Revolution. There were numerous lawsuits relating
to conflicting claims with early settlers and land awarded for military
- During the Revolution it was not possible to obtain land patents.
A state Land Office was created in 1779 by the new state government and
it set about the business of approving land claims that had languished
since 1775, and processing military service warrants.
- Even though Lord Fairfax was English, his proprietary was not seized
during the war because he was such a long time resident. But his heirs were
British subjects, and when Fairfax died in 1781 it was decided to go after his
lands and collect taxes on them. Needless to say, a lengthy series of legal
cases began. The family finally sold their last interest in
the estate in 1808.
- With the creation of the Federal Government,
Virginia and other states were asked to cede their western lands to the
fledgling government, which used them to create the Northwest and Southwest
Territories. In 1781 Virginia relinquished its claim to lands in the Northwest
Territories in exchange for being able to award bounty lands in the
Virginia Military District in what is now
south-central Ohio. Virginia proceeded to award its military bounty lands in
the Kentucky territory (until Kentucky became a state in 1792), and then in
the Military District (after 1792 and before Ohio achieved statehood in 1803.)
- West Virginia became a state in 1863.
The Virginia State Library and Archives has a wonderful publication
Virginia Land Office Inventory, 3rd edition, compiled by Daphne Gentry
and revised by John Salmon. This booklet contains a more complete
history than outlined above, and provides a detailed listing of the
substantial (400 linear feet!) holdings on land records at the archives.
Another excellent series of publications, a classic if you will,
is Cavaliers and Pioneers, by Nell Marion Nugent et al, in 5
volumes (and counting!). [See our list of books
for vendors.] These books are detailed abstracts of Virginia colonial
patents. Volume 3 of the series has information regarding the
settlement history of Virginia.
The LDS has a course outline on Virginia genealogy that has
information on land records.
Information on the Northern Neck was found in Beyond Germanna,
v. 3, n. 5, September 1991.
[The information in this article was compiled from the above sources.]
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