Chesterfield Courthouse in Virginia has done a fabulous job in making images of their records available. The records are copies of documents, such as deeds and wills, recorded by a scribe and clerk at the courthouse, sometimes years after the original documents were signed and sealed. Some tidbits:
- Record of property changing hands often include an appendix stating that the wife was not coerced by her husband. Wording is to the effect that the wife had been examined “privily and apart from the said [James, for example] her husband.”
- Colonial documents dated in terms of King George’s reign are the exception rather than the rule.
- In the “mother” record (to which other bits and pieces might be appended), the year is written out, eg, “one thousand seven hundred and sixty three.” The “year of” part varies, eg: anno Domini / year of our Lord Christ / year of our Lord God / year of Christ. Around 1800 (very loosely) such phrasing fades in favor of a secular “in the year of one thousand eight hundred….” By the mid-nineteenth century, it’s pretty much gone.
- The clerk and the scribe are not one and the same. The name of the clerk (marked clk) Ben Watkins, appears on a variety of documents in a variety of handwriting during and beyond the Colonial period. (Old Ben Watkins worked for decades at Chesterfield Courthouse, to be replaced by T Watkins.)
- It’s true. A lot of people were illiterate. I didn’t see any cases where the wife was literate and the husband illiterate, though the reverse was not uncommon. The scribe used a cross mark to indicate that the actual document was marked, not signed.
- Hand-writing varied quite a bit. Some clerks favored a rounded style, which I found more European looking (more like my mother’s handwriting) and more difficult to read. Others wrote in a more pointy style. The writing can be quite striking and elegant. Other times, some poor scribe had a bad pen day and the entry is blotched and splotched. Sometimes even the best efforts were ruined when the book was closed before the ink dried.