52 Documents in 52 Weeks #14: Williams vs. Williams, VA Chancery Court

Many researchers don’t bother to read filmed court records as they might or might not be indexed and they might or might not be legible. Often, particularly in the early years of existence, minutes have been transcribed, indexed and published in book format.

The problem with the published books is that (1) human error can creep in when transcribing or abstracting records and (2) most published volumes only include the bare bone essentials about the people and event noted in those court minutes.

I have another chance here to plug the Library of Virginia, as it is a topnotch and ever-growing resource for genealogists. One of the Library’s digital projects is to make available all extant chancery court records from Virginia’s many counties.

Chancery court records are, to me, vastly more interesting than county court minutes, which typically mention land transactions, tax situations, orders to maintain roads and so on. Chancery court is where the juicy stuff happened – lawsuits. Americans seem to have always been a litigious society and snapshots, no entire movies, of ancestors’ lives can be found in those records if they were involved in any lawsuits. When money is involved, lawsuits are even more likely.

Roger Williams was a very well-to-do man. When he died in Bedford County, Virginia in 1835, he left a will and an estate that was valued at roughly $9000, which in today’s money would be about $235,000. One of his children, Patsey, married Benjamin Witt. Benjamin appears to have been the instigator of a lawsuit that was finally stricken from the court docket in 1883 with the notation that there had been no activity during the past seven years. That was probably because everybody involved had died!

The Library of Virginia has all 410 pages of this lawsuit digitized and available online:

This huge packet became my BSO (bright, shiny object) to investigate today. There are all kinds of details that come out in court lawsuits that wouldn’t otherwise be easily found by researchers. I was actually surprised about one thing in this packet – the locations where all these people lived were never, ever mentioned. By 1840, half of the litigants were living in several different counties in Missouri.

Even more annoying is the fact that the five sons of the deceased Thomas Williams, son of Roger, are all named in papers as late as May 1860:

William, Thomas, John, Samuel and Woodson Williams,
alive in May 1860

If only their places of residence were included because they all appear to have left Virginia!

What other bits of genealogical information can be found in this packet?

Well, for one, Cassie Ann Blair Williams, wife of Roger, deceased, is known to have survived him. However, her death date is unknown. Take a look at this entry of payments made by Roger’s estate:

Expenses of Roger Williams’ Estate, 1837

It appears that Cassie Ann was passed around from child to child, as several were reimbursed for her care and needs. Look at the entry for 8 June 1837 in the middle of the page. Thomas F. Creasey was paid $40.00 “for keeping Mrs. Williams & servant to the time of her death.” There were several entries here and on the page before noting the care of Cassie Ann. I’d say she died in the spring of 1837. Thomas F. Creasey was married to her daughter, Elizabeth.

In 1843, as the lawsuit continued on, there was a public posting of the notice in the Lynchburg Virginian newspaper. The clipping was added to the court papers and it listed those involved as plaintiffs and defendants:

Public Announcement, 1843

Note that Patsey Witt is listed as the widow of Benjamin Witt. That might be what triggered this public notice.

Roger Williams owned 235 acres of land, a nice sized plantation; he was also a slave owner. There are several lists and references to his slaves in the financial accountings:

1836 Inventory

This is an early inventory, but there are further records in this digital file.

Sons Samuel and George Williams were co-executors of Roger’s estate; they were the ones being sued by the Witts and their other siblings. I knew George had died as a fairly young man, probably in his 40s or 50s, but here it is noted in the court record:

George Williams, deceased

Given the length of this lawsuit, George probably died in the summer of 1842 as his death was noted at the 2 September 1842 term of court. The family spent a lot of time in court for the first 8 or so years, based on the dates on the documents that were filed.

Roger isn’t my husband’s direct line, but if he were, I’d be taking a closer look at the many extant Bedford County, Virginia records.


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