State Legislative Petitions & Genealogy, Part 2

Today, Nancy will conclude her series on federal and state legislative petitions and their immense value to genealogists.

Nancy Maxwell


The Massachusetts Archives Collection (also known as the “Felt Collection”) isn’t digitized but genealogists can search for particular information about individuals in petitions on their search page.  They include original records of the governor, Council, General Court, secretary, and treasurer. Volume 303 in the archives collection is entitled “Petitions, 1659-1786, Petitions to the Governor and General Court” and covers a variety of subjects. Many of these are copies of petitions found elsewhere in this collection and range from tavern licenses, divorce petitions, and land grants to records pertaining to compensation for loss of a horse or siting of meeting house. Some finding aids include the database, table of contents (in notebook), and a name index.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives offers an online index to personal names appearing in the Acts of Tennessee, 1796-1850 which can be found here. It does not, however, include the hundreds of names of persons who signed the petitions. The index to the petitions themselves can be found here. (  If you find a petition of interest, the web site provides instructions on how to order a copy.

Here is a sample from the name index:

The South Carolina Department of Archives and History has petitions dating from 1776-1883, the bulk of them dated 1782-1866. They’re also on 109 microfilm reels. But be aware that archivists indexed only the first 20 names in each petition. In the example below, from the search results you can view index terms and get a description of the petition. Petition images are not on-line but genealogists can order copies through the web site.

Source: South Carolina Department of Archives and History

Ancestry has the database Texas, Memorials and Petitions, 1834-1929. In the petition below, dated 3 March 1836, John M. Smith and William M. Smith needed time to prepare an application for pardon. Petitioners thought the two didn’t have enough time to do so, considering the distance and state of the roads, so they asked to have the Smiths’ execution sentence suspended.

Source: Ancestry

The Virginia State Library and Archives has created the database Virginia Memory, which includes all of its legislative petitions.

Petitions to the General Assembly were the primary catalyst for legislation in Virginia from 1776-1865. Some public concerns addressed in these documents included taxation, religious freedom, divorce, military claims, division of counties, slave manumissions, and town incorporations. They also frequently contain additional support documents such as wills, deeds, resolutions, judgments, affidavits, naturalizations, maps, wills, and other items of genealogical interest. Petitions increased in frequency during period of colony and commonwealth. Interestingly, they vanished after the Civil War except for very particular purposes.

In this example, William Drummond and Elizabeth Overby petitioned for a law changing the names of John Jones Overby and Josiah Overby to Drummond.

Source: Library of Virginia, Virginia Memory

Following is an 1861 petition from the citizens of Charlotte County, Virginia, to Governor John Letcher, asking that the state draft all able-bodied free blacks to work on Civil War fortifications because they feared that free blacks forced into unemployment by the war would become a danger to the safety of the community.

Source: Library of Virginia Legislative Petitions

Something you may have noticed in these examples is that petitions for divorce and name changes were handled by state legislatures from the beginning of the colony through the middle of the 19th century. These actions eventually passed out of state jurisdiction to courts because they took up too much time that legislatures needed for more urgent business. Genealogists should keep this in mind when searching for early divorces or name changes.


I’ve mentioned memorials and claims in this blog series as well as petitions. It’s important to know the differences between these documents. A petition in the 18th and 19th centuries, generally speaking, included a prayer that that a claim be granted. A memorial was a written statement of facts accompanying a petition. It didn’t contain a prayer that the claim be granted. A memorial also expressed opposition to (‘remonstrate against’) some pending action.

In modern usage there’s no apparent difference between a memorial and a petition, and petition has become the commonly accepted generic term. But to understand a document in its historical context, it matters that we use meanings for words that were appropriate for the time period and document in question.


We can conclude by observing that legislative petitions are a uniquely valuable genealogical resource. They:

  • Demonstrate what was important to contemporary ancestors
  • Provide proof of residence in a certain place at a certain time
  • May provide previously unknown genealogical information, such as who neighbors were (if a local petition)
  • Place ancestors in historical context
  • Add depth and breadth to ancestral lives
  • Provide clues that may lead to additional ancestral information
  • May provide original signatures of ancestors.

Now what genealogist would not want an ancestor’s autograph!

This concludes my series about federal and state legislative petitions. I hope they will help you learn more about your ancestors and maybe get you over the proverbial brick wall. I also want to thank Linda for asking me to be her guest blogger.

Links to previous posts in this series:

And Your Petitioners Shall Ever Pray: Legislative Petitions
Federal Legislative Petitions, Part 1
Federal Legislative Petitions, Part 2
Federal Legislative Petitions, Part 3
State Legislative Petitions & Genealogy, Part 1

Thank you, Nancy! You are welcome back any time. 🙂



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.