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Collection Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606 to 1827

Virginia Records, 1606-1737

Descriptions of the twenty-one volumes of colonial Virginia records once owned by Thomas Jefferson, now at the Library of Congress, and how to find and use them online.

Twenty-one volumes of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Virginia colonial records collected and copied by Jefferson and retained as part of his personal library.  Half of these volumes are held in the Manuscript Division, forming Series 8 of the Thomas Jefferson Papers, and the rest are in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.  This essay describes those records, discusses their provenance, and provides links to other descriptions of them in E. Millicent Sowerby’s Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson. 5 vols. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1952-1959.


As a young man Thomas Jefferson began collecting manuscript and printed compilations of the laws of colonial Virginia. Later he remembered that he “spared neither time, trouble, nor expence” to gather laws that were “on the point of being lost, as existing only in single copies in the hands of careful or curious individuals, on whose deaths they would probably be used for waste paper.” (Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, January 16, 1796). The collection of legal and legislative volumes Jefferson gathered came from various sources. They were gifts, loans, and purchases, and some came from libraries accumulated by Richard Bland, John Randolph, Jefferson’s father-in-law John Wayles, and others. Jefferson rescued one volume of Virginia laws (volume 9, one of two “Charles City” manuscripts) from a tavern where it had been, as he warned, regarded as “waste paper” by tavern-goers who used it to scribble on.

Today the Library of Congress owns twenty-one seventeenth- and eighteenth-century legal, legislative, and historical Virginia volumes collected by Jefferson, including records of the Virginia Company of London. Volumes 1-15 and possibly volume 21 were part of the library that Jefferson sold to Congress in 1815; volumes 16-20 were purchased by the Library from Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, at auction in 1829. The volumes are divided between the Manuscript Division, where they are part of the Thomas Jefferson Papers, and the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Almost all of these volumes are seventeenth- and eighteenth-century transcriptions of originals, which in many instances do not survive. Volume 8 (Sowerby 1826) is a copy that Thomas Jefferson made himself. Volume 1 (Sowerby 534) may be an original manuscript. The Library of Congress microfilmed the volumes and then later made enhanced digital images from the film. These digital images are available on this Web site. An exception is the volume originally numbered 3, Abridgement of the Common Law, undated (Sowerby, 1795), which is severely damaged and illegible, and therefore was not microfilmed or digitized.

In the same 1796 letter to George Wythe quoted above, Jefferson wrote that some of the manuscripts were “so rotten, that, on turning over a leaf, it sometimes falls into powder.” At the Library of Congress the manuscripts have been repaired and stabilized, and they are stored in secure, climate-controlled conditions. They are not available for handling, but digital images of them are on this Web site.

It is helpful to understand a few characteristics of these volumes before delving into them, specifically how they are dated, the language of the text, and where to find more information about them.

Old Style (Julian Calendar) Dates

The date of each volume, such as March 5, 1623/24, includes both the Old (Julian) Calendar year date and the New (Gregorian) Calendar year date in use today. These double-year dates occur mostly for the months of January through March. The New Calendar was adopted by Great Britain and its colonies in 1752, when eleven days were added to that year to bring the calendar in line with the solar year.

Early Modern English

The text in the oldest of these volumes is in early modern English. Varying spelling styles, the extensive use of word abbreviations, and a sentence syntax favoring multiple dependent clauses may make this text initially daunting to modern English readers. However, after reading a few pages, the grammar, syntax, and usage will become familiar. The preface of Susan Myra Kingsbury’s Records of the Virginia Company, includes a list of the most commonly used abbreviations.

Descriptions of These Volumes in the Sowerby Catalogue of Jefferson’s Library

Detailed descriptions of the colonial Virginia manuscripts that Congress bought from Jefferson in 1815 (volumes 1-15 and 21) along with the rest of his library are in E. Millicent Sowerby, Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 5 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1952-1959). Digital images of each Sowerby volume are linked to from the book’s bibliographic record in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.

Sowerby assigned each work in her five-volume catalog a number. Sowerby’s numbers are provided here to identify each of these manuscript volumes. For example, Volume 15, Virginia General Court, Cases, with Minutes, 1622-1629, is Sowerby 2089. All of the Virginia volumes are in Sowerby’s volume II, with the exception of manuscript volume 1, Sowerby 534, which is in Sowerby’s volume I. Volumes without Sowerby numbers are from the 1829 sale. Sowerby speculated that volume 13 (Sowerby 1831) was not among the books Jefferson sold Congress in 1815, but she included it in her catalog anyway (see Sowerby, II, 244). She was similarly in doubt about volume 21.

William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large

Beginning in 1807, Jefferson lent many of his volumes of Virginia law to William Waller Hening, clerk of the Chancery Court in Richmond, who published them in his compilation, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619 (Richmond, 1809-1823). Multiple editions of the Statutes at Large are available online at HathiTrust Digital Library External.

See also on this site the Colonial Virginia Records: Selected Bibliography [link] under Related Resources and Colonial Virginia Timeline [link] under Article and Essays.

Manuscript Volumes

Each description below has two links—one to the original volume in the Thomas Jefferson Papers and one to the description of the volume in E. Millicent Sowerby’s Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, as explained above.

Manuscript Volume 1: Thomas Mathew. The Beginning, Progress and Conclusion of Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia in the Years 1675 & 1676. July 13, 1705. (Sowerby 534)
Thomas Mathew, a contemporary observer of Nathaniel Bacon's rebellion in Virginia, wrote this account in 1705. Rufus King of New York, while ambassador to the court of St. James in London, purchased this volume and sent it to Jefferson with a December 20, 1803, letter. The volume King purchased may have been the original manuscript or a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century transcript of the original. Upon receiving the volume, Jefferson made his own exact transcription of Mathew's account of Bacon's Rebellion and arranged for its publication in The Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia). Jefferson's transcription was published in installments in The Enquirer, September 1, 5, and 8, 1804.

Manuscript Volume 2: John Mercer. Abridgement of the Public Acts. 1737. (Sowerby 1794)
John Mercer (1704-1768) of Marlborough, Virginia, was George Washington's lawyer. His son, John Francis, studied law with Jefferson.

Manuscript Volume 3: Opinions of Learned Counsel. 1681-1722. (Sowerby 1796)
Jefferson acquired this and volumes 5, 10, and 21 when he purchased the library of Peyton Randolph (1721-1775) in 1776. Peyton's father, Sir John Randolph (1693-1736), was an avid collector of Virginia documents and had hoped to write a history of the colony. He left his library of books and manuscripts to his son Peyton. It is in two parts:
Opinions of Counsel on Affairs Related to the Colony of Virginia, 1681-1721.
Opinions of Nathaniel Pigot of Middle Temple and Sir John Randolph, King's Attorney in Virginia, 1693-1722.

Note: The volume originally numbered 3, Abridgement of the Common Law, undated (Sowerby, 1795), is damaged and therefore was not digitized.

Manuscript Volume 4: Sir John Randolph. Commonplace Book. 1680. (Sowerby 1798)
Sir John Randolph (1693-1736) of Henrico was Speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses and the King's Attorney in Virginia. His son Peyton Randolph (1721-1775) also held those offices and was Jefferson's mentor in the House of Burgesses in the 1760s and 1770s. This commonplace book provided alphabetically arranged printed subject headings, under which one was supposed to enter relevant thoughts or extracts from one’s reading. It is bound with A Brief Method of the Law . . . Printed in this Volume for the Conveniency of Binding with Common-Place-Books . . . (London, 1680). John Randolph bought it from the widow of Benjamin Harrison (1645-1712), a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. It contains notations by Harrison and Randolph. There are numerous blank pages.

Manuscript Volume 5: Virginia. Laws and Orders Concluded on by the General Assembly. March 5, 1623/24. (Sowerby 1822)
Early eighteenth-century transcript. Originally owned by Sir John Randolph (1693-1736), it was acquired by Jefferson when he purchased the library of Randolph's son Peyton
Randolph (1721-1775) in 1776.

Manuscript Volume 6: Virginia. Miscellaneous Records, 1606-1692. The Bland Manuscript. (Sowerby 1824)
Includes laws of Virginia, January 6, 1639-April 1, 1642, and charters of the Virginia Company. Jefferson acquired this volume of seventeenth-century transcripts of the charters and fundamental documents in the history of the Virginia Company and colony in 1776 when he purchased the extensive library of Richard Bland (1710-1776), a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and a collector of historical documents and books. (Virginia Company charters can also be found in volume 14.)

Manuscript Volume 7: Legislature. Journal of Council and Assembly, 1642-1662. The Edmund Randolph Manuscript. (Sowerby 1825)
Early eighteenth-century transcript. Acquired by Jefferson in 1776 as part of the library of Richard Bland.

Manuscript Volume 8: Virginia, Legislative Records, 1652-1660, the Jefferson Manuscript. (Sowerby 1826)
Jefferson made this transcript from texts compiled by Virginia lawyer John Mercer of Marlborough (1704-1768). A seventeenth-century holograph index appears in the front.

Manuscript Volume 9: Virginia, Laws, 1662-1702, Charles City Manuscript. (Sowerby 1827)
This manuscript volume originated in the clerk's office of Charles City, which by 1614 was one of several outlying settlements in Virginia. Jefferson wrote George Wythe on January 12, 1796, that he had found it in “Lorton's tavern” in Virginia, where it was being used as “waste paper.” Scribbled around and on top of the laws are doodles, drawings, calculations, curses, boasts, practice signatures, and drafts of letters–a record of the time it spent in Lorton’s tavern before Jefferson rescued it.

Manuscript Volume 10: Virginia, Laws, 1662-1697, the Peyton Randolph Manuscript. (Sowerby 1828)
Originally owned by Sir John Randolph (1693-1736) and then by his son Peyton Randolph (1721-1775), whose library Jefferson purchased in 1776. The contents of this volume are nearly identical to those of volume 9, the "Charles City Manuscript."

Manuscript Volume 11: Virginia, 1705, Charles City Manuscript. (Sowerby 1829)
Jefferson received this manuscript volume, and volume 9, another Charles City Manuscript, from Mordecai Debnam, the Charles City clerk. Unlike that volume, the margins of this one are free of doodles and drawings.

Manuscript Volume 12: Virginia, Acts of Assembly, 1705-1711, the John Page Manuscript. (Sowerby 1830)
Jefferson received this volume from his lifelong friend John Page of Rosewell, Virginia, whose grandfather Mathew Page was a commissioner for the revision of Virginia laws in 1705.

Manuscript Volume 13: Virginia, Miscellaneous Papers, 1606-1692. (Sowerby 1831)
A volume titled Instructions Commicons letters of Advice and admonitions; and Publique Speeches, Proclamations. &c: Collected, transcribed and diligently examined by the Originall Records, now extant, belonging to the Assemblie. Jefferson acquired this when he purchased Richard Bland's library in 1776. The volume contains copies of the Virginia Company's charters and the colony's correspondence. Even though Sowerby included this volume in her catalog and assigned it a number, she was not certain that it was among the books that Jefferson sold to Congress in 1815.

Manuscript Volume 14: John Pervis. A Complete Collection of all the Laws of Virginia now in Force, Carefully Copied from the Assembly Records, March 23 1661/62-November 10, 1682. "Carefully Copied from the Assembly Records. To which is annexed an Alphabetical Table." (Sowerby 1832)
Printed sometime between 1683 and 1687, this volume contains manuscript notes in the margins, possibly in a seventeenth-century hand. A manuscript continuation has been added at the end. According to Jefferson, this volume originally belonged to Colonel William Byrd, who gave it to John Wayles, Jefferson's father-in-law, "whose library came to my hands" (Jefferson to George Wythe, January 12, 1796).

Manuscript Volume 15: The Virginia Court Book, 1622-1629. (Sowerby 2089)
Law cases dating from 1622 to 1626 [Sowerby erroneously writes 1666 for 1626] are bound in a new volume; those from 1626-1629, also preserved, are loose sheets. Some of these records have been published in H. R. McIlwaine, Minutes of the Council and General Court of Virginia, 1626-1676 (Richmond, 1924). The original volume was among those Jefferson described as “in such a state of decay, that the leaf falls to pieces on being turned over . . .” (to John Daly Burke, June 1, 1805). They have since been preserved.

Manuscript Volume 16: Virginia Company of London. Court Book. Part A. April 28, 1619 - May 8, 1622.

Manuscript Volume 17: Virginia Company of London. Court Book. Part B. May 20, 1622-June 7, 1624.
These volumes are the only contemporaneous surviving copy of the Court Book of the Virginia Company of London, which established the Jamestown colony in 1607. The Court Book for the earlier period, 1606-1618, does not survive in any form.

On May 9, 1623, the Crown appointed a commission to investigate the Virginia Company's financial affairs and sequestered its papers. Before the papers were turned over to the Privy Council, Company deputy Nicholas Ferrar had them copied. The Company lost its charter as a result of the investigation and by 1630 had ceased to exist. Where the original Court Book and Ferrar's copy of it went thereafter is unknown.

Jefferson believed that the Court Book ended up in the hands of the Earl of Southampton, a member of the Company and an ally of Edwin Sandys, treasurer during the period covered by the Book, and that it was then purchased from Southampton's executor in London by one of the Byrd family. It was a part of the third William Byrd's library when he died in 1777.

On October 4, 1823, Jefferson wrote Hugh P. Taylor that he had acquired the Court Book as part of his purchase of Richard Bland's library. Jefferson did not include the Court Book in the nearly 6,700 volumes he sold to Congress in 1815. The Library of Congress acquired it later in 1829 from Jefferson's grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph.

The Court Book has been published in Volume I and Volume II of Records of the Virginia Company, edited by Susan Myra Kingsbury (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office,  1906).  Some documents in Volume 20 are published in Kingsbury’s Volumes III and IV (see below).  Kingsbury’s Volume I is a published edition of Manuscript Volume 16, the Court Book of the Virginia Company of London, Part A. Kingsbury Volume II corresponds to Manuscript Volume 17, the Court Book, Part B. Volumes III and IV publish documents from Manuscript Volume 20, Miscellaneous Virginia Records, 1606-1626, and Virginia Company documents from many other repositories in the United States and Great Britain. To correlate Kingsbury volumes I and II with Jefferson volumes 16 and 17, see the illustration below.

Correlating the Published Edition (Volumes I & II) with the Virginia Records Manuscripts (Volumes 16 & 17)
At intervals in the text of the published edition there are page numbers bolded and in brackets. These bolded, bracketed numbers indicate the start of the corresponding page number in the manuscript volumes. Thus, on page 214 of volume I, within the text paragraph, "[3]" indicates that manuscript volume page number 3 begins there. Manuscript volume page numbers can be found in the upper left- and right-hand corners of each page. In the majority of pages these numbers are easy to read. In some instances they are illegible. However, finding previous or following pages where pagination is legible and counting forward or backward can help one locate the correct page.

Manuscript Volume 18: Virginia, Executive Council, Transactions, 1698-1700.

Manuscript Volume 19: Virginia, Foreign Business and Inquisitions, 1665-1676.
This volume contains depositions relating to maritime prizes and cases of escheat, in which land reverts to the Crown, state, or feudal lord upon the death of a tenant without heirs or succeeding grantees. Also included are copies of correspondence between Virginia government officers and Maryland and Georgia governors.

Manuscript Volume 20: Virginia. Miscellaneous Records. 1606-1626.
The volume includes contemporary copies of correspondence between the Privy Council in London and the governor and Council in Virginia. It contains the Company's “A Declaration of the present State of Virginia humbly presented to the Kings most excellent Matie [Majestie] by the Company for Virginia,” April 12, 1623, and other statements presented in 1624 when the Company was under investigation; laws passed and petitions received by the Virginia General Assembly; and contemporaneous copies of the Company's 1606 and 1609 charters. Some of the documents in volume 20 are published in Records of the Virginia Company, edited by Susan Myra Kingsbury, Volume III and Volume IV (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1933, 1935). Volumes III and IV also contain Virginia Company documents from many other repositories in the United States and Great Britain.

Manuscript Volume 21: Virginia, Commissions and Proclamations, 1629-1633 (Sowerby 1823)
Originally owned by Sir John Randolph (1693-1736) and acquired by Jefferson when he purchased the library of Randolph’s son Peyton Randolph (1721-1775) in 1776. Sowerby was not certain if this volume came to the Library of Congress in 1815 or 1829. In the twentieth century, Dorothy S. Eaton, an early American history specialist in the Manuscript Division, reassembled it from scattered pages acquired in the 1829 sale, even though it was listed in Jefferson’s 1815 catalog of his library. See Sowerby, II, 238-239. Note that Sowerby gives the date range as 1626-1634, while Jefferson gives it as 1629-1633 in his catalog.