Looted court records return after 150 years

Cache of old records was taken by Union soldier during the siege of 1862

By Mark St. John Erickson
Daily Press

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — Nobody knows exactly how many deeds, wills and other legal records might have been stored in the old Warwick County courthouse when the Civil War started.

But by the time the conflict ended in 1865, the single most comprehensive source of information about one of English America’s oldest settlements had been reduced to virtually nothing by Federal looting and two catastrophic fires.

That’s why Newport News historian Mary Kayaselcuk was so astounded earlier this year when she fielded a phone call from a Massachusetts archivist who had unearthed seven Warwick County documents from before the Civil War, including one signed by a prominent county clerk in 1688.

Taken as trophies by a Union soldier whose regiment had encamped on the courthouse green during the April 1862 Siege of the Peninsula, the records remained in his family until they were given to the Danvers Archival Center of the Peabody Institute Library in 1991.

Not until three years ago, however, did archivist Richard Trask begin coming across the ancient documents one by one while cataloging the papers.

“Every once in a while we’ll find something like this. But this was a real red-flag item,” says Trask, who handed the records over to the Library of Virginia on the 150th anniversary of the 1862 siege.

“I don’t think anybody had really looked at them in more than 100 years — and there was no question they needed to go back to Virginia.”

Today, fewer than 300 Warwick County court records survive from the years before the Civil War, estimates Kayaselcuk, who scoured libraries and archives intently during her research for Newport News’ centennial anniversary celebration in 1996.

“I was flabbergasted. It’s just so unusual for any of these lost records to come to light again,” she says.

“It’s like sitting on a needle in haystack. It’s a totally unexpected find.”

Ranging in date from 1688 to 1751, the newly discovered documents include wills, bonds, an arrest warrant and judgments in two civil suits as well as a sworn oath testifying to the signatory’s rejection of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

Among the prominent names which appear is that of Warwick County Clerk of Court Miles Cary Jr., whose landmark 17th-century home at Richneck Plantation in Denbigh was the site of the giant elm tree commemorated on the city seal of Newport News.