Early Virginia Land History


The land ownership process was extremely complicated in early Virginia.

* Land was not granted in any consistent fashion during the earliest years of the colony when the Virginia Company of London had the rights to settle the land. In 1624 the Company's charter was terminated and the colony became part of the manorial holdings of the King. (This is rather unusual. The King did not govern Virginia as sovereign of England, but as a feudal lord!)

* In 1627 Governor George Yeardley began the headright system of granting land to those who brought people into the colony. Land could be taken out at the rate of 50 acres per imported person. Grantees had to pay annual quitrents (a kind of real estate tax), and "plant and seat" the land in order to keep it.

* In 1649 exiled King Charles II gave the "Northern Neck", the area between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, to seven of his supporters including Thomas, Lord Culpeper. Over the years Culpeper purchased the shares of the others. By 1690 it became associated with Thomas, Lord Fairfax, and grants in this huge (over 5 million acre) proprietorship were begun. Because of the proprietorship, grants in the Northern Neck are not found at the Virginia archives. There were basically two separate colonies operating in Virginia from the point of view of land grants. For example, head rights were never recognized in the Northern Neck.

* There was substantial disagreement over the boundaries of the Northern Neck Proprietary. In 1730 Fairfax's son, also named Thomas, got into a legal wrangle withVirginia over the extent of his domain, its size being defined by the location of two rivers whose sources were unknown at the time Charles had made his grant. Fairfax argued that the Rapidan River was the real Rappahannock, thus enlarging the proprietorship. Incredibly, he won his case in 1745, throwing into tumult the legal status of land granted by Virginia in the fork of the Rappahannock. Many residents repatented under Fairfax. Others ended up in court.

* In 1699 a new system of treasury rights (or treasury warrants) came into being, and it effectively did away with the headright system. Anyone could purchase rights for 5 shillings for each 50 acres. As before they were liable for quitrent sand settling the property. Otherwise the land would revert to the Crown.

* A law of 1705 forbade the granting of patents in excess of 4000 acres, but a number of companies and individuals were occasionally given permission to take out large tracts. Land companies and speculators played an important role in facilitating the settlement of the land because it was easier for immigrants to buy from the company (which had already purchased the treasury rights) than to go to Williamsburg. JohnVanmeter (in the fork of the Shenandoah River), Robert Beverley (in Augusta County),and Benjamin Borden (Rockbridge County) obtained large grants of approximately 100,000 acres starting in the 1730's.

* The Loyal Land Company was granted 800,000 acres in 1749, the Greenbrier Company got 100,000 acres in 1751, both in the western part of the colony. They were given four years to survey the tract and purchase treasury rights but this time limit was extended up to the Revolution. There were numerous lawsuits relating to conflicting claims with early settlers and land awarded for military service.

* During the Revolution it was not possible to obtain land patents. A state Land Office was created in 1779 by the new state government and it set about the business of approving land claims that had languished since 1775, and processing military service warrants.

* Even though Lord Fairfax was English, his proprietary was not seized during the war because he was such a long time resident. But his heirs were British subjects, and when Fairfax died in 1781 it was decided to go after his lands and collect taxes on them. Needless to say, a lengthy series of legal cases began. The family finally sold their last interest in the estate in 1808.

* With the creation of the Federal Government, Virginia and other states were asked to cede their western lands to the fledgling government, which used them to create the Northwest and Southwest Territories. In 1781 Virginia relinquished its claim to lands in the Northwest Territories in exchange for being able to award bounty lands in the Virginia Military District in what is now south-central Ohio. Virginia proceeded to award its military bounty lands in the Kentucky territory (until Kentucky became a state in 1792), and then in the Military District (after 1792 and before Ohio achieved statehood in 1803.)

* West Virginia became a state in 1863.