Efforts to preserve Loudoun’s historic court records have yielded a significant discovery—the earliest county court seal known to date.
Staff members in the Clerk of the Circuit Court Historic Records Division found an 1833 county court seal on the Freedom Certificate of James Wood. The document was uncovered during the indexing of the court’s Free Blacks and Slave Papers, one of the largest and best preserved collection of free black and slavery documents in Virginia.
Historic Records Manager Eric Larson said one of his employees, Alyssa Fisher, found the seal while going through loose bundled papers.
He said there may be even more yet to find. “We have thousands upon thousands of documents, but this is actually one of the earlier court seals we’ve ever seen on a document here at the courthouse,” Larson said. “There’re probably ones prior to 1833, but we have yet to find one on any of our documents, so that’s what made this discovery so exciting.”
The seal is a crimp mark made by pressing the seal into a paper to emboss its pattern. Larson said it’s in nearly mint condition. Only one older seal has been found at the courthouse, a wax seal from the Town of Leesburg dating to the 1820s.
The office of the Loudoun court is unusual in that it has records dating back to the county’s formation in 1757, which were not destroyed in the Civil War, and in that it has a Historic Records and Deed Search department dedicated to cataloguing the documents. Larson said his staff, working chronologically through the slave index and free black papers, have almost made it to the Civil War.
Larson hopes to win grant money from the Library of Virginia to scan and preserve his office’s index of slave and free black documents.
Former slaves who were adjudicated by the court to be free, after completion of legal paperwork as evidence of a slave owner’s wishes to release a slave, were required to have Freedom Certificates. Virginia county courts issued the certificates with an assigned number and the following information: age, physical appearance, family members, and sometimes the owner who freed them. This document certified that James Wood was legally free in Virginia.
The text of the Freedom Certificate reads in part:
I Charles Binns Clerk of the Courts aforesaid, do hereby Certify, that James Wood, (Son of Mary Sweet,) who was nineteen years of age, on the last day of January 1803, Five and a half feet high, a Mulatto, with a small scar on or above his eyebrow, was on June 12th 1803, registered in my office, according to Law, and that on this twenty second day of January 1833 was again registered according to Law.
C Binns C.L.
The Historic Records and Deed Research Division has uncovered several historically noteworthy documents, including six documents with presidential signatures: James Madison, James Monroe, and John Tyler, who became president when William Henry Harrison died only a month into his term. Larson’s staff has also found a 1927 bond for a Loudoun County sheriff that was signed by John Tyler during his time as governor.
More information about the Historic Records and Deed Research Division is online at loudoun.gov/clerk/archives.