City Guide: Richmond, VA

By David A. Fryxell Premium

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Few places have been the nexus for as much of US history as Richmond, Va. Patrick Henry helped spark the American Revolution with his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech in 1775 at Richmond’s St. John’s Church. As the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond saw some two dozen major Civil War battles fought on its doorstep.

Whether your Richmond ancestors came in Colonial times and migrated to other places or stayed and helped build what is today one of the centers of the New South, you’ll find plenty of records to uncover their story.

Rich history
Richmond’s history dates to the earliest Colonial times, when a party of English under Capt. Christopher Newport visited a Powhatan Indian settlement at the falls of the James River in 1607. Capt. John Smith sent another party to occupy the site, which Smith named “Nonesuch,” in 1609, but they were soon driven back to Jamestown. French Huguenot pioneers filled the gap left by the retreating English, founding a village that’s now a Richmond suburb, Manakin-Sabot.

As Virginia’s tobacco industry expanded, development along the river led William Mayo to lay out the original street plan of Richmond in 1737. The land was provided by William Byrd II, owner of the nearby Westover Plantation, who named the town after Richmond, England. The town was chartered in 1742 and became Virginia’s capital in 1780.

If your family was part of Richmond’s rich history, you’re in luck. Like most of Virginia, Richmond offers centuries of records — most housed in the Library of Virginia, located on East Broad Street. Richmond was originally part of Henrico County, which — like many eastern counties of Virginia — is a “burned-record county.” All county court records prior to 1655 and almost all prior to 1677 are missing. Other records were destroyed during the Revolutionary War, and a fire destroyed almost all circuit court records in 1865.

But Richmond is one of 40 Virginia cities that became independent from their surrounding counties, and the Library of Virginia houses a variety of surviving records dating as far back as the town’s incorporation in 1782. Click here for a list and to see which are available via interlibrary loan.

Early answers
Not surprisingly, Richmond’s first records concerned land, which was originally granted by the headright system: Virginians who paid for immigrants’ transport received 50 acres per “head.” Subsequent land transactions between individuals were recorded in deed books. The Library of Virginia has a database of land patents and grants, as well as an extensive collection of Richmond deeds and deed indexes (mostly available via interlibrary loan).

Next, of course, came taxes, which generated tax rolls you can use when censuses aren’t available or contain only scant data. Colonial tax records have been collected in books such as The Quit Rents of Virginia, 1704 by Annie Laurie Wright Smith (Genealogical Publishing Co.); you can search it for your ancestors’ surname free on Google Books. State tax records begin in 1782. The Family History Library (FHL) has a large collection of Virginia tax rolls you can order on microfilm to view at a local FamilySearch Center.

Will and estate records generally date from 1810, and are available from the Library of Virginia and the FHL. You can find a multivolume collection of earlier Richmond deed and will abstracts, covering 1782 to 1799, in book form at the FHL (Deed & Will Abstracts of Richmond City, Virginia Hustings Court, edited and published by Ruth and Sam Sparacio).

As with other Virginians, your Richmond ancestors may also appear in the nation’s earliest military records, dating to Colonial times. You can find these records in the Library of Virginia (including online Revolutionary War bounties and Confederate pensions), the FHL, the National Archives and subscription websites and Footnote.

Richmond is also home to the Museum of the Confederacy, which houses the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of Confederate artifacts, including books, pamphlets, prints, sketches and manuscripts. You’ll need an appointment to research at the museum ($12 for non-members), or you can request correspondence research ($10 for the first hour, $30 per hour after). See the organization’s website.

If you’re seeking African-American ancestors who were slaves in the Richmond area, the FHL has a wealth of resources that can help. Search the catalog for Virginia and then click on the heading Slavery and Bondage.

City slickers
As Richmond grew, so did its records. You can find a collection of city directories, for instance, covering 1819 to 1935 via the FHL, along with a handful of more recent volumes.

Subscription site GenealogyBank lets you search eight Richmond newspaper archives: Virginia Argus (1797-1816), Virginia Patriot (1810-1814), Enquirer (1804-1820) and Richmond Enquirer (1821-1865), Richmond Commercial Compiler (1816-1820), Richmond Whig (1824-1827) and Richmond Daily Whig (1833-1882), Richmond Examiner (1861-1866), Richmond Planet (1885-1900) and Reformer (1900).

Richmond newspapers digitized to date in the free Chronicling America project include the Daily Dispatch and Dispatch (1850-1884, 1884-1903), Daily Times and Times (1886-1889, 1890-1903), Times Dispatch (1903-1914) and Richmond Planet (1883-1938).

The Library of Virginia’s Death Records Indexing Project includes marriages and obituaries in Richmond newspapers. The Virginia Historical Society has a card index to marriage announcements and obituaries published from 1736 to 1820. has a database of obituaries from Richmond newspapers from 1804 to 1838.

As with many Southern states, vital records were among the last genealogical resources to begin in Virginia. The state gave vital records a try from 1853 to 1896 (these are in the Library of Virginia), then quit until 1912. These later records, to which privacy restrictions apply (see Records at a Glance), are at the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Vital Records. Happily, Richmond did keep vital records that include the 1896-to-1912 gap. The Library of Virginia has Richmond birth records indexes (1870-1912), marriage records (1817-1857, no indexes), marriage bonds (1797-1850, no index), court marriage registers (1853-1878), death certificates (1862-1912) and death records indexes (1870-1954). Most of these are available via interlibrary loan – — see the website for microfilm numbers — – or through your local FamilySearch Center.

Tip: Learn more about Richmond’s role in the Civil War and read transcriptions of newspaper articles from the period at Civil War Richmond.

Fast Facts

  • Settled: 1673
  • Chartered: 1742
  • Incorporated: 1782
  • Nicknames: River City, Capital of the South
  • State: Virginia
  • County: independent city since 1902
  • Parent County: Henrico
  • Area: 62.5 square miles
  • Motto: Sic itur ad astra (Latin for “Thus one goes to the stars”)
  • Primary historical ethnic groups: English, French Huguenot, African-American, Scotch, Irish, German
  • Primary historical industries: tobacco, iron and steel, flour mills, shipping, railroads
  • Famous residents: Patrick Henry, Jefferson Davis, Arthur Ashe, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Warren Beatty, Shirley MacLaine

1800: 5,737
1850: 27,570
1900: 85,050
Current: 204,451

1607: The English reach the falls of the James River
1737: William Mayo lays out the streets of Richmond
1775: Patrick Henry declares, “Give me liberty or give me death” at the Virginia Convention
1780: Richmond becomes the capital of Virginia
1800: Shockoe Bottom becomes a hub for slave trade
1837: Tredegar Iron Works founded, the largest in the South
1861: Richmond becomes capital of the Confederacy
1865: Confederate government retreats from Richmond
1874: P.H. Mayo & Bros. becomes the city’s first cigarette factor
1888: First US electric trolley system begins running
1948: WTVR, the South’s first television station, begins broadcasting




  • At the Falls: Richmond, Virginia, and its People by Marie Tyler-McGraw (University of North Carolina Press)
  • Cavaliers and Pioneers: Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents Land Grants, 7 volumes, by Nell Marion Nugent (Library of Virginia)
  • The Hornbook of Virginia History edited by Emily J. Salmon and Edward D.C. Campbell Jr. (Library of Virginia)
  • Richmond: The Story of a City by Virginius Dabney (University of Virginia Press)
  • Virginia Genealogy: Sources & Resources by Carol McGinnis (Genealogical Publishing Co.)

Archives & Organizations

Records at a Glance

Birth records

  • Begin: 1853
  • Privacy restrictions: Records created in last 100 years are open only to immediate family.
  • Research tips: State records were skipped from 1896 to 1912, but Richmond kept its own birth records.

City directories

  • Begin: 1817
  • Research tips: The Family History Library has a collection of Richmond city directories.

Death records

  • Begin: 1853
  • Privacy restrictions: Records from the past 50 years are open only to immediate family.
  • Research tips: State records were skipped from 1896 to 1912, but Richmond kept its own death records.


  • Begin: 1623
  • Research tips: Search the Library of Virginia’s database of land patents prior to 1779 and Land Office grants after 1779

Marriage records

  • Begin: 1912
  • Privacy restrictions: Records from the past 50 years are open only to immediate family.
  • Research tips: Check the Library of Virginia for marriage records and bonds dating from 1797.

Tax rolls

  • Begin: 1704
  • Research tips: Tax records, especially the 1704 quit rent rolls and the regular taxes begun in 1782, can be used as a census substitute.

Wills and estates

  • Begin: 1782
  • Research tips: Find early Richmond records in Deed & Will Abstracts of Richmond City, Virginia Hustings Court, edited and published by Ruth and Sam Sparacio. Will and estate records from 1810 on are at the Library of Virginia.

Top Five Historic Sites

1. American Civil War Center
500 Tredegar St., Richmond, VA 23219, (804) 780-1865
This was the nation’s first museum to interpret the Civil War from Union, Confederate and African-American perspectives. The Tredegar site contains five buildings illustrating Richmond’s iron works era.

2. Hollywood Cemetery
412 S. Cherry St., Richmond, VA 23220, (804) 648-8501
James Monroe, John Tyler, Jefferson Davis, John Randolph and J.E.B. Stuart are all buried here. You can search burial records at

3. Museum of the Confederacy
1201 E. Clay St., Richmond, VA 23219, (804) 649-1861
Three floors of galleries contain the world’s most comprehensive collection of artifacts, manuscripts, and photographs from the Confederate States of America, including “Stonewall” Jackson’s forage cap and Robert E. Lee’s field tent. The museum includes the Confederate White House.

4. Richmond National Battlefield Park
3215 E. Broad St., Richmond, VA 23223, (804) 226-1981
The park’s resources include a naval battle site, a key industrial complex, the Confederacy’s largest hospital, miles of elaborate original fortifications, and the sites of two major campaigns to capture the capital of the Confederacy.

5. Virginia State Capitol
1000 Bank St., Richmond, VA 23219, (804) 698-1788
Recently reopened after an expansion and restoration, the Capitol now looks much as it did in the early 1900s, carrying on themes from Thomas Jefferson’s original design. Take a virtual tour here.

Related Resources

From the May 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine