Glossary of Colonial Terms

  • Alias – 1) this word was prefixed to the name of a second writ of the same kind issued in the same case. For example, after a summons was issued but returned by the sheriff as not fulfilled, a second summons could be issued and this was referred to as an Alias Summons. Alias Capias was a second writ of this type issued in the same case. See Capias below. 2) a name used other than the given name of a person which may not be an attempt to hide his/her identity, such as Harry for Harold, initials or a maiden name. See Pluries below for cases where multiples writs are issued in the same case. Writ was the old English term for a judicial order, see below.
  • Assignee – The party to whom something is assigned e.g. someone to whom a right or property is legally transferred.
  • Attachment – A court order directing a sheriff to seize property of a defendant which would satisfy a judgment against that defendant.
  • Bail (baile) – Anglo - French: 1) the person who agrees to be liable if someone released from custody does not return at an appointed time; 2) property or money given as surety that a person released from custody will return at an appointed time.
  • Battery – In English Common Law, an intentional unpermitted act causing harmful or offensive contact with the "person" of another. Battery was concerned with the right to have one's body left alone by others.
  • Benefit of Clergy – in the Middle ages, originally a provision by which clergymen could claim that they were outside the jurisdiction of the secular courts and demand to be tried instead under ecclesiastical law. Eventually, under English Common Law, it became a mechanism whereby first-time offenders "praying the Benefit of Clergy" could escape the death penalty for their first capital offense.
  • Bumbo – an alcoholic drink usually made with rum or gin, sugar, water, and sometimes spices.
  • Calendar – In 45 B.C. Julius Caesar established the Julian calendar on which the New Year began March 25th. January, February and the first twenty–four days of March constituted the last three months of the year. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII created the more accurate Gregorian calendar which began the New Year on January 1st. This required eliminating 10 days. Soon afterwards Roman Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar. Protestant England however waited until the reign of King George II when in 1752 it was necessary to eliminate 11 days. Thus, September 2, 1752 was followed by September 14, 1752. The first court entry for Thomas Mylam in Orange County is an example: March 24, 1737/38 – actually 1738 on our present calendar.
  • Capias – The general name for several kinds of writs, or court orders, all of which required an officer to take the defendant into custody. An order commanding an officer to place a person under civil arrest in order to answer a charge; or an order notifying a defendant to defend a suit and procuring his arrest until security for the plaintiff’s claim was furnished. Writ is the old English term for a judicial order.
  • Cavaliers (distressed) - Virginia's salvation, in Berkeley's eyes, had been the arrival of hundreds of well-born second sons of England's first families, who fled here after defeat in warfare to avoid the retribution of Cromwell's Roundheads in Britain's civil war. The migration continued throughout Berkeley's governorship, interrupted only briefly by three Cromwellian governors from 1652 to 1660. And Berkeley's Cavaliers gave Virginia an abler electorate and higher ambitions, in Fischer's view.
  • The settlers who arrived in Berkeley's years were indeed impressive. The first Carters, Culpepers, Digges, Custises, Pages, Harrisons, Ishams, Skipwiths and Landons arrived in 1650. In 1651 came the first Randolphs, and in 1652 the first Masons. In 1653 came the first Madisons, and in 1654 came the first Corbins. John Washington, first American antecedent of George, arrived in 1657, as did Col. William Ball, ancestor of Washington's mother, Mary Ball.

    "Of 72 families in Virginia's high elite whose dates of migration are known," Fischer writes, "two-thirds arrived between 1640 and 1669." More here .

  • Caveat – a notice to a court or judicial officer to suspend a proceeding until an opposition can be heard.  After a land warrant was obtained and a survey was made, there was a 6 month period during which Caveats could be filed before one could apply to the Land Office for a Patent or Grant.
  • Chain Carrier – Often abbreviated "CC" or "Ch Car" in Northern Neck surveys. The survey chain used in Virginia during the colonial period was a Gunter's Chain (image) – a 66 foot chain made of 100 thin iron links measuring 7.92 inchs each and weighing about 20 pounds total. It was invented in about 1620 by English astronomer, Edmund Gunter. A Chainman didn't require much training other than being able to pull the chain taut and steady while measuring.  Other duties would include cutting brush/trees so the Surveyor operating the transit (a compass (image) on a staff) could see from point to point, and carrying equipment. Chain Carriers were almost always listed for the Northern Neck surveys and were a good indication of who was young, strong and resided in the neighborhood. A Virginia law of 1725 required that the prospective land owner pay 2 Shillings and 7 Pence per day for each Chain Carrier. By English law, the length of a Rod was established as 16 1/2 feet in 1277. [21, 22] See this image of Mylum's chain carrier notation (image).

    1 Chain = 66 feet = 22 yards = 100 links
    1 Rod, Pole, or Linear Perch = 16.5 feet = 5 ½ yards = 25 links
    10 Chains = 660 feet = 220 yards = 1/8 mile = 1 furlong
    1 Acre = an area measuring 1 Chain in width by 10 Chains (1 furlong) in length

  • Chancery Causes – are cases that are decided on the basis of equity and fairness as opposed to the formulated rules of English Common Law. Chancery causes often contain correspondence; property lists, including slaves; lists of heirs; and vital statistics. Some of the more common types of chancery causes involve divisions of the estate of a person who died intestate; divorces; settlements of dissolved business partnerships; and resolutions of land disputes.
  • Clapboard – a thin board, usually 4 or 5 feet long, hand split (riven) from an oak or chestnut log used not only for siding but also for roofs, interior walls and floors during colonial times. When used as siding it was usually tapered on one edge so the thicker edge could be lapped over the thin edge of the board below. [394]
  • Clevis – a U-shaped or forked metal connector within which another part can be fastened by means of a bolt or pin passing through the ends of the connector.
  • Collar Beam (windbeam) – a horizonal timber in a roof truss linking two rafters together about half-way along their lengths. You may view a collar beam in the reconstruction of the Godiah Spray Tenant House here . [395]
  • Common Law (English) – The traditional law of England based on custom and usage which developed over a thousand years before the founding of the United States. After William the Conqueror of Normandy conquered England in 1066, he combined what he thought was the best of Anglo–Saxon law with Norman (Normandy) law which resulted in the Common Law, much of which was by custom and precedent rather than by written code. English Common Law eventually became the basic law of most U.S. states due to their English heritage and, in no small part, the publication of “Commentaries on the Laws of England” by Sir William Blackstone published in 1769.
  • Constable – The county court appointed Constables, one for each precinct, whose general duty was to maintain the peace within his district. Major requirements were that he was literate, knowledgeable of tobacco cultivation and had the free time to make the required inspections of tobacco fields in early Fall . They served for one year which could be extended for a few years and were directed to present themselves in court to be sworn into office. [131] Constables were required to take Oaths of loyalty to the King of England, the Anglican Church and to uphold the specific duties of their office. Here is the "Oath Appointed by the Tobacco Laws" (1730):
    "I ____ do swear, That I will diligently and carefully view the several fields....whereon tobacco shall be planted....within the precincts whereof I am constable; and will cut up or distroy...all stalks from which any tobacco-plant shall be cut...and all slips or suckers growing from...the same which I shall find any fields....above the height of nine inches from the ground; and that I shall make information of all persons within my precinct, whom I shall know to be guilty of any breach of any law of this colony made against the tending of slips or seconds, to the next court...So help me God". [381]

    The Virginia Assembly regulated the duties of Constables and set the amount of tobacco paid to them. In addition to "keeping the peace", viewing tobacco fields and confirming the minimum acreage of corn was planted, Constables could be ordered by the Sheriff to assist with the arrest of persons or guarding prisoners. The Justices could order constables to perform a specific task as could church wardens. But these appear to have been ad hoc and not formal recurring duties. In May 1726, the General Assembly amended the law to exempt Constables from paying public, county and parish levies for "their own person" during their term of office. [382] In 1730, the Assembly passed an Act to encourage the growth of hemp by paying a "bounty" to the grower. To qualify, the hemp farmers had to pay a Justice or Constaple five shillings per ton of hemp to weight their hemp and provide them a certificate of weight. [383]

    For viewing tobacco fields, the Constable was paid one pound of tobacco for each tithable living on the farm he visited. Although the Constable was thus required to make a list of the tithables in his precinct in order to be properly paid, this was not the official Tithable List used to Levy the Poll Tax which was made each Spring by appointed Justices. When a Constable perfomed the duties normally performed by a Sheriff, he was paid at the Sheriff's rate - from 5 to 50 pounds of tobacco for an ordered duty. The duties performed by each Constable and the amount of tobacco due him were recorded in the annual County Levy. According to Papageorgiou's calculations, between 1735 and 1770 Orange County on average paid each Constable 252 pounds of tobacco for viewing tobacco fields. The author noted that in 1740 a pair of shoes cost 50 pounds of tobacco, a bushel of corn 125, a pound of sugar 8, a cow 500 and a horse 1,500 pounds. [ 384]

  • Coulter – a vertical cutting blade fixed in front of a plowshare.
  • Coverture – Under English Common Law, the inclusion of a woman in the legal person of her husband upon marriage and, as such, under his protection and authority. Because of coverture, married women did not have the legal capacity to own their own property or contract in their own behalf. In fact a married woman lost the right to control the property which she owned prior to marriage. In addition she could not make contracts, keep or control her own wages or rents, transfer property or bring a lawsuit.

    The New York State Married Women’s Property Acts of 1848 began an initiative among states to provide married women more rights over personal and real property. It provided that 1) real property which a female owned before marriage shall remain her property along with the rents and profits there of and shall not be subject to the sole disposal of her husband; 2) the real and personal property of a woman now married and the rents and profits thereof shall not be subject to the sole disposal of her husband, but shall be her sole and separate property; and 3) any married woman may take by inheretance or gift from any person, other than her husband, and hold to her sole and separate use and convey any real or personal property and the rents and profits thereof in the same manner as if she were unmarried.

    Once married women were viewed as legal persons who could own, sell and bequeath property, slowly - over the next 50+ years - they were recognized as legal persons in other areas of the law i. e. persons who could sue their husbands for divorce or for personal injury, gain custody of their children and enter occupations and professions such as law.

  • Crop Note – In the eighteenth century Virginia, a tobacco note was issued for a full hogshead of tobacco. It indicated the planter's mark and the gross, tare, and net weights. All these marks were also branded on the wooden hogshead.
  • Debt – A fixed and certain obligation to pay money or some other valuable thing or things, either in the present or in the future. An obligation to deliver particular goods or perform certain acts according to an agreement. In the Colonial era, Debts typically arose from merchants supplying the basics of agrarian life: seed, various tools and hardware, cloth, shoes, etc. as an advance on next year’s crops, especially tobacco. [137]
  • Dedimus – A writ to commission one or more private persons to do some act normally performed by a judge.
  • Deed – A legal document signed, witnessed, and delivered to effect a conveyance or transfer of property. In Virginia, after a parcel of land was conveyed by the government to an individual by a Grant or Patent, all future transfers between individuals were made with a Deed – important to know when one is looking for an ancestor's land record.
  • Detinue – A Common Law action for the recovery of personal property belonging to the plaintiff that was wrongfully retained by the defendant. The action of Detinue was proper in every case where the rightful owner prefered recovery of the specific property to damages for its conversion.
  • Dower – Interest in a part of her dead husband's estate allotted by English Common Law to the wife for use in her lifetime. Since Common Law provided for Primogeniture, the eldest son inherited all the father's land property except the 1/3 of land and other property the wife was legally entitled to during her life-time. The law of Primogeniture was replaced in Virginia by Governor Thomas Jefferson and the Assembly in 1776 with estate rules that allocated the land more evenly with 1/3 to the wife and the remainder to be divided equally among the sons, if the father died intestate.
  • Demurrer – An assertion by the defendant that although the facts alleged by the plaintiff in the complaint may be true, they do not entitle the plaintiff to prevail in the lawsuit. A Demurrer may further contend that the complaint does not set forth enough facts to justify legal relief or it may introduce additional facts that defeat the legal effectiveness of the plaintiff's complaint.
  • Drawing Knife (drawknife) – a curved blade fitted with wooden handles at both ends. A carpenter placed a piece of wood such as a clapboard or shingle in a bench vice, or in clamps, and pulled the the sharp edge of the drawing knife towards himself to taper or round the edges. [396]
  • Earthfast Construction – buildings whose lower framing members are not supported by a masonry foundation. Rather they stand or lie directly on the ground or are sunk into postholes. Colonists typically used the term post in the ground or Virginia house to refer to this form of construction. Since a masonry foundation was vital for preventing wood rot from mold and termites, earthfast construction by its nature was impermanent. [361, 397]
  • Ejection Firmae – A writ or action of trespass (where land or tenements had been leased for a term of years) and afterwards the lessor ejected or ousted the lessee of his ferme or farm. Ferme is an old English spelling of the word farm. The word ferme subsequently came to mean a house or land or both let by a lease. In old English Common Law firmae referred to a lease contract. Basically, the land owner wanted to break the lease and an ejection firmae was the way to do it.
  • Enfilade – Origin French. Used to describe a military formation's exposure to enemy fire. A position is in "enfilade" if enemy fire can be directed along its longest axis, commonly known as "flanking fire". The odds of hitting anyone are much better if one is shooting along the long axis of a line of troops - down their length.
  • English Common Law – The traditional law of England based on custom and usage which developed over a thousand years before the founding of the United States. After William the Conqueror of Normandy conquered England in 1066, he combined what he thought was the best of Anglo–Saxon law with Norman (Normandy) law which resulted in the Common Law, much of which was by custom and precedent rather than by written code. English Common Law eventually became the basic law of most U.S. states due to their English heritage and, in no small part, the publication of “Commentaries on the Laws of England” by Sir William Blackstone published in 1769.
  • Escheat – The reversion of property to the state upon the death of the owner when there are no heirs. An escheat usually occured when there were no children to inherit.
  • Executor / Executrix – person who is appointed by a testator to execute the wishes expressed in the his will.
  • False Plate – a light weight longitudinal timber, carried on the upper ends of extended joists (tie beams), for supporting the feet of common rafters. The advantage of the false plate was that paired rafters could be attached with a simple notch joint and nails anywhere along the false plate - not just at the joist. The labor-saving false plate became a hallmark of Chesapeake framing. [354, 365, 373] You may view a photo of a tilted false plate notched over the end of a tie beam on the 1740 Pear Valley House here (image). [398]
  • Feoffment – A gift of a freehold interest in land accompanied by Livery of Seisin (see Seisin below).
  • Forma Consueta – in customary or usual form.
  • Forma Pauperis – When a person was so poor that he could not bear the charges of suing at court, the person was permitted to sue in forma pauperis - in the manner of a pauper. To qualify the person must meet these requirements: make an oath that he was not worth five pounds Sterling and submit an attorney's certificate stating that he believed him to have a just cause. It allowed the person to have original writs and subpoenas gratis and counsel assigned him without a fee.
  • Freeholder – The Colony of Virginia voting law of 1736 defined a Freeholder as a white male 21 years of age who owns at least 100 acres of unimproved land or 25 improved acres with a house and a "plantation". Any qualified Freeholder who failed to vote was subject to a fine of 200 pounds of tobacco. Any non–Freeholder who attempted to vote was subject to a fine of 500 pounds of tobacco.
  • Froe (frow) – a wood cutting tool with a handle, similar in size to a hatchet, and a long, sharp blade set at a right angle used for splitting timbers lengthwise (riving) to make five foot lengths of clapboards, shingles, staves for barrels, etc. The blade was hammered with a mall or mallet to split a board into thin pieces. [399]
  • Gap – Low point or opening between hills or mountains; col, notch, pass.
  • Garret (garratt, garrett, garrit, garrot) – a room created immediately beneath the roof truss. Garret was used to designate a special kind of loft which was finished, and sometimes heated, for living or working, not just storage. See loft below.[400]
  • Loft – an upper floor under the roof structure for storage of crops, equipment and materials; or for human occupation, often servants or slaves. Syn.: garret. [401]
  • Garnishee – a third party who is served notice by a court to surrender money in settlement of a debt or claim.
  • Gentleman – A term which denoted a privileged social rank and was not a reference to conduct or social manners. Such men were at the top of the social strata followed by planters, yoemen, servants and slaves. Rhys Isaac writes:
    "The quality that most nearly epitomized what was needed to make a gentleman was 'liberality'....It denoted freedom from material necessity and the grubbing for subsistence....freedom from servile subjection....freedom from the sordid subordination of consideration of honor and dignity....and it was associated with freedom to elevate the mind by application to the authoritative books that contained the higher learning (...."liberal art")". [293]
    Mostly it was the wealthy who had time for public service who qualified for the social rank of Gentleman. Usually abbreviated "Gent." in court records. [132]
  • Grant – Beginning about 1690, Northern Neck Land Grants were issued by Lord Fairfax, the proprietor of the Northern Neck, to convey land to an individual. After the Revolutionary War, on October 10, 1779 the Commonwealth of Virginia began to issue Land Grants to convey land to individuals instead of Land Patents which were issued during colonial times. In both cases a Grant was the last legal step in the process of acquiring land from the government. After the Grant was issued the land must be "seated" within three years by building a dwelling at least 20 feet x 16 feet and by planting three acres of land for every 50 acres owned. All future land transfers were made with a deed. [21, 22]
  • Guarantor – A person or corporation that makes or gives a promise, assurance or pledge. As commonly used, a Guarantor provided bail assuring that the defendant would appear in court or that the defendant would pay the monetary damages if the case was lost. If not, the Guarantor would pay or spend the time in jail if the defendant didn't appear, lost or failed to pay. See "Surety" below.
  • Headright – one method for obtaining a Warrant for land based on 50 acres for each person imported into the Colony of Virginia, sometimes specified as being from "Great Britain or Ireland". [121] The Warrant secured the rights for a Survey. [21,22] See Warrant.
  • Hogshead – The original liquid measure was 63 "old wine gallons" first standardized by an act of English Parliament in 1423. In eighteenth century Colonial Virginia, it typically meant a large wooden barrel, approximately forty-eight inches long and thirty inches in diameter at the mouth, designed for the storage and shipment of tobacco. One hogshead contained 900 to 1,000 pounds of tobacco depending on packing. Attached by a harness to a horse, mule or ox, they were rolled to the shipping dock. The roads were referred to as a rolling road (image) and the tobacco warehouses at the end of the such roads were named "rolling houses".
  • Hovel – a small rude dwelling often open on one or more sides like a shed. [402]
  • Hundred – Old English. An administrative division of an English county.
  • Imparlance – Means time given by the court to either party to answer the pleading of his opponent and is said to be nothing else but the continuance of the cause till a further day. A Special Imparlance reserves to the defendant all exception to the writ, bill or count; and, therefore, after it the defendant may plead in abatement, though not to the jurisdiction of the court.
  • Indenture – At its simplest, an Indenture is an agreement that declares benefits and obligations between two or more parties – a contract. In bankruptcy law, for example, it may be a mortgage or deed of trust that constitutes a claim against a debtor.
  • Indentured Servant – An Indenture was a contract, in this case a labor contract. Indentured Servants - mostly from England with increasing numbers from Germany in the 1700s - entered into four to seven year employment contracts. In return they received passage from Europe and guarantees of work, food, lodging and two set of clothes each year. Employers were their masters and the Indentured Servants had to obey their orders in all matters. Impoverished women and children in England sometimes were pressed into servitude, as were many convicts. At times prisoners of war were deported especially after England's Civil War involving Catholic Ireland when Cromwell (1653 - 1658) "viewed Virginia as a dumping ground for undesirables". [641] And the same for many Scots and prisoners after the Jacobite Rebellions against King George I in 1715 and again in 1735. [642] Indentured Servants were released at the end of their contracts whereas slaves remained slaves for life. Since such Indentured Servants were not paid a wage during their 4 - 7 years of indenture, they were released with almost nothing. Thus they had to borrow money to get started and not infrequently fell behind in the payment of their land lease or the money they owed to merchants. Most of them had financial difficulties and were frequently in county courts for debt until they had cleared enough land to grow sufficient crops, especially tobacco, to make a living. I tabulated the cases in the March 1738 court session of Orange county: 82% of the cases were for debt and that represented 10% of that county's tithable population. As parties to a contract, Indentured Servants had rights that slaves never enjoyed. Colonial courts could be used to enforce the rights of either party although they very rarely were. Two United States Presidents were indentured servants as boys: Andrew Johnson to a tailor and Millard Fillmore to a clothmaker. [15, 640}
  • Intestate – A person who dies without making a valid Will. A probate court will then determine the distribution of the deceased's assets. "he died intestate"; "intestate property".
  • Joist (beam, joyst, jist, gist) –used interchangeably with beam (tie beam) to discribe a horizonal timber connecting the front and rear wall plates. In which case, they were the bottom member of the roof truss restraining the outward thrust against the walls. See Tie Beam. When they connected the sills, they supported the ground level floorboards and were known as sleepers.
  • Justices of the Peace - The English tradition of local control overseen by the county Justices of the Peace was transplanted to America. For example, in 1662 Virginia adopted Act XXXI (II Hening 69) which empowered justices of the peace to act according to the laws of England and “doe all such things as by the laws of England are to be done by justices of the peace there.” The 1662 Act further provided that justices of the peace should be “of the most able, honest and judicious persons in the county.” The County Court in each county consisted of eight justices of the peace, any four of which would constitute a quorum to hold court. In colonial America Justices of the Peace exercised both judicial and administrative powers, making justices of the peace among the most important public offices in their day. As in England, the office was reserved for “men of means and standing.” A major difference, however, between the colonial justices and their English counterparts was jurisdictional. English justices lacked jurisdiction in civil matters, but sat as a “court of record” in criminal matters. Colonial justices had wide civil jurisdiction and also sat as a “court of record” in criminal cases. Compared with their northern counterparts, southern justices of the peace had additional powers pursuant to odious slavery. Justices of the peace were responsible for maintaining order in the community as the arresting and arraigning magistrate. JPs also watched over the morals of the community (ranging from drunkenness, gaming, and adultery to property crimes). In their administrative role they also authenticated deeds and affidavits, were empowered to officiate  marriage ceremonies, and raised the “hue and cry” against escaped prisoners. More here (link).
  • Lease and Release – A method of conveyance of property under the use law of English Common Law. In exchange for a fee, a "Lease" of land is made by the owner of the freehold to the Leasee for one year. This vests in the Leasee the "possession" and use of the land for a year. It also makes the owner stand "seised", unable to sell to anyone else since the land is in the "possession" of the Leasee. Now having possession of the land, the Leasee is able to receive a "Release" of the freehold which under use law must be made to the person in possession. Accordingly, as early as the next day following a Lease - and for the payment of an additional sum of money - a Release may be granted to the Leasee for "Livery in Seisin" – delivery of full legal title to the property. See Seisin below.
  • Legal Age – Under English Common Law, full majority was reached at the age of 21.  Anyone under 21 was legally an infant. Only persons who had reached majority could perform certain legal actions: buy or sell land without restriction, patent land, devise land in a will, sign a bond or note, bring suit in one’s own name, marry without consent, act as a guardian, serve on a jury and vote or hold public office.

    For some legal actions, the Law merely required that the person be judged capable of discretion which was generally accepted as 14 years of age. Children aged 14 and over could legitimately perform the following:  witness deeds and contracts, testify in court, select a guardian, apprentice themselves without parental consent and bequeath personal property in a will. [139]
  • Libel – was a plaintiff's formal document listing his allegations and reasons for a suit. The modern sense of the word is derived from the often slanderous allegati0ns which plantiffs made in these documents.
  • Log Cabin – In the seventeenth century and early eighteenth century, "cabin" meant a flimsy hut built of boughs and saplings and roofed with bark, thatch or turf. In England and in Europe they were used by foresters such as charcoal burners, bark-peelers or shepards as temporary shelters. In the American Colonies, trappers and other woodmen built the same. Observers in Virginia like Robert Beverley sometimes used "cabin" interchangeably with "wigwam": "a Wigwang {as Beverly spelled it}, which is the Indian name for a House....The smallest sort of these Cabbins are conical like a Bee-hive; but the larger are built in an oblong form, and both are covered with the Bark of Trees...." [392] Therefore, during this early period, it is incorrect to interpret the use of the word "cabin" to mean "log cabin".

    Although log construction had been used by the British in the Chesapeake Bay region to build jails and small forts because of its strength and resistance to arrows, musket shot and fire, the log cabin dwelling was introduced into Pennsylvania then into Virginia by German immigrants to the Shenandoah Valley during the 1730s and 1740s. Consequently, one of the earliest records for a house constructed of logs was in Augusta County in the Valley. In 1753 an agreement was made:
    "to build two round Log Houses each twenty feet Long and fifteen feet be eight feet high under the joists which is to be square....the Houses and Chimnies to be Juncked and Daubed both outside and Inside....and the Gabel ends from the Logs to be clapboard." [411]

    One of the earliest records in Virginia to use the term, "Log Cabin", was found in the Botetourt County Order Book, dated 11 APR 1770:
    "The court doth agree with a workman to build a log cabin twenty four feet long and twenty wide for a Court House, with a clapbord roof with two small sheads, one at each end for jury rooms" [393]

    The Scotch-Irish settlers to the Shenandoah Valley adopted this construction technique and spread it with them as they migrated south and west. In 1796, Thomas Dillon, a traveler in Tennessee, wrote: "....the truth is there are no Buildings in this State, a very few excepted, but log Cabins. " [494]
  • Macadam – pavement made of layers of compacted broken stone. Named for John L. McAdam, a Scottish engineer, who invented it around 1820.
  • Maintenance – 1) sustenance, support, assistance. The furnishing by one person to another of the means of living, or food, clothing, shelter, etc., particularly where legally one is bound to support the other. 2) the upkeep of property including the cost of ordinary repairs; See Separate Maintenance. [412]
  • Majority, Age of – Under English Common Law, full majority was reached at the age of 21. Anyone under 21 was legally an “infant”. However, for some legal actions, Common Law only required that the person be judged capable of “discretion” which was generally accepted as 14 years of age – but in some circumstances it could be slightly younger. Children aged 14 and over could legitimately perform the following acts: witness deeds and contracts, testify as a witness in court, select a guardian, apprentice themselves without parental consent, and bequeath personal property in a will – but not real property.  In England at the time it was common to select a child as a witness who most likely would survive for decades to bear witness to the transaction.
  • Messuages – Norman French: mesnage. A dwelling house with outbuildings
  • Narratis – Latin: narration. From narro = tells
  • Nihil decit – Latin: he said nothing. It is the failing of the defendant to put in a plea or answer to the plaintiff's declaration by the day assigned. In this case, judgment is granted against the defendant, as he said nothing as to why the court should not act.
  • Nil Debet – Latin: He owes nothing.
  • Nogging – in colonial times, an un-fired brick made of a mixture of clay and straw which was placed inside the walls of a dwelling to provide some insulation and structural strength. [403]
  • Non Est Inventus – Latin: he is not discovered. The sheriff's return (reply) to a writ requiring him to arrest the person of the defendant, which signifies that the defendant is not to be found within his bailiwick (jurisdiction). The sheriff's return was sometimes abbreviated: N.E.I.
  • Northern Neck Proprietary – also called the Fairfax Proprietary or Fairfax Grant - was a land grant contrived by the exiled British King Charles II in 1649. It encompassed all the lands bounded by the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers. This constituted 5,000,000 acres of Virginia's Northern Neck. The grant became actual in 1660 when Charles II  was restored to the English throne. In 1688 Lord Thomas Culpeper bought out the other grantees and had the property re-granted to himself as the sole proprietor. Northern Neck land grants were first issued in the Proprietary's name in 1690; these records were kept separately from the Colony's Land Office in Williamsburg. Persons desiring land purchased warrants that specified the exact location of the property. A warrant was required to obtain a survey by the official county surveyor. The "Headright" system was never used.

    By 1719, the Proprietary’s land was inherited by Thomas Fairfax (1693-1781), 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron and the question of its boundaries had become contentious. After two large surveys, the Privy Council in England finally decided in 1746 that a line between the sources of the Potomac River and the Rappahannock River would constitute the western limit of Lord Fairfax's lands. In October 1748, Fairfax agreed to honor all previous land grants made by the Colony of Virginia which were within his Proprietary. During the American Revolution the unsettled portions of his domain were confiscated by a Virginia Act in 1779. When Lord Fairfax died in 1781 the Proprietary effectively ceased to exist. To view Lord Thomas Fairfax's 1737 survey of the Northern Neck, click here. And to download a high resolution map from the Library of Congress, click here.
  • Nuncupative – Delivered orally to witnesses rather than written. A nuncupative Will or testament made by word of mouth only, before witnesses, and depending on oral testimony of those witnesses for proof.
  • Ordinary (tavern) – Old English: a complete meal provided at a fixed price. A tavern or an inn providing such a meal. In the Colony of Virginia, ordinaries were licensed and the owner was required to post a bond. The fees for a "bed with clean linens", a "warm meal" and alcoholic beverages were strictly regulated and set annually by the county court Justices.

    Ordinaries were "frequently located in ports, ferry crossings and crossroads....where they provided not only accomodation but a venue for polite and raucous public entertainment such as assemblies, theatricals, lectures, dinners, gambling, drinking, and sporting activities". [404] At least one Ordinary could be found adjacent to each county courthouse where the Justices could spend a night or two. Rhys Isaac provides the flavor of tavern life:
    " addition to buying and selling, borrowing and lending, patrons participated in play at cards and other games of skill or hazard. Dice, billard tables, and decks of cards were standard equipment in the ordinaries." [122]
  • O'yer – French (Norman): to hear. A hearing or an inspection of a document such as a deed, bond, etc., as when a defendant in court "prays o’yer" of a writing.
  • O'yer and Terminer – French (Norman): "oyer et terminer" - to hear and to determine. A commission, or writ directing the holding of a court to try offenses.
  • Osnaburg – A course unbleached linen or hempen cloth first made in Osnabruck, Germany. It was commonly used for trousers and sacking.
  • Palisade (palisado, pallizade) – a fense composed of pales set in the ground in a close row. During the seventeenth century, defensive palisades incorporated tall and massive, split or whole logs.
  • Patent – In the Colony of Virginia, a Land Patent conveyed land from the colonial Governor, in the name of the King of England, to an individual. The term applied to documents issued by the Land Office in Williamsburg prior to about 1779. Receiving a Patent was the last legal step in the process of acquiring land. An exception was the Northern Neck Land Grants issued by Lord Fairfax, the proprietor of all land between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers (see "Grant").

    Within three years after the Patent was issued, the land must be "seated" initially meaning a structure must be built on the land; three acres of land cultivated for every 50 acres of land owned; and the annual Quitrent or land tax must be paid. The Quitrent was one shilling for each fifty acres of land. In 1716 at the request of Governor Alexander Spotswood, the Privy Council in England made additions to the law providing more flexibility in seating the land: the erection of "one good dwelling of 20 feet by 16 feet"; planting three acres of land for every 50 acres owned; stocking three head of cattle, sheep or goats per 50 acres; digging a quarry or mine; or the keep of "one good hand per hundred acres". All future land transfers were made with a deed. [21, 22]
  • Petition – A written application from a person or persons to some governing body or public official asking that some authority be exercised to grant a relief, a favor or a privilege. A formal application made to a court in writing that requests action on a certain matter, as in a permission to construct a water mill, a new road or even the division of the county.
  • Pidlepoop – A local whiskey made of rye or any other grain. Cost per gallon in 1741: 2 Shillings. [416]
  • Pinnace – A small boat, typically with sails and/or oars used as a tender to larger vessels amongst other things
  • Planter – Among Virginians of the 18th century, the term meant a person who lived by growing crops but who was not entitled to be accorded the dignity of a Gentleman. According to Isaac, "Planters were thus men who bent their backs and hardened their hands in the fields". [19, 20] Sometimes spelled "plantor".
  • Plate – the horizonal framing timber on top of the side wall of a building to receive other framing members such as joist or rafters. [405]
  • Pluries – are multiple writs issued in the same case after the previous writs were ineffective. It is prefixed to summons, capias, etc.
  • Pounds, Shillings, and Pence – Units of British currency. The Pound was represented symbolically by £ . One £ = 20 shillings; one shilling = 12 pence.
  • Prerogative Courts - were not established by statute and were not based upon Common Law. They either grew out of medieval governmental policies or were established by a royal commission. The High Court of the Admiralty was established to handle piracy cases but was expanded to cover all aspects of maritime law. The Prerogative Court of Canterbury dealt with the estates of deceased persons living mainly in the south of England and most of Wales who were relatively wealthy and had assets in two or more dioceses.
  • Primogeniture – Latin for "first born." A rule from feudal England  carried over into English Common Law that the oldest son would inherit the entire land estate of his parents. Primogeniture did not apply to other estate assets. If there was no male heir, the daughters would receive the property in equal shares. The intent was to preserve larger properties from being broken into small holdings which would weaken the power of landed nobles.
  • Probate – the official proving of a Will as authentic or valid in a probate court.
  • Puncheon – Middle English: Punson, Punchoun. An upright piece of timber - a post or stud - used in framing which was hole-set or driven directly into the earth. Also, a "puncheon" was a primitive type of earthfast dwelling made up of closely set, upright posts either driven into the ground (punching) or set into shallow holes or trenches; [363] As Carson wrote: "an ephemeral structure raised around a gaggle of earthfast uprights" [335] These small cabins were sometimes referred to by contemporaries as "punches".
  • Quakers – a member of the Religious Society of Friends, a Christian sect founded by the English religious leader George Fox (1624-91) about 1650, whose central belief is the doctrine of the "Inner Light". Quakers reject sacraments, ritual, and formal ministry and have promoted many social reforms. Any member may speak at their Meetings .
  • Quarter – during the colonial period, 1000 acres of land used for farming but not the primary residence of the owner.
  • Quietus – abbreviation of the Latin, Quietus est: he is at rest, or discharged. The discharge or settlement of an obligation, debt or duty. Acquittance.
  • Quitrent – English land laws required colonial land owners to pay to the English Crown a quitrent or land tax of two shillings for each hundred acres of land. If a landowner failed to pay the quitrent, the Crown had the right to take back the land and grant it to another person. The money raised by this tax went into the royal treasury and was used to pay the expenses of the royal government in the colony
  • Recognisance – a security entered into before a court with a condition to perform some act required by law; upon failure to perform that act a sum is forfeited
  • Relict – French: relique = remains. Remaining or surviving from an earlier period; what is left behind. In other words, the widow.
  • Rive – to split a timber or log lenthwise with the grain using a tool such as a frow or ax. Compared with sawing timbers, spliting framing members, clapboards and shingles at the construction site was labor and time saving, thus much less expensive. "Practically all elements of the impermanent Virginia house could be riven rather than sawn." [406]
  • Sawyer – One who saws timber, typically during the colonial era in a sawpit.
  • Sawpit – a long narrow trench in the ground over which timbers were placed on a frame to be cut into boards and planks by a long-bladed saw. One man stood in the pit while another stood on top as they worked the saw up and down along the length of the timber. "Pit sawing was perhaps the most common form of sawing in the early South." [407]
  • Scantling – A timber of relatively slight width and thickness, such as a stud in a house frame. It was sometimes split to size, like fense rails, and other times hewn from small stock, but seldom sawn. [356]
  • Scire facias – A judicial writ founded on some matter of record such as a judgment, or a recognizance, and requiring the person against whom it is brought to show cause why the party bringing it should not have advantage of such record. The name designates both the writ and the proceeding. Writ is the old English term for a judicial order.
  • Security – 1) something given or deposited as Surety for the fulfillment of a promise or an obligation, the payment of a debt, etc. 2) one who becomes Surety for another. See Surety below.
  • Seisin – An old feudal term for having both possession and title of real estate. The word is found in some 17th and 18th century colonial deeds, meaning ownership in fee simple – full title to real property. Seisin was used in contradistinction to the "possession" by which tenants (renters) held their land which was still owned by the freeholder. During the old English "Livery of Seisin" the transferor met the transferee at the land to be transferred and handed over a twig or clod while reciting to witnesses that the transfer was being made. See Lease and Release.
  • Separate Maintenance – Money paid by one married person to the other for support if they are no longer living as husband and wife. Commonly it is referred to as separate support and follows a court order. [413]
  • Sill – Old English: syl; the bottom horizontal timber that is used to support and connect vertical studs and posts of a wall. In the early Chesapeake Bay region, these roughly square timbers rested on or in the ground - groundsills, or on wooden blocks or, less often, on masonry foundations. Also, the lower horizontal piece of a window or door frame. [408]
  • Shalloon – a fabric of tightly woven wool, mainly used for the linings of articles of clothing
  • Specialty – a written document sealed and delivered which is given as a security for the payment of a debt, in which such debt is specified.
  • Summons – a court order requiring a person to appear in court, or to meet a judicial official, to answer a complaint or provide evidence.
  • Surety – A person who takes legal responsibility for the fulfillment of another's debt or obligation. In English Common Law, a Surety is distinguished from a Guarantor by being immediately liable as opposed to becoming liable only upon default of the principal.
  • Survey – A Survey of one's desired land was scheduled after obtaining a Warrant. It was the responsibility of the applicant (patentee) to be the pilot, showing the land's boundary to the surveyor and to hire two chain carriers. The survey was made using a compass on a staff (transit), not a tripod, and a 66 foot Gunter's Chain (see Chain Carrier above). The surveyor prepared two copies of the survey with plat using a compass, dividers and parallel rules. Legally, the applicant had one year to submit the survey and pay the fees to the Land Office in Williamsburg for a Patent. At some risk, a survey might be held for years before applying for a Patent or it could be transfered or sold. One motive for delaying the filing for a Patent was to avoid paying the Quitrents – an annual land tax of one Shilling per 50 acres to the King of England. [21, 22] For examples of Northern Neck surveys, click here (image) , here (image) and here (image).To view an assignment of a survey, click here (image) .
  • Testator – One who makes or has made a Will; one who dies leaving a Will.
  • The Test – The Test Act of 1673 in England  obligated all persons filling any office to take oaths of supremacy and allegiance to the King; to subscribe to a Declaration against transubstantiation; and to receive the sacrament within three months of taking office. In 1678 the  Declaration was extended to read :
    "I,____, do solemnly and sincerely in the presence of God profess, testify, and declare, that I do believe that in the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper there is not any Transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever: and that the invocation or adoration of the Virgin Mary or any other Saint, and the Sacrifice of the Mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome are superstitious and idolatrous..."
    The Test Act applied to officials in the Colony of Virginia as well. A court record from King George County in 1723 provides an example closer to the 1673 original:

    "I,___, do declare that I do believe that there is not any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, or in the elements of the bread and wine at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsovever." [153]

  • Tie Beam (beam, cross beam) – In general, a tie beam is the transverse framing member connecting the front and rear wall plates. It is the bottom member of the roof truss to which the feet of the rafters are attached, restraining their outward thrust against the walls. [409] The major innovation for the Virginia house was that the tie beams extended beyond the wall lines. A false plate was run horizonally along the outer ends of the tie beams so the feet of paired lightweight rafters could be attached entirely independently of the wall posts thus avoiding complex and costly joinery. During Colonial times they were referred to as beam or cross beam. [328, 354]
  • Tithable – In Medieval England (1188), the tithe was a royal tax but assessed using an ecclesiastical boundary, the parish. Tithes were given legal force by the Statute of Westminster of 1285. The dissolution of the Catholic Monasteries (1536 – 1541) by King Henry VIII led to the transfer of many tithe rights from the Catholic Church to the King of England. In Colonial Virginia, the annual Tithables Tax supported the county’s and colony’s budgets and also the Church of England’s parishes. It was a captitation tax assessed on everyone age 16 and above except free white women. Free men, servants {hired hands}, indentured servants and slaves – male or female – were counted and the tax was based on the total number of Tithables in a household. All children imported into the colony where required to be brought before the county court to have their age determined. The tax typically was assessed and paid in pounds of tobacco.
  • Tobacco Note – In the eighteenth century, a receipt issued to a planter after his tobacco passed inspection.
  • Trespass – Originated under English Common Law with the action of Trespass. Trespass was any wrongful conduct directly causing injury or financial loss. A Trespass gives the aggrieved party - and only the victim - the right to bring a civil lawsuit and collect damages as compensation for the interference and for any harm, financial or otherwise, suffered. As used in the Colony of Virginia during the 18th century, it was most often a suit for debt, theft or damage to property. [137]
  • Turnpike – Middle English, a spiked barrier fixed across a road to prevent an attack on horseback. Evolved to mean a barrier to stop passage until a toll was paid. By 1745 or so it became a "road with a toll gate". During the Civil War, a turnpike road was abbreviated as "pike road".
  • Vernacular architecture - built in the local style of ordinary houses, rather than a style from some other place or time period.
  • Vestryman – a member of a church Vestry. In the English Episcopal Church, a committee elected by members of a congregation to serve with the churchwardens in managing the temporal affairs of the church.
  • Virginia House – by the mid-seventeenth century, the term referred to a one story or one-and-a-half story, frame dwelling with one room (hall plan) or two rooms (hall-and-parlor plan) on the ground floor. Most often it had a loft above and single, wood framed chimney lined with clay at one gable end. Its major components included minimally prepared timber, simplified joinery, earthfast construction and, for structural strength, riven (hand-split) clapboards of oak or chestnut not only for the siding but also for the roof - substituting for the clay walls and the thatch roofs of the earliest dwellings. [368, 371] Click here (image) for a re-constructed example of a Virginia House.
  • Viz. – abbreviation of the Latin, videlicet: that is to say, as follows, namely. Used to introduce examples, lists or items.
  • Warrant – The first step in the process of acquiring land from both the Colony's Land Office in Williamsburg and the Northern Neck Proprietorship was a Warrant or an "Entry" in the County Surveyor's book which secured the right to a survey of the land. The Warrant included a description of the land and the number of acres. In the 17th century the primary method of gaining a Warrant was the "Headright" system: 50 acres of land for each person imported into the Colony. After 21 Jun 1699 the Land Office augmented this system with the "Treasury Right" (later called Treasury Warrant) by which land could be purchased at the rate of 5 Shillings for 50 acres. The Warrant could be purchased from the Land Office in Williamsburg or locally from the County Surveyor. Warrants could be assigned, bought and sold. [21, 22] However, it should be noted that the Northern Neck Proprietary never used the "headright" system. For an example of a Northern Neck Warrant which includes the standard requirements for a survey, click here (image) . To view an assignment of a Northern Neck Warrant, click here (image) .
  • Waste Land – Colonial land Patents and Grants typically contained the phrase "have given, granted and Confirmed......a certain Tract of waste and ungranted Land". The use of this term lies at the heart of the English justification for their right to take land in America. They broadly assumed that colonization would confer the blessings of civilization on a savage land. Their philosophy was partly religious - the devine injunction that man should "replenish the earth and subdue it" and "exercise dominion over lessors creatures" - and partly legal - that by investing labor in the land a person could stake a claim to ownership. In the English view, farming - by erecting a permanent dwelling, by domesticating animals and by building fences - clearly established legitimate claims. Indians on the other hand who did not use domesticated animals or erect fenses and frequently moved their dwellings had not established legitimate claims any more than wild animals had to the lands over which they roamed, so the argument went. Philosophically uncultivated land was waste. [440]
  • Wigwam – from Algonquian, wikewam, said to mean literally "their house". An Eastern Indian dwelling, round or rectangular with a dome or barrel-shaped roof, built of saplings, small poles, and branches, and covered with woven mats of rushes or hemp, pressed bark, or skins. The Plains Indians built conical tepees. [317]
  • Worm fence – a fence composed of stacked, split rails in a zig-zag form. A typical example would contain 6 to 8 rails, 5 feet high. The preferred woods were cedar, chestnut and locust although anything was used to protect cultivated fields from animals - both free ranging domesticated ones and wild. Although typically associated with Virginia, it was used thorough out the mid-Atlantic. Interestingly, rail fences were not part of British tradition; like the log cabin, it was the product of Northern European influence. [410]
  • Writ – is an old English term for a judicial order.
  • Writ of ad Quod Damnum – awarded, issued, or ordered.
  • XSt – Christ; as in "XSt Jesus".
  • Xtian – Christian; as in "To All Xtian People" or "Xtian Williams".


NOTE TO READERS: All the words in bold type face are links to images, maps or word definitions in the Glossary.The Citations and Glossary are available under the Resources tab or here (link) .

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