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Preserving Northumberland’s history

Posted on Wednesday, March 29, 2017 at 11:28 am

Northumberland County was created by the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1648. The records in its circuit clerks office go back almost that far, to 1650. They are very fragile.

As old as they are, the records can be important, Hilary Derby, one of the members of the area’s United Daughters of the Confederacy who are working on preserving the records noted Wednesday. For example, a person who is going to be on Dr. Henry Gates’ PBS television show “Finding Your Roots” was able to confirm his connection to an ancient murder case and nail down his connection well enough to be on the show through the old Northumberland records. Others have used the records to establish relationships that qualify them for college scholarships that hinge on family connections, Derby said. Every land title in the county ultimately rests on the records.

The records are “so brittle,” Derby noted. She, Susan Hudson, Laura Hazle and Clerk of Court Debbie Bingham’s deputies have carefully unfolded and scanned almost 12,000 records since the project started several months ago. They have worked their way up to the early 1800s.

A lot of the copying has been difficult because paper being precious in ancient times, the documents are literally written from edge to edge. Modern machines are designed for papers with margins.

One of the UDC’s members, Marsha Benion, has a son who is a professional archivist with the federal government, Derby said. He was able get the group a scanner that will copy the ancient documents some of which are so faded that they can hardly be read with the naked eye. The scanner has a program that enhances those documents so they can be read, Derby noted. Not that being able to see them necessarily makes them legible to modern readers. Ancient spellings and letter formations were different. Fortunately, Derby studied that in college and kept a key that lets her decipher the old usages.

Once the records are scanned, the copies will be certified as true and will replace the fragile originals in the clerk’s office. The originals will be archived at the Library of Virginia.