The Lost Charter of Chesterfield County

by George "Buddy" Cranford

Little known is a story of the original county charter given to the people of Chesterfield County way back in 1749. At the time it was written, the colonies were under the rule of King George III and the English law was absolute.  The Virginia General Assembly had just sanctioned a split of Henrico County into two separate entities.  The charter, dated May 12, 1749, named the people who were to govern the county, but just as important as that, the charter described the first official duties of the appointed judicial officers and a new sheriff. But unlike that most important charter of 1749, we have had a charter or two since and we dare say few know or can guess what is in them.

The original historical charter itself cannot be found.  It does not grace the walls of an office in the government complex nor does it hang in the little museum where it should be. Sadly, it is missing for its second time in its 266 years of  history.

Its historic beginnings were in the mid part of the 18th Century when the “Commission of the Peace,” commonly referred to as the “County Charter,” was issued and given to the citizens by the British authorities.  Due to the “good and graces” of the English who ruled in Virginia, one man, Sir William Gooch, the English Lieutenant Governor, issued his commission of the peace on May 12, 1749 just prior to his departure for England.  Since the very inauguration as a county in 1749, one of the first orders of business on May 25, 1749, was the day the newly appointed Chesterfield officials ordered its jail and courthouse to be built.  The court had to issue its order because the  “Commission of Peace” instructed them to secure their miscreants to custody if they broke the King’s laws.  And like today, every county needs a courthouse and a jail. With a new charter in hand, county business had to be conducted and it was so ordered.

The new and rare charter also outlined the duties of the first newly appointed sheriff, John Archer. Besides being a peace keeper and a jailer, he was also a tax collector, an important task for a county with no established treasury.  The charter also allowed for others to be appointed to specific official tasks.   John Archer’s allegiance may have been more to the British than serving the County citizens.  

We don’t know but  the “Commission of the Peace” may have hung in the 1749 courthouse and that is where it may have been stolen the first time. The “Charter” would, remain a part of the County records until the 19th Century.  During the Civil War, it was “captured” by a Union soldier, Edward B. Jeffers, Company C, 103rd New York Infantry when Richmond was being evacuated. As he passed through the county, his war record shows him in defense of Bermuda Hundred.  He was discharged in April 1865.  Many buildings and homes were ransacked by the invading Union Army.  Chesterfield County offices were no exception.  

Where the charter went from that point, no one knows but it was discovered in a bookstore in New York in the early 1950’s.  A local Chesterfield author, Earl Lutz, purchased the charter and donated it to the Chesterfield Museum Committee, now known as the Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia.   To commemorate the return of this important piece of history, a ceremony was held in 1954 on the Courthouse green and the old charter was finally returned to the county.  After the ceremony, the late Chesterfield County Circuit Judge William Old, decided that he would be the keeper of the charter. It was kept in his office for many years until he passed away in 1968. There the mystery of its disappearance starts anew.

After Judge Olds death, the person or persons who were chosen to clean out his office removed the document and his personal effects. Afterwards, the charter was never seen again.  Did Judge Old’s relatives receive it?  We don’t know, as no county records exist.  A new search or quest now continues by the Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia and the Chesterfield County Records staff.  What did become of the original charter and who took it from there?  Fortunately, there were copies made and we now have these available for viewing.  No one is looking for retribution but we fervently hold hope that this historic document can be returned to its rightful home, the Chesterfield museum.

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