Virtual Collections at the Historical Society of Western Virginia

Many of the posts on this blog refer to documents that are housed at the Historical Society of Western Virginia. Collections acquired by the HSWV are given a name, generally the family name of the donor or of the principal family represented in the documents. The documents are in the process of being scanned and made available online; some of the collections contain many more records than are currently accessible.

The principal collections referred to in this blog, with the number of records available as of January 2011, are listed here:

Breckinridge Collection, about 360  records online

The “Breckinridge Collection” contains documents relating primarily to the management of the Grove Hill estate, near Fincastle, Virginia, and to the business and legal affairs of its residents, the Breckinridge family. It also includes personal correspondence. Although not yet examined (by me) as closely as the Watts papers, these documents appear to be in approximate chronological order, beginning in 1746. At 1969.51.300, the collection has reached 1842.

Watts Collection, about 280 records online

The “Watts Collection” contains hundreds of documents relating primarily to the management of the Oaklands estate, near Roanoke, Virginia, and to the business and legal affairs of its residents, the Watts family. The documents are arranged in approximate chronological order, beginning with 19th-century copies of land records dating from around 1748. At 1998.26.400 the collection has reached 1846.  

Watts Letters, about 200 records online

The “Watts Letters” contain about 200 documents, primarily letters written by or to members of the Watts family of Oaklands, near Roanoke, Virginia, from 1813 to 1903. They are arranged in approximate chronological order. Edward Watts, who built Oaklands around 1818, and his son William Watts, who lived at Oaklands until his death in 1877, are the authors of about 25 letters each, but there are letters by almost 50 different authors. The collection also contains about 20 miscellaneous documents: clippings, deeds, college certificates, obituaries, etc. Completely accessible online,

Two other related collections are held by the HSWV, and are currently being processed:

Flat Creek papers

The Flat Creek papers, not yet officially named and not yet available online (as of January 2011), contain about 125 documents relating to the Watts and Saunders family. The papers are in no discernible order, but include legal documents from the law practice of William Watts in Buckingham, Cumberland and Amelia Counties in Virginia between 1770 and 1790; letters and documents relating to his residence in Botetourt County in the 1790s; documents regarding the management of the Flat Creek plantation in Campbell County, Virginia, by William Watts’s widow Mary (Scott) Watts and his son Edward Watts, between 1809 and 1830; documents covering the years 1830 to 1865, relating to William Watts’s son-in-law Fleming Saunders and his family, who lived at Flat Creek; many of the documents are letters written during the Civil War by members of the Saunders family, and some documents from Fleming Jr’s service as a supply officer are included

Tayloe family papers

The Tayloe family was prominent in the Roanoke area beginning in the mid 19th century, and they were friends of the Watts family. This collection has not yet been made accessible online, and I have seen only a few documents from it, which were personal letters written by members of the Tayloe family.

Two other similar collections are already at least partially available:

Poage-Grisso Collection, about 50 records online

This collection consists of land records – deeds, surveys, wills – relating to property owned by the Poage and Grisso families. The records cover the period from 1818 to 1908.

Vinyard Collection, about 30 records online

This collection consists of land records – deeds, patents, surveys – relating to property owned by the Vinyard family, and account statements for purchases from local merchants. The records cover the period from 1782 to 1852.

How to find online items in the Virtual Museum at the Historical Society of Western Virginia

1          Go to
2          Near the top of the page, move the cursor to the "Virtual Museum" tile.
3          On the menu that drops down below, click "Virtual Collections".
4          This will open a new page with a search window. There is a series of buttons if you want to limit the search to certain categories.
            You can search by keywords, or phrases in “quotation marks”.
            If you know the catalog number, you can search for that.
            If you know the collection name, you can search for that, using quotation marks.
5          If you are uncertain about names and numbers, you can use the “Click and Search” button at the top of the page. This will display a list of categories, followed by an alphabet with links, and a pound sign # at the end. The pound sign must be clicked for catalog numbers. For the Breckinridge Collection, click “B”. In each case, you will be given a new menu of options.

WARNING: The Past Perfect software sorts everything alphabetically, and this fact was not always taken into account when volunteers entered the data. As a consequence, in the Watts Letters sequence, for example, with catalog numbers 2007.32.001 - 2007.32.221, records 73 through 99 were entered without an initial zero, as 2007.32.73, etc., and are therefore listed after 2007.32.221.

6          When you find the item you are looking for, click on it.
7          The record will display an image of the document or object on the left, with the catalog description on the right.
8          To view the image, click “Zoom All”. This will enlarge all the images associated with the record. For many documents, it will still be too small to read easily on a laptop screen. If so, right click the image; click “save as” on the menu, and save it to your hard drive. It can then be printed in a larger size. For the records in “Watts Letters” and “Watts Collection”, the image of the manuscript is accompanied by a typed transcription with notes, which will usually be helpful in deciphering difficult passages.