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The Road to Richmond: Virginia's Independent Cities

Virginia's jurisdictions can be simplified with a little background knowledge about independent cities.


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To an outsider, the jurisdictions of Virginia can be confusing, to say the least. Several Virginia counties and cities even share the same name, such as Bedford, Richmond, and Roanoke. In addition to that, three counties have the word "city" in them: Charles City County, Elizabeth City County, and James City County. Between extinct cities that make a current location hard to find and the concept of "independent cities," Virginia is near the top of the list for confusing jurisdictions for genealogists.

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, all municipalities incorporated as "cities" are by law (since 1871) independent cities. Other Virginia municipalities, even though they may be more populous than some existing independent cities, are incorporated as "towns," which are always located within a county. Of the approximately 43 independent cities in the United States, 39 are in Virginia. An independent city in Virginia may serve as the county seat of an adjacent county, even though the city by definition is not part of that county. The date ranges during which records were kept in independent cities can be found in Ancestry's Redbook and The Handybook for Genealogists.

The confusion with Virginia's independent cities lies in the fact that some cities and counties have the same name. For instance, Richmond City and Richmond County are not overlapping jurisdictions, but are about 70 miles apart. In order to circumvent your confusion while doing Virginia research, keep in mind a few things. Sometimes records in adjacent cities and states should be searched for an ancestor who lived in an independent city, such as searching in Sullivan County, Tennessee and Washington County, Virginia for a Bristol (independent city), Virginia resident. Also, watch out for court records in regional courts which may include the independent city and several counties.

A few more specific hints to remember about independent city research include:

Five Virginia counties are completely consumed by independent cities:

  • Nansemond County to Suffolk Independent City
  • Norfolk County to Chesapeake Independent City
  • Princess Anne County to Virginia Beach Independent City
  • Warwick County to Newport News Independent City
  • Elizabeth City County to Hampton Independent City

Some independent cities serve as county seats:

  • Charlottesville for Albemarle County
  • Fairfax for Fairfax County
  • Richmond for Henrico County

These Independent Cities do not maintain records, but that doesn't mean genealogists have not compiled records for these cities:

  • Bedford City records maintained by Bedford County
  • Emporia City records maintained by Greenville County
  • Fairfax City records maintained by Fairfax County
  • Falls Church City records maintained by either Arlington or Fairfax County
  • Franklin City records maintained by Southampton County
  • Galax City records maintained by Carroll County
  • Harrisonburg City records maintained by Rockingham County
  • Lexington City records maintained by Rockbridge County
  • Manassas City records maintained by Prince William County
  • Manassas Park City records maintained by Prince William County
  • Norton City records maintained by Wise County
  • Poguoson City records maintained by York County
  • South Boston City records maintained by Halifax County
  • Williamsburg City records maintained by James City County

The 39 independent cities of Virginia can be a hurdle for researchers, but with a little background knowledge, researching in Virginia can be as easy as a road trip to Richmond on Interstate 64.

Additional resources:

Lyndon H. Hart III and J. Christian Kolbe, comps., A Preliminary Guide to Pre-1904 Municipal Records in the Archives Branch, Virginia State Library and Archives (Richmond, VA: Virginia State Library and Archives, 1987)

Emily J. Salmon, ed., A Hornbook of Virginia History, 3rd ed. (Richmond, VA: Virginia State Library, 1983.)

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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