Processioning in Colonial Virginia


As anyone who has attempted to plot early patents in Virginia can attest, land surveys were so prone to error that their metes and bounds frequently do not precisely match those of adjoining surveys.   Even those that do match may have become outdated by the course of nature.   The corners of a survey were usually marked trees, which could heal or fall, or relatively vague locations like the mouth of a stream or the bank of a creek.   Compasses used by surveyors to determine direction were precise only within a degree or so, and frequently less when used in the field.    The chain-laying method of determining distances, which worked well on cleared land, was prone to error when applied over hills, across water, and through thick woods.    Not surprisingly, disputes over the precise location of property lines were commonplace.    Although resurveying the land was an option, it was an expensive one for both parties which frequently failed to resolve the dispute.

In 1662 the Virginia Assembly addressed the problem with an act designed to resolve boundary disputes without resorting to lawsuits or resurveys.1 The act’s preamble makes the situation clear:  “Whereas many contentious suites are dayly incited and stirred up about the bounds of land for which noe remedy hath yett bin provided, the ffifty seaventh act prohibiting resurveighs not applying the expected remedies, for if the surveighs be just yet the surveighors being for the most part careles of seeing the trees marked, or the owners never renewing them, in a small time the chopps being growne up, or the trees fallen, the bounds become as uncertaine as at first, and upon a new surveigh the least variation of a compasse alters the scituation of a whole neighbourhood and deprives many persons of houses, orchards and all to their infinite losse and trouble;  

The Processioning Laws

The 1662 act required that landowners “goe in procession” once every four years to walk and renew the property lines between themselves and their neighbors.   The county courts were charged with ordering the parish vestries to define the precincts and procession them.2 Once the precincts were defined, the landowners within each precinct would walk the lines, renew markings, and resolve as many disputes as possible among themselves.   Any unresolved controversy would be adjudicated by two surveyors who would determine the lines in the presence of the landowners, their expense borne by the person raising the controversy.  A substantial fine was established for any landowner who failed to participate.   The processioning was to take place every four years between Easter and Whitsunday (the seventh Sunday after Easter Sunday).

Two changes were made to the law over the next few decades.  In 1673 a provision was made to procession lands owned by orphans and in 1691 the timeframe was changed to September 30 through March 31, a timeframe more conducive to an agricultural economy.3

The flaw in this act was that it was left to each jurisdiction to enforce, with poorly defined responsibilities.   As a result it was routinely ignored.    Governor Francis Nicholson complained at least twice in the 1690s about “vestries that do not take care to put the Act for Processioning in due execution.” 4 The evidence from vestry records is striking.  There exist today only three vestry books with significant 17th century records:   St. Peter’s parish (1684-1786), Petsworth parish (1677-1793), and Christ Church parish (1663-1767).5 Combined, they have only two mentions of processioning prior to 1700.6 After 1705 these three vestry books report on nearly fifty quadrennial processionings.

In 1705 the Assembly enacted a much improved act, with the following major changes:7

  • The county courts were to issue the processioning orders between June 1 and September 1 of every fourth year beginning in the year 1708.   The vestries were given ten days after receipt of the order to meet and assign the precincts.    They would then cause the processioning to be performed between September 30 and March 31.
  • A permanent written record was to be kept within the parishes.   The vestries were to appoint “at least two intelligent honest freeholders of every precinct, to see such processioning performed” and to make a written report of the processioning, including who was present, what lands were viewed, and what disputes arose.   These reports were to be recorded “in particular books to be kept for that purpose” within each vestry.   Certain provisions were also made to assure the accuracy of these records.
  • After being processioned three times, a property line was to be deemed to be fixed and settled forever.
  • The Assembly clarified the treatment of land owned by orphans and other minors, married women, persons outside the colony, and the mentally incompetent.

The 1705 act was one of a series of measures covering most aspects of land law, and so was briefly and inadvertently caught up in a land law dispute with the council in England.    All of the land law acts were addressed by the Assembly in 1710, with the result that the act of 1705 was reenacted in 1710, the only significant change being that the next processioning was to be in the year 1711 rather than in the year 1712.8  There was also a provision added for processioning land of uncooperative landowners.9 In 1748 the same law was enacted with no changes of significance.10

When the Church of England was disestablished in 1785, the responsibility for appointing processioners was transferred to the overseers of the poor.11

Using Processioning Records

Processioning records can be helpful in tracing ownership of land over time, in identifying neighbors, and in determining the general location of tracts.   In some of the “burned counties” they are the only record of land transactions.    The several surviving vestry books of Virginia parishes disclose that the procedures followed by the vestries were quite consistent.  An understanding of those procedures is helpful in interpreting and using processioning records.

The precinct themselves were often defined by natural features like watercourses, ridges, or tree lines in a way that made them useful over the course of several processioning cycles.    As density increased, districts might be split up or redefined, but the vestries tended to make few changes from one processioning to the next.    (Often they were given more or less permanent numbers or names and used for other purposes as well.)   As a result, the general location of a precinct is often quite simple to determine.

The two or more persons assigned to each processioning precinct were responsible for attending the processioning of all the tracts within the precinct.   The individual landowners were required only to attend to the boundaries of their own tracts.    The processioners assigned to each precinct were almost always men who owned land within that precinct.    (They were rarely assigned to more than one precinct even though they might own land in multiple precincts.)  They were always freeholders, and typically were vestrymen, justices, and other men of standing.

Notice of the schedule for processioning of the precincts and the assignment of the processioners was posted at the nearest church or chapel for at least three Sundays prior to the event.

  1. The Statues at Large, William Waller Hening, ed., (1823), Vol. II, pp101-102. []
  2. This use of the vestries reflects the prevailing custom of treating the vestry as the smallest unit of local government. []
  3. Hening, Vol. II, p305 and Vol. III, p82. []
  4. Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, H. R McIlwaine, ed., Vol. I, p148.  The Governor’s proclamation of 1690.  A similar complaint is made in 1699 (Vol. II, p36). []
  5. Kingston parish’s vestry book includes some very limited 17th century records, but not enough to constitute evidence of the point. []
  6. Not counting a passing reference in St. Peter’s parish in 1692. []
  7. Hening, Vol. II, pp325-328. []
  8. Hening, Vol. III, pp529-533. []
  9. It should be noted that landowners, particularly speculators and non-residents, who refused to attend the processioning of their lands were a continual problem.    The 1710 act, noting the damage to adjoining property owners, directed the county civil courts to order such lands surveyed at the landowner’s expense by a surveyor and a jury.  This provision was altered slightly in 1744 to address a relatively minor problem not worth discussing here. []
  10. The vestries were allowed one month to hold their meetings rather than ten days, which acknowledged what had already become the custom. []
  11. Hening, Vol. IV, pp29-30. []