Missy Sutton: ‘As a descendant of William Jackson Rutherford, who was forced to leave his [Sperryville area] home when his 300 acres were condemned, I find comfort knowing the story of what happened’
In partnership with James Madison University, and with funding from local supporters who include William Dietel and Jennifer Manly, the Piedmont Environmental Council has completed the digitization of thousands of legal documents related to the Commonwealth’s 1930s-era condemnation of private lands in Rappahannock County for the creation of Shenandoah National Park.
The digitization project has made all of the deed book records, court proceedings and individual case files for Rappahannock County properties that are now part of Shenandoah National Park publicly accessible and searchable for the first time. The online database is hosted by James Madison University (JMU) and accessible from the Piedmont Environmental Council’s webpage on the project: pecva.org/snp-digital-records.
Under provisions of the 1928 Public Park Condemnation Act, the State of Virginia took nearly 200,000 acres of privately-owned land in eight Virginia counties via eminent domain for the creation of Shenandoah. The related court proceedings in Rappahannock County were titled The State Commission on Conservation and Development of the State of Virginia v. Clifton Aylor and others.
“Landowners with clear title were compensated, but some families did not possess a title to the land on which they lived. Many were tenants or caretakers for absentee owners, and a few resided on land that had supported their families for generations, but was actually owned by others. Compensation varied from property to property. Some received what they considered fair value for their loss, while many did not,” according to the Blue Ridge Heritage Project.
Previously, access to records on these properties via the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office was limited to title records, surveyor descriptions, and lists of owners and surveyors. Boxes of uncategorized condemnation cases, appraisals, surveys and other detailed information about individual properties had been housed in the basement of the clerk’s office for years.
In 2017, JMU partnered with the Rockingham County Clerk’s Office to digitize more than 6,000 documents related to land condemnation in Rockingham County. In 2019, PEC hired former Rappahannock County Administrator Debbie Keyser to complete the digitization with support from Rappahannock County Clerk of the Circuit Court Margaret Ralph.
“My office was happy to support this project, making available to researchers the descendants of those whose land was condemned and to the public at large these important resources that have been extremely difficult to access until now,” Ralph said. The new database now makes the digitized records accessible to all, even in a time of pandemic-based social distancing, and enables families to uncover the legacy and sacrifices made by their ancestors.
“As a descendant of William Jackson Rutherford, who was forced to leave his home when his 300 acres were condemned, I find comfort knowing the story of what happened is being shared far and wide via this digital collection. Today, Shenandoah National Park is a tremendous resource and one I enjoy — yet it's important to remember the sacrifices that had to be made for us to have this resource," said Missy Sutton, whose ancestors once lived in the Sperryville area of the park.
The digital collection of condemnation records, which currently includes records from both Rappahannock and Rockingham counties, can be accessed through James Madison University’s webpage, Exploring Rockingham’s Past, by clicking on “Browse Digital Collections.” (The digital archive is currently titled “Exploring Rockingham’s Past,” but JMU Libraries is in the process of rebranding the site to reflect contributions coming from additional counties). The Rappahannock County SNP records are organized into three categories, and can be searched by surname in all categories:
The Court Proceedings are the legal proceedings for each individual tract of land that made up the one court case. In most cases, individual case files include property surveys, assessments for the value of the land and improvements, and claims by the owner of the property.
The Muniments of Title collection includes the recorded transfer of title in the Deed Books, including boundary descriptions for all acquired properties.
Miscellaneous Documents includes correspondence, petitions, orders, proceedings from the law and order book and affidavits. An additional file of interest to researchers is the Panorama File, which includes detailed information on the history of the Panorama Resort.
The now-completed Rappahannock County project advances an overall goal of making accessible all related records within all eight counties — Albemarle, Augusta, Greene, Page, Rappahannock, Rockingham, and Warren — from which lands were taken to create the park.
“We are excited to hear that another collection of important documents has been digitized and will be made available to the public,” said Shenandoah National Park’s previous Acting Superintendent Lewis Rogers. “Making information about the establishment of Shenandoah National Park more accessible is a wonderful accomplishment, and we are grateful to PEC, JMU and our neighbors’ interest in this project.”
“This is an incredible example of public-private partnership and collaboration,” said Kristie Kendall, PEC’s historic preservation coordinator and a former board member for the Blue Ridge Heritage Project.
“The Blue Ridge Heritage Project has been illuminating the story of displacement and placing several stone chimney memorials to recognize those who were forced to give up their lands and homes. The digitization of these documents takes that effort one step further. The documents help build a shared understanding of our past, forever memorialize those who sacrificed so much for the creation of Shenandoah National Park, and promote a fuller and more inclusive telling of our history.”