Nobody knows exactly how many deeds, wills and other legal records might have been stored in the old Warwick County courthouse when the Civil War started.
But by the time the conflict ended in 1865, the single most comprehensive source of information about one of English America's oldest settlements had been reduced to virtually nothing by Federal looting and two catastrophic fires.
That's why Newport News historian Mary Kayaselcuk was so astounded earlier this year when she fielded a phone call from a Massachusetts archivist who had unearthed 7 Warwick County documents from before the Civil War, including one signed by a prominent county clerk in 1688.
Taken as trophies by a Union soldier whose regiment had encamped on the courthouse green during the April 1862 Siege of the Peninsula, the records remained in his family until they were given to the Danvers Archival Center of the Peabody Institute Library in 1991.
Not until three years ago, however, did archivist Richard Trask begin coming across the ancient documents one by one while cataloging the papers.
"Every once in a while we'll find something like this. But this was a real red-flag item," says Trask, who handed the records over to the Library of Virginia' on the 150th anniversary of the 1862 siege.
"I don't think anybody had really looked at them in more than 100 years — and there was no question they needed to go back to Virginia."
Lt. Wallace A. Putnam was descended from the old New England family of Revolutionary War hero Israel Putnam, who fought with distinction at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Mustered into Co. E of the 10th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in June 1861, the 27-year-old schoolteacher served in the Army of the Potomac during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, marching up from Fort Monroe along what is now Warwick Boulevard until running into the massive Confederate fortifications that rose up just past the Warwick County Courthouse.
Pitching their tents outside what a 1909 regimental history later described as "a barnlike structure built of brick," the 10th Massachusetts bivouacked at the courthouse for more than 3 weeks during the subsequent siege of the Southern lines. And sometime before the troops departed on May 4 for the Battle of Williamsburg, Putnam's family received a cache of old records in the mail from Virginia.
"Some old papers taken from the Warwick Ct. House — one bears the date of 1688," a family member reported in a May 1, 1862 letter.
In addition to the losses inflicted by Putnam and other Union looters, many of the remaining records were destroyed when the clerk's office burned in December 1864. Still more went up in flames with the April 3, 1865, Confederate burning of Richmond, where many of the state's counties had moved their court documents for safekeeping.
Today, fewer than 300 Warwick County court records survive from the years before the Civil War, estimates Kayaselcuk, who scoured libraries and archives intently during her research for Newport News' centennial anniversary celebration in 1996.
"I was flabbergasted. It's just so unusual for any of these lost records to come to light again," she says.
"It's like sitting on a needle in haystack. It's a totally unexpected find."
Ranging in date from 1688 to 1751, the newly discovered documents include wills, bonds, an arrest warrant and judgments in two civil suits as well as a sworn oath testifying to the signatory's rejection of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.
Among the prominent names which appear is that of Warwick County Clerk of Court Miles Cary Jr., whose landmark 17th-century home at Richneck Plantation in Denbigh was the site of the giant elm tree commemorated on the city seal of Newport News.
So influential was the wealthy planter that he also served as the first rector of the College of William and Mary. His brother Henry built the college's Wren Building as well as the Williamsburg Capitol and Governor's Palace in the late 1600s and early 1700s.
Now housed in the Local Records collection of the Library of Virginia, all 7 documents need to be cleaned, mended and stored in special archival boxes to ensure their long-term preservation.
Though several groups such as the Warwick County Historical Society have provided funds to help offset an estimated $2,300 in costs, the library is still seeking donations.
"These aren't just records of court cases, they're a treasure trove of history that was lost," Local Records Program Manager Greg Crawford says.
"You've got religious history. You've got property rights. You've got the case of an African slave being sold like cow. You can't get a source more primary than this when it comes to telling what life was like in Warwick County."
Want to help?
The estimated cost of treating the newly discovered Warwick County court records in the Library of Virginia's conservation lab is $2,300. Contact Dan Stackhouse at email@example.com or 804-692-3813 to make a donation.