In the United States, generally speaking, each state has jurisdiction over the government records that are kept regarding their inhabitants' births, marriages, deaths, divorces, land transactions, probates, health, disease, education etc. They are not responsible for private record-keeping efforts such as those done by churches, cemeteries, community groups, companies, businesses etc. The federal government oversees the taking of the national census every decade, but not of state censuses. Certain cities have also participated in early record-keeping efforts even prior to their state's commencement of such things. And then there are numerous other entities involved with keeping records; these include shipping lines, publication companies (city and county directories, and phone books), orphanages, hospitals and military organizations.
If you are researching your genealogy in Virginia, then this article is for you. Since all states have essentially the same basic types of federal records (census and vital or civil registration), we will devote this article to sources that are specific to Virginia genealogy. Much of the information I give in this article comes from Val D. Greenwood's The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy (2nd Edition, 1990), a standard in its field, and Footnote.com. This is not a complete list of sources.
Before we begin our discussion of Virginia sources, we should mention that West Virginia was part of Virginia until June 1863. Therefore, when you are looking at Virginia genealogy records prior to that date, you will find references to areas now in West Virginia.
Another confusing point with reference to Virginia is their court system. If you look at a map of the state or any indexes to places, you will notice that the state is sprinkled with "independent cities". These are cities which used to be part of a county but which, once incorporated as a city, became independent of that county, even though they may still be the "county seat" today. What this means to those searching for their genealogy in Virginia, is that you will need to look at two different court systems - the city and the county. It is necessary to know when a city was incorporated to determine which sets of court records to look at. Greenwood's The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, pages 418-420, lists names of cities, the county where they are geographically located, and the dates when they were incorporated as a town and then as a city.
Court records of various types take on additional value in Virginia, especially land records. While it is true that records in many court houses were burned during the Civil War, land-grant records were kept in the state land office. Land records can give the names of wives and children, residences, whether the action is taken because of a will and if so then the date the will was written, occupations, land description and, of course, dates. Don't forget to use maps and tax records while you are searching land records.
Another good source of genealogy information in Virginia is probate records. Kept in probate courts, these records include wills, guardianship records, letters of administration, inventories and bills of sale. Almost everyone is familiar with wills. Guardianship records were kept when a father died leaving minor children. Children in this circumstance, even if their mother was still alive, were termed orphans. Usually the mother retained custody of their maintenance but often guardians were appointed to manage the financial dealings of the remaining family. Those who were named as executors of an estate were usually required to be admitted as qualified to do so by the court (letters of administration). Inventories taken after a person's death can provide an amazing insight into the life-style of your ancestors. And, when those inventoried items were sold to pay off debts or provide for the family, you may be able to see who bought the old family Bible you've been looking for!
Many court records of value in Virginia genealogy have been indexed and, in some cases, abstracted. Some are available on microfilm and others will require a letter or visit. Knowing about the different court systems and their location will narrow your search, but try the Family History Library microfilm first. Be sure to look at county and city courts, and good luck with your Virginia genealogy!