Merchant Account Books as a Research Tool


Merchant Account Books are a valuable and interesting genealogical tool, especially account books from the ‘burned counties’in Virginia whose record losses were significant.  Account books were not kept in courthouses, and thus survived the incendiary fate of valuable county records.  These mercantile books were the bank ledgers of the day.  Most large transactions in the colony were paid by "checks" written against a "bank statement" of holdings in someone’s cargo or warehouse.  Account books were used to record credit sales at trading posts throughout the colony, and sometimes listed names of children, parents, or other information of interest to researchers.

    English and Scottish firms established trading posts on rivers and sent a profusion of goods to the colony in exchange for exportable commodities, particularly naval stores and tobacco.  In colonial Virginia, cash was in short supply and tobacco was considered legal tender, a ‘cash crop’.  Goods were valued in pounds sterling.  These trading posts were the first "retail stores" in America.

    Although the mercantile stores in colonial America certainly provided necessary goods for the colonists, merchants themselves were regarded with the same trust and respect as our present day lawyers and politicians.  Massachusetts merchants were described as "spoiled by their religion", making them "morose and unsociable", yet courteous.  They were crafty and subtle in taking advantage of customers.  The opinion of Virginia merchants fared little better.  Customers learned to be wary when trading with them or "get stuck in the tail".  When merchants were able to deceive someone, they boasted of "playing him for a trick".  In England, a speech by Edmund Burke clearly indicated his opinion of merchants in America: "Do not talk to me of a merchant.  The merchant is the same in every part of the world.  His gold his god, his invoice his country, his ledger his Bible, his desk his altar, the exchange his church, and he has faith in none but his banker".1

    The mercantile stores were first established along rivers, but were later built along roads capable of supporting the weight of heavy drayage.  Among other locations, merchants moved up the York, up the Pamunkey to Newcastle and Hanovertown, and up the Mattaponi past Mantapike and Walkerton to Aylette.  The Rappahannock and York rivers were well-sheltered, easily navigable waterways, the former as far up as Tappahannock (originally Hobb’s Hole\), the latter to Hanovertown on the Pamunkey, and Aylette on the Mattaponi, both rivers being tributaries of the York.

    River traffic remained important in Virginia’s mercantile trade until railroads supplanted most river trade in the 19th century.  River warehouses, or trading posts, served farmers and planters of adjacent counties.  Todd’s Warehouse, mentioned frequently in the account books kept by Ninian Boog, a factor for Buchanan & Hamilton, Liverpool merchants, was located on the King & Queen side of the Mattaponi River, but was also connected to King William County by a ferry service.  Buchanan & Hamilton shipped goods to Boog on vessels that docked in Norfolk, Hampton, Yorktown and UrbannaBoog would then hire one or more sloops to move the merchandise to Fredericksburg or Todd’s, or to Francis Jerdone’s store in Yorktown.

    Colonial retail stores were operated jointly by British nationals and the Americans they employed.  Representatives of British merchants, sent here to establish and operate those stores, often married colonial women and became permanent residents.  Such was the case with Francis Jerdone, who was also a factor for Buchanan & Hamilton.  Jerdone operated a store in the New Kent-Hanover area, while Boog was in charge of a store in the Fredericksburg area of King & Queen County.  Although no record exists of the exact location of the King & Queen County store, evidence indicates it was established on land patented by John Martin in 1720 on Beverly Run in St. Stephen’s Parish of King & Queen County.  The location of the store, near the Mattaponi River in the vicinity of Aylette, Walkerton and Todd’s Warehouse, would have been convenient to residents of both Drysdale and St. Stephen’s parishes in the upper part of King & Queen County.

    After a tobacco crop was harvested, dried, and placed in hogsheads for transportation, farmers and planters took their tobacco to a warehouse where it was inspected, graded and weighed.  The farmer or planter was then given a written statement indicating a certain number of pounds of tobacco were on deposit.  The value of the tobacco was determined by the current rate paid by British importers.  The holder of a written statement could then write "checks" for specific amounts of tobacco which would be redeemed at the warehouse.  Trading posts, or mercantile stores, worked closely with the various warehouses in these transactions.  Credit had a high rate of interest.  Notes (bank statements) were redeemed at 65% of their face value.  Charges for fluctuations in prices and the expense of bookkeeping accounted for the other 35%.  Tobacco was considered "gold" in the bank, and never actually changed hands as cash money did.  Stores associated with warehouses were the centers of almost all business transactions in colonial Virginia.

    Daybooks were used by store clerks to record daily sales, which would later be entered in a ledger.  Wealthy landowners were not the only customers of these trading posts.  Names of tenants, widows, tithables and negroes were recorded in the ledger books.  If a person did not carry a credit balance with mercantile stores based on a tobacco crop, he or she traded by barter or offered services in exchange for the goods they needed.  Items often bartered were butter, honey, vegetables, turkeys, watermelons, apples, onions and peaches.  Account book records indicate that hogsheads of tobacco placed on account at a mercantile store were also used to pay lawyer and physician fees.  The amount owed would be deducted from the account of the debtor, and credited to the account of the person owed the money.

    The items purchased at these stores provide an interesting glimpse into our ancestor’s lifestyles.  Purchases included clothing, shoes, castile soap, nails and tacks, farm tools, spelling books, bottles of Love’s Balsam, pewter plates and utensils, rugs, copper kettles, a variety of alcoholic spirits, washbasins, brown and refined sugar, playing cards, padlocks, gun flints and powder, knives, watch keys, saddles and bridles, black hatband crape, sewing material and supplies, women’s stays, alum, brimstone, leghorn hats, sheep shears, snuff, horse whips, beer and wine glasses, window glass, spices and cheese.

The list of purchases is endlessly fascinating.  Merchant ledgers from these early retail establishments are stored at the Virginia State Archives, the Virginia Historical Society, the Alderman Library at Virginia and the Swem Library at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg.

1William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine, Vol. 8, No.  2, October 1899

Richard Slatten, H. Franklin Minor, Edgar McDonald, Magagine of Virginia Genealogy, Vol. 28 No.  1, February 1990 through Vol. 29 No.  2, May 1991