Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
Research Guides & Indexes

Virginia Historical Inventory

More than 25,000 survey reports, photographs, and annotated maps documenting Virginia's cultural resources

Search the Collection

Virginia Historical Inventory

Overview

The Virginia Historical Inventory (VHI) is a collection of more than 25,000 survey reports, photographs, and annotated maps documenting Virginia's cultural resources. Strengths of this collection include architectural history, genealogy, African American history, and Civil War history.

The Virginia Historical Inventory was created in the late 1930s by the Virginia Writers’ Project, a branch of the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA). Field workers documented, assessed, and photographed historical buildings and landmarks, creating a unique record of Virginia's past. The project emphasized everyday architecture built before 1860, such as homes, workplaces, churches, and public buildings. Many of these structures no longer exist, and VHI photographs may be the only surviving visual records.

VHI field workers prepared survey reports based on onsite investigation, court records and other local resources, and interviews with residents. Survey reports for buildings may include a description of the building and its surroundings, a history of the building, a chronological list of owners, and the building's historical significance. Most reports include a standardized architectural description form, giving details such as size, building material, layout, and distinctive features. Workers often added pencil or pen-and-ink sketches or included photographs.

In addition to buildings, reports exist for cemeteries (often including detailed tombstone information), furniture and other objects, Native American sites, oral histories, folklore, documents, and historical events and personages.

Many VHI photographs were older ones taken before the VHI project began and may be dated before the 1930s. Most photographs accompany a survey report, but some are standalone images.

Search Tips

General

  • Survey reports and photographs are indexed separately. Most entries link to a Report Home Page, which groups survey reports with related photographs and/or annotated maps.
  • Using quotes around phrases may return fewer, more relevant results.
  • Boolean operators OR, NOT and AND written in ALL CAPS may be used.  By default, all search terms will be combined with the AND operator. To exclude terms, use the NOT operator before a term.
  • Wildcards can be used to find variant spellings or words. The question mark (?) will match any one character. For instance, "Ols?n" will match "Olsen" or "Olson". The asterisk (*) will match any number of characters (including zero). "Ch*ter" will match "Charter", "Character", and "Chapter", and "Temp*" will match "Temptation", "Temple", and "Temporary".

Survey Reports

  • Search terms may include author name, title, date of publication, names of informants, names of individuals or families associated with the subject of the report, subject headings, location, building material, and "class" of building assigned by the field worker.
  • Search terms may include modern city and county names as well as historical county names. 

Photographs

  • To narrow a search to photograph entries, use the "Images" filter on the search results page.
  • Search terms may include the photographer name (if known), title, date (if known), subject headings, and keywords such as builder and building material.
  • Names of photographers were not formally recorded. The backs of the photographs often have names written on them; when this occurs, this name is presumed to be that of the photographer.
  • The title of a photograph is generally taken from information handwritten on the back of the photograph. If no writing is present there, the title of the accompanying survey report is used for the photograph as well. The only titles supplied by catalogers are for those photographs that are not associated with particular reports. These titles appear in brackets. 
  • Subject headings for photographs may differ from those used for survey reports. For example, in survey reports, the term used to describe wooden buildings is "Wooden-frame buildings," whereas in photographs the term used is "Wooden buildings."

Suggested Search Terms

  • Buildings: dwellings, brick houses, wooden-frame, stone houses, log buildings, farms, slave quarters, plantations
  • Genealogy: bible records, cemeteries, genealogical tables, genealogies, heraldry, wills
  • Records and documents: plats, wills, sketches, deeds
  • African Americans and slavery: African Americans, African American churches, African Americans education, slaves, slavery, slave bills of sale, slave insurrections, slave quarters, slave trade, slavery personal narratives, slaves dwellings
    Some entries also use the historical term colored, specifically where it appears on reports, maps, and photograph titles. Note also that in the 1936 Department of Transportation maps, in the map key in the lower right corner, there are separate symbols for "white" and "colored" churches and schools. These symbols may help identify African American churches or schools if this aspect is not mentioned in the report.
  • Nat Turner's Rebellion: Southampton insurrection 1831
    There are several records concerning Nat Turner's slave rebellion. Many of the houses in Southampton County at the time of the rebellion are documented.
  • Civil War: Civil War campaigns, Civil War destruction, Civil War hospitals, Civil War personal narratives, Civil War regimental histories
    The VHI includes many buildings that were near the sites of Civil War battles, in use as Civil War hospitals or military headquarters, or sustained considerable damage from the fighting. Reports also include transcriptions of Civil War-era letters and diaries.

Record and Map Numbers

  • Each digitized entry has a record number assigned by Library staff. An example of a record number is VHIR/27/0056. "VHIR" indicates a report number (while VHIP indicates a photograph number); "27" indicates the microfilm reel number; "0056" indicates the report number within that reel. Record numbers are searchable. See the List of Maps and Reports to find reel numbers for each location.
  • Many reports have a map location number, which also appears on the map shown on the Report Home Page. Location numbers are searchable when combined with a map location prefix. See the List of Maps and Reports for map location prefixes. Note that map numbers have no report to go with them.