The "Mutual Assurance Society, against Fire on Buildings, of the State of Virginia" was incorporated by the General Assembly on December 22, 1794. The plan of the society was suggested by William Frederick Ast, a Prussian then residing in Richmond, and is alleged to have been modeled after a system of mutual guarantee introduced by Frederick the Great.
As required by the act of incorporation, a subscription of three million dollars was necessary before the charter could be carried into effect. As a result, the organizational meeting of the society was not held until December 24, 1795. At that meeting, a constitution, rules, and regulations were adopted and officers selected. The general office of the society was to be in Richmond. Management was to be by the president and directors, while the principal agent and cashier general were charged with administrative duties. The following officers were selected: William Foushee, president; James Bradder, James Brown, Jacob J. Cohen, Andrew Dunscomb, William Duval, Robert Mitchell, George Pickett, and Bushrod Washington, directors for Richmond and vicinity; Robert Bolling, director for Petersburg; George French, director for Fredericksburg; Alexander St. Clair, director for Staunton; Jonah Thompson, director for Alexandria; John Peyton, director for Winchester; Thomas Newton, director for Norfolk; Jacquelin Ambler, cashier-general; William F. Ast, principal agent. The society eventually insured property in Virginia, West Virginia (until 1868), and the District of Columbia.
Insurance offered by the society was against "all losses and damages occasioned accidentally by fire." Rates of hazard were determined by the material composition of the buildings, by the uses to which the buildings were put, and by what may be kept in them. Mills, playhouses, liveries, and buildings containing machinery propelled by steam or in which combustible articles were stored could be insured only by special contract. Revaluations of insured property were required every seven years or whenever additions were made to a policy.
Until 1819, the society returned to policy holders the interest accumulated on its reserve fund in excess of the amount deemed necessary to pay annual claims for losses and damages. When costs exceeded income, the society was authorized to require members to pay "quotas," the amount depending on the sum insured and the rate of hazard. Insured property was considered security and could be sold to obtain the quotas. Annual quotas were not regularly required until 1809.
During its history the society made numerous revisions in its constitution. In 1805, the number of directors was reduced, and in 1809 the offices of president, cashier-general, and the directors were abolished. In their place a committee was to be appointed by the annual general meeting. While property located in towns and rural areas was initially insured alike, a constitutional change in 1805 established town and country branches. Funds were divided between the two branches and the premiums, quotas, and claims were kept separately. Because of heavy losses sustained by the country branch, no new insurance of rural property was issued after August 15, 1818. The country branch was eventually abolished in March 1822.
Up to the Civil War, the society was financially secure and prosperous. Although war risks were not taken by the society and any damage caused by invasion was not covered by the assurance, the financial crisis caused by inflation, currency depreciation, and the loss of investments with the fall of the Confederacy left the society "without a dollar in money." However, the society's reserve fund, required by law, enabled it to recover rapidly from the effects of the war.
The following individuals served as principal agents of the society during the period covered by the records in this accession: William F. Ast, 1795-1807; Samuel Greenhow, 1808-1815; James Rawlings, 1815-1837; Colonel John Rutherfoord, 1837-1866.
For additional information on the history of the society, see Historical Sketch of the Mutual Assurance Society of Virginia, from its organization in 1794 to 1879 compiled by John B. Danforth and Herbert A. Claiborne (Richmond, Va.: Wm. Ellis Jones, 1879).
The major portion of material in this accession consists of incoming correspondence received from agents and subscribers, 1796-1865. This material is arranged chronologically and is filed alphabetically by year by the name of the correspondent. Also included are estimates of loss and damage, vouchers and receipts, annual statements, and notices to withdraw insurance, all arranged by year. A collection of material relating to the transfer of property and policies, including copies of deeds and several wills, is also preserved, as are scattered original policies and revaluations. Miscellaneous records include applications for insurance, claims for return of premiums, certificates of qualification of special agents, and records of office and personal expenses of John Rutherfoord, John B. Danforth (secretary of the society, 1837-1875), and Alexander H. Rutherfoord.
Volumes include a letter book for the period 1805-1806; a journal, 1852-1853; and records of checks written, 1853-1869. Town and country quota books, 54 vols., and collection lists, 16 vols., include the names of subscribers, references to declaration number, the number of buildings insured, and the amount of insurance, premium, and quota. CLOSED.
The rules and regulations adopted by the subscribers of the Mutual Assurance Society in 1795 provided for an annual general meeting of the membership. At the general meetings financial statements of the society were reviewed and members of the standing committee were selected. Any revision of the rules and regulations of the society was submitted to the general meeting for consideration.
The standing committee was composed of the president of the society and board of directors and supervised the business operation of the society. The minutes of its monthly meetings record authorization for payments for losses, approval of special contracts of assurance, appointment of special agents and other officers, consideration of the forms for declarations, powers of attorney and bonds, and review of the financial statements of the society.
The three volumes of minutes of the general meeting cover the period December 1795 to February 1828 and November 1897 to May 1942. Minutes of the standing committee (10 vols cover the period 1796 to 1897. A detailed listing of records by microfilm reel number appears in the accession analysis.
Insurance offered by the Mutual Assurance Society was against "all losses and damages occasioned accidentally by fire or lightning." This accession contains the society's copies of individual declarations and revaluations of assurance. Each printed form is numbered and is designated as a new policy or a revaluation. Policies include the name of the insured, place of residence, location of the insured property (with references to contiguous property), the name of the occupant of the property, a description and estimated value of each structure insured, and the date and the signature of the insured. An appraiser's statement regarding the value of the property is also included on each policy.
At the bottom of each policy appears a sketch of the insured property. In most instances the sketches are rough outlines of the buildings as if viewed from above. The roofing material and distance from streets and from other structures are also noted, e.g. "A dwelling house 32 feet by 20 one story high with a shed of 10 feet by 10 on one side with a portch at the side of the shed 8 feet by 10 a portch on the other side 22 feet by 10 built of wood and covered with wood."
Revaluations of assurance contain the same information and reference to the prior declaration number. For some later revaluations, notations made past the inclusive dates of this accession appear.
See an index to declarations, 1796-1867, prepared by the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission which is available as Acc. 30790 on Misc. Reels 776-780. The index is arranged by city and by county. There are also index divisions for plantation or estate names and listings for taverns, hotels, and other public buildings.
This volume is a partial index to declarations of assurance issued by the society during the period specified and is arranged alphabetically by the surname of the assured. Also recorded are the name of the town or plantation and county in which the property is located, the date of the policy, the volume number in which the policy is recorded, and the policy number. See the accession analysis for a list of volumes not included in this index.
This volume contains the society's copies of insurance policies issued in Richmond and in Henrico and Chesterfield counties. Each policy contains the name of the insurer, a brief description of the property, and the sum for which insured. Declaration numbers also appear. All policies are signed by William Foushee, president, and William F. Ast, principal agent.
This list of debts due the society was compiled by James Rawlings, principal agent, and includes property owned by seven subscribers in Richmond and in Henrico County.
The document lists the property owner in 1796, the buildings insured, the 1796 valuation, by whom owned in 1822, how the property was described in 1822, the valuation in 1822, and the change in valuation. Seventy pieces of property are included. A photostatic copy of the statement is filed as Acc. 24644.
This document is reproduced with express written permission of the Virginia State Library from A Guide to the Business Records in the Virginia State Library and Archives compiled by Conley L. Edwards, Gwendolyn D. Clark, and Jennifer D. McDaid. Richmond: Virginia State Library and Archives, 1994. Pp. 105-109.
Last Update: 7/12/2003
Please send corrections or comments to: Gary Stanton, Dept of Historic Preservation, Mary Washington College