Peter Tinsley

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Printed form for a commission to take depositions for the case Decree in Baker v. Fairfax, filled in and signed by Peter Tinsley, November 9, 1796.

Peter Tinsley (1750s – July 21, 1810) was a Virginia attorney, and Clerk of the Court for the High Court of Chancery in Richmond during and after George Wythe's tenure as chancery court judge.


Although the date of his birth is unknown, Peter was the son of Thomas and Agnes Tinsley, who were married in 1754. Peter had at least four siblings, the most famous of whom was Colonel Thomas Tinsley (1755-1822).

Tinsley lived in Richmond, just a few blocks from the homes of George Wythe and John Marshall, and near the Virginia Capital building, where the state courts were located.[1] He married Maria Brown, daughter of John Brown (one of Wythe's former students), on July 12, 1803.[2] They had four children, the second of whom they named George Wythe Tinsley.[3] Tinsley died on July 10, 1810 "after a short and severe illness."[4]

Clerk of the High Court of Chancery

According to his obituary, Tinsley began as Clerk of the High Court of Chancery while Wythe was the sole Chancellor (sometime after 1788). He continued as clerk after the re-division of the court in 1802 until his death in 1810,[5] when he was replaced by W.W. Hening.

Page one of the legal form book of Peter Tinsley, clerk of the High Court of Chancery (signed "CC": Clerk of the Court), George Wythe Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, College of William and Mary.

As Wythe's clerk for more than a decade, Tinsley had a unique perspective into the Chancellor's life and work. Tinsley's "form book" from this time, survives. In this manuscript, Tinsley compiled various sample documents for the court's use, sparing them from having to reinvent the wheel each time it needed to issue a document. Without the clerk and his book of forms, the court could not readily follow proper procedure nor maintain efficient function.

Virginia's High Court of Chancery also made use of pre-printed forms that the clerk could issue for routine tasks by simply filling in the blanks.

Forgery Trial

Following Wythe's death by possible poisoning, Tinsley was a witness in the trial of George Wythe Sweeney in June of 1806 where he testified that six checks drawn in Wythe's name had not been written or signed by Wythe.[6] Tinsley was also a witness to the last-minute changes to Wythe's will following the poisoning.

Thomas Tinsley

Peter's brother Thomas served as an officer in the Revolutionary War, and for "eight consecutive one-year terms as a Hanover County delegate to Virginia's General Assembly."[7] Thomas was the builder of Totomoi, an historic plantation in Hanover County, north of Richmond.[8] Thomas was likely the eldest surviving male Tinsley sibling, earning him the bulk of any family inheritance. Thomas' path crossed with his brother's work more than once.

It was Thomas Tinsley who recommended a fourteen-year-old Henry Clay for a job in Peter's office, in or around 1793, bringing Clay within reach of Wythe's influence.[9] Although Wythe had apparently set aside teaching and dedicated himself to his work as a jurist, he made an exception for Clay and "took the young man under his wing" when he recognized Clay's potential.[10]

Thomas was a Captain in the army when he was "transferred to the southern frontier," and apparently left without paying "a debt to a freedwoman in Wythe's household," cook and housekeeper, Lydia Broadnax. Wythe intervened, writing to "his friend," President Jefferson, to encourage Captain Tinsley to resolve the matter.[11] Wythe needn't have bothered the President with the matter; Peter Tinsley stepped up in his brother's defense and paid the debt, and asked that Wythe write Jefferson to clear Thomas' reputation.[12]

Obituary, The Virginia Patriot (Richmond, VA), 24 July 1810

Page 3

Detail from The Virginia Patriot (Richmond, VA), July 24, 1810, p. 3.

On Saturday last departed this life, after a short and severe illness, PETER TINSLEY, Esq. of this city; long the Clerk of the High Court of Chancery; and since its division, the Clerk of the Court of Chancery sitting in this district.

In his profession this gentleman had no superior, nor will it be easy to find his equal. But it is not as a professional man that his loss is most deeply felt and most deplored. In the walks of private life, he was among the most worthy, and most amiable of men. By those who knew him best he was most esteemed, and most beloved. The affliction of his friends is sincere, that of his family unutterable.

It is not common place panegyric to say that Mr. Tinsley was endowed with a fine understanding, with principles most pure and honorable, and with a heart susceptible of the warmest and sincerest friendship, as well as the most tender affection—every social, every domestic virtue was his. As a friend and a neighbor he will be long remembered with sincere regret, and as a husband, by an inconsolable wife whose poignant grief time may assuage but can never efface.—To his children, who are too young to feel their loss, its full extent it is irreparable.

See also


  1. Mary Wingfield Scott, Houses of Old Richmond (Richmond, VA: Valentine Museum, 1941), 203-204. Tinsley's home was located where the Richmond Coliseum stands today (2018).
  2. Virginia Gazette & General Advertiser (Richmond), 16 July 1803, 3, cited in Virginia Genealogical Society, Marriages and Deaths from Richmond, Virginia Newspapers, 1780-1820 (Easley, SC: Southern Historical Press, 1988), 255.
  3. F.L. Preston, "Tinsley" genealogy, accessed April 20, 2018.
  4. Obituary, Virginia Patriot (Richmond), July 24, 1810, 3.
  5. Virginia Patriot.
  6. Virginia Hustings Court Minute Book No. 3 (2 June 1806), Richmond, Virginia. Microfilm at the Library of Virginia; Hustings Court Order Book No. 6 (2 June 1806), Richmond, Virginia. Microfilm at the Library of Virginia..
  7. United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service "Totomoi 2012 Update," 14, accessed April 19, 2018.
  8. "Totomoi 2012 Update."
  9. Epes Sargent, The Life and Public Services of Henry Clay, Down to 1848, edited by Horace Greeley (Auburn, NY: Derby & Miller, 1852), 14-15.
  10. Robert B. Kirtland, George Wythe: Lawyer, Revolutionary, Judge (New York: Garland Publishing, 1986), 168.
  11. Wythe to Thomas Jefferson, June 19, 1801, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.
  12. Wythe to Thomas Jefferson, July 31, 1801, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.

External links