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Archive for the ‘Probate Records’ Category

One of the most important pieces of information those of us researching enslaved ancestors need to know is how the slaves are distributed after the owner’s death. If we’re lucky, there’s a will that tells us to whom each slave is bequeathed. Most of the time, there’s not. There are many wills that simply say to my “wife, child, etc., I leave all of my estate both real and personal….” If luck is on our side, we’ll find at least an inventory, but that won’t tell us which child got which slaves. For that, we need to find the estate distribution. For an estate that includes slaves, that document should give us the information we need. Here’s a good example I recently found in Montgomery County, MD. This is the portion of the inventory showing the slaves of Nicholas Griffith, who died in 1814:

N. Griffith

N. Griffith

There are 20 slaves listed with monetary values and no indication of families, which is common. In the same probate book, I found the distribution of Nicholas’ estate between his wife, who by law is entitled to 1/3, and his 6 children (I have cropped just the entry showing the slaves):

GriffithSplit1_clip GriffithSplit1_clip2 GriffithSplit1_clip3 GriffithSplit2_clip1 GriffithSplit2_clip2 GriffithSplit2_clip3 GriffithSplit2_clip4 GriffithSplit2_last

Sadly, the primary goal was to make sure each child received approximately the same value in property. Most of Nicholas’ children inherited 2 young slave children. I’d like to believe Nicholas’ widow, who inherited 7 slaves, had at least taken 29 year old Milly with 4 of her kids, ages 8 months to 9 years.

I haven’t researched this family, but the hope is that they lived near one another such that the families of slaves were not entirely broken. But as the probate, land and other sources demonstrate over and over again, very young children were very often sold away from parents, and couples were very often split apart .

 Look for these estate distributions when you are researching enslaved ancestors. They are difficult to find. I personally have many more cases where this information could not be located in records. Sometimes they can be found in original probate loose papers, so be sure to examine those where they exist.

I’ll also share another interesting thing I’ve seen a few times in probate records. Where testators willed that slaves be freed at certain ages, the birthdates were sometimes copied into the probate records so the appropriate date of manumission could be established. Richard Thomas came from a prominent and wealthy Quaker family, and they founded the town of Brookville. They were famous for having freed their salves very early on, and creating an enclave of free blacks, churches and school long before the Civil War.

How fortunate any researcher connected to this family would be. Thomas recorded the birthdates of his slaves in the probate book:

ThomasWill1_volH_clip Slave research, as I’ve said before, is not for the faint of heart and often feels like a game of chicken. But be a diligent researcher and rest assured that you may uncover something, if only a name of an ancestor long silenced and whose memory was lost to time. Even if I can’t find a birthdate or a family group, I always feel a sublime satisfaction at uncovered the name of an enslaved ancestor.

Readers, tell me: have you uncovered any slave distributions, and if so, where did you locate them?

Note: If you are in the Metro DC area, don’t forget to check out my good friend Tim Pinnick tomorrow at 1:00 at the Suitland Family History Center. He will be speaking on “Finding African-Americans in Historic Newspapers,” a subject that he is an expert on.

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I have posted before about the need to search every step in the probate process, as opposed to just viewing the will and the inventory.

One of the first steps in the probate process is that an individual needs to petition the court for the authority to probate the estate. Depending upon whether the deceased had a will, the petitioner will ask the court for either “Letters Testamentary” or in cases where there was no will, “Letters of Administration.” The petitioner is usually a family member, but could also be a creditor of the estate. Sometimes these records are mixed in with other probate records, but they can be also found bound together in a single book.

The value of these records is that they *usually state the existing heirs at law of the deceased individual.* Remember: besides the fact that most people did not create a will, when they did, they did not have to name all of that person’s heirs. Like many other records, earlier ones were handwritten into the court records, while later in time we start to see pre-printed forms. Here are just a few examples:

From my previous post, Leanna Peaker’s petition in Kent County, MD named all her deceased husband’s siblings; it was especially valuable because it shows his sister’s married names and also the cities where they lived:

Peaker

Peaker

 

Nellie Kneesi’s 1932 petition in Montgomery County, MD likewise did the same:

Kneesi

Kneesi

This is Cora Craycroft’s 1944 petition in Macon, Illinois:

Craycroft

Craycroft

I really enjoyed this terrific post from Matt’s Genealogy Blog that “walks” through a set of probate papers, including a petition for administration:

http://matthewkmiller.blogspot.com/2014/06/doran-probate-and-property-records-in.html

As with anything, sometimes the hardest part is finding these documents. If they survive, they can be buried inside a book called “Administrations,” “Probate Records,” or any of the other myriad titles given by the various states. Also, and this is key: you don’t want the actual “Letters of Testamentary” or “Letters of Administration.” Those documents are the RESULT of the *Petition* that was filed. Those are very often kept and very often bound together, but they will NOT include heirs. Here’s an example:

Actual Letters Testament

Actual Letters Testament

I find that this is a rarely mentioned document, so be sure to try to search for these where they exist. This is just one more  record that can unlock the doors to the secrets of our ancestors.

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I have discussed many times in this blog how finding a female ancestor’s new married name led to breakthroughs on the family line. Most of us automatically think of that when we suddenly “lose” tracking of a woman. What hasn’t come naturally for me yet is anticipating multiple marriages. Maybe two marriages is the max my mind thinks of. I am still floored by how many people remarried over and over again. Even well into their senior years.

I found “Le-Anna” Simpson as an 18-year old woman living with her widowed mother in Washington, D.C. in 1900:

1900

1900

Her 9- year-old sister Lucinda was living with their grandmother, also in D.C. In Susan Simpson’s 1910 household, Leanna is gone. She was not found on any 1910 census.

A marriage search turned up Leanna’s 1912 marriage to “Verbee H. Peaker” in D.C. But the couple didn’t appear in 1920 or any subsequent census in that city. Hmm. I thought for sure I’d find them with that unique name.

I searched for a remarriage under the name “Leanna Peaker” and I indeed found another D.C. marriage for her in 1929 to Clarence H. Hackett. That couple was not found on any subsequent census in D.C. Why is she marrying in D.C. but not showing up living in D.C.?

I expanded my census search to Maryland, as I know that people flowed pretty freely with work and school between Maryland and D.C., especially Baltimore. To my surprise, I found a “Verb Peaker” and wife “Laura” living all the way on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, in Kent County!  They lived near a small town called Galena:

1920

1920

A probate case located for Verbee Peaker’s death in 1925 confirmed this was my Leanna. The probate file contained a rare gift: a handwritten note from Leanna, noting that she was away at Hampton Institute getting her teacher’s certificate and would need to know the date to be back for court:
LeannahLetter1LeannahLetter2LeannahLetter3

Verbee’s illness, death and funeral were noted in the Afro-American newspaper. Leanna was remembering him two years later:

tribute

tribute

 

Since Leanna was living in Kent County in 1920, I decided to take a look at her next marriage and sure enough, she is in the household with 2nd husband Clarence H. Hackett in the same small town of Galena in 1930 (listed as wife “Annie”) and 1940:

1930

1930

1940

1940

Her first husband Verbee left Leanna a small piece of land  he apparently inherited and she married Clarence when his wife died.

But the story isn’t finished yet.

Yes, my dear sweet cousin Leanna had to do it again. She got married a third time, in 1948 to the brother of her first husband Verbee, Robert Morton Peaker. She was 63 years old and he was 67. It looks like he was living right next door to his brother so I guess (when his wife died) they figured they might as well grow old together;)

My guess about her marriages occurring in D.C. is that the requirements for marriage in D.C. may have been easier or cheaper than those in Kent County. Or maybe since that was Leanna’s hometown, she felt she should marry there.

Leanna does not appear to have had any children with any spouse that survived. I am continuing the research of her and her spouses in all the other records, land, court, military etc. and fleshing out her life as best possible. But this is a great lesson to remind us to keep on searching those marriage records for “lost” women. They may surprise you.

The icing on the cake to this story is that all these years I’ve had a family picture from my dad’s childhood in Jacksonville, FL. At the time, the name of the woman seated alone had been lost to history and was given to me as “a cousin, from Galena, MD”:

family picture

family picture

I remembered that name because I’d never heard of the town “Galena” before. I’d long since abandoned the notion that I would find out the identity of that cousin.

And thus—she has been revealed. Cousin Leanna, nice to finally meet you!

Leanna Simpson

Leanna Simpson

 

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For those doing African-American research, antebellum estate inventories are a common resource used to find enslaved ancestors. But we should also get into the habit of looking at the other items on that inventory list, that help us visualize not just the slaveowner’s life, but also our ancestors. Even after the Civil War, scrutinizing our ancestor’s inventories can often provide those interesting little details to make a family history come alive.

The first thing I realized a few years ago when I started doing this regularly was that I had no idea what many of the items were! Especially all the animals and agricultural items. What’s the difference between a bay horse and a sorrel horse? (its the colors) What’s a shoat? (it’s a baby pig) What exactly is fodder? (feed for farm animals). Luckily, for most everything, you can just use good old fashioned Google and quickly get a good definition and even pictures. Or you can use a book like “From A to Zax: A Complete Dictionary for Genealogist and Historians.”

I smile when I think about the future and how our descendants will wrangle over what an Ipad or a cell phone was. I also found it a challenge  to go back mentally a century or two in terms of remembering when there was no electricity, no running water, no refrigerators, etc. I am such a child of technology;)

Let’s look at Alfred Reeds estate inventory in 1858, from Russell County, AL:

Reed 1

Reed 1

I notice:

–How the appraisers are “walking through the property” room by room.
–The appraisers have started outside on the farm. There are plenty of animals, 29 heard of cattle may imply that he was selling meat.
–Horses and mules were sometimes given names.
–Alfred has not just a buggy and harness, but also a rockaway and harness, a much fancier carriage that would imply his higher status, as opposed to  the average farmers who may only have buggies or oxcarts.
–The slaves are listed by name, but no ages or statements are given about their relationships.

Let’s look at the next set of items:

Reed 2

Reed 2

–Now the appraisers are moving through the bedroom or living quarters.
–A piano and accordion would also be signs of his status and musical talent.
–The ability to own a gold watch would again signal a higher status.
–The number of guns (2 pistols, 3 double-barrel shotguns) remind us that we’re in an era where almost everyone owned guns.

The last set of items shown are key:

Reed 3

Reed 3

A glance at the titles tells us Alfred Reed was clearly a lawyer. Book titles are not always listed, so it’s nice that here they were.
Now, Let’s look at the inventory of Caroline Sibley of Richmond County, GA, in 1859:

Sibley 1

Sibley 1

–Her status immediately jumps out—she owned paintings and valuable portraits.
–She owned a bible and hymn book, which tells us she was probably a member of a local church.
–Her estate is notable for what is missing—no agricultural items or animals. She lived in Augusta, GA, but obviously did not farm. I would be interested in how she obtained a living. Let’s look at the last page of her inventory:

georgia2_clip2

–I spoke too soon: she owned $33,000 in bonds and notes! According to one online value calculator, that would be $940,000,000 today. Ms. Sibley clearly does not need to farm!
–We also see she owned a pew in the Presbyterian Church—a great clue of where to go to search more records.
–There’s a piano again, as well as jewelry, and silver.
–She has four female slaves, listed without ages or relation, but we can discern that they were likely working in her home as domestics or rented out.

 William Bryant, also of Richmond County in the same year, owned some bee hives and was making honey along with his other agricultural ventures:

Beehive

Bryant 1

Lastly, let’s look at Mrs. Dudley White’s estate in Halifax, NC in 1934. Some nice court clerk has typed this volume up for us:

1

White 1

She clearly was involved in peanut farming—look at all the peanut equipment.
She also owned 2 cars—both a Star and a Chrysler, as well as a Ford truck.In the following section of her inventory, the rooms are spelled out for us, and we can kinda envision the house:

White 2

White 2

This section is revealing:

White 3

White 3

– Now this is the kitchenware of someone who probably entertains alot.
–She owned a grand piano and a violin.
–She also had the latest technology—a Victrola record player as well as 30 records. She clearly was into music.
–She also owned a sewing machine and table, so someone in the house liked to sew.
–She even had a “mounted hawk”—which I assume is one of the stuffed versions popular at that time.

Here are a few general tips as you are perusing estate inventories:

1. Compare your ancestor’s inventory with his neighbors to assess his or her relative economic standing.
2. Books are typically indicators of literacy, which was less common the further back in time we go. Many homes only owned a bible, or perhaps one of the classics.
3. We can often make generalizations about slave ages from their monetary values. The most highly valued males will be in their late teens and twenties, with many working years ahead of them. The most highly valued women will be in their prime childbearing years, also late teens-twenties, maybe early thirties. Children and elderly people will  have lower values.
4. Some inventories enumerate whips and other slave torture (yes, I believe it was torture) tools. These may indicate the relative violence involved in slaveownership.
5. Wealthier people will obviously have more “luxury” items—carriages, silver and gold jewelry, more books and furniture and as we’ve seen lots of china and large serving platters may indicate lots of socializing which was associated with the planter class.

 Tell me—what interesting items have you come across in estate inventories? What do those items tell you about the person’s life?

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The Garrard saga continues, as I have now extended Mason’s history even further. I discovered that Daniel Garrard was the father of the slaveowner William Garrard, who I discussed in the previous post. In Daniel’s will, written March 1812 in Bourbon County, KY (and images lovingly posted on Familysearch.org), he included the following bequest:

Daniel Garrard will

Daniel Garrard will

My 4th great-grandfather Mason was willed to first Daniel’s wife then to his son William. Finding this record made me sadder than usual. I think it was the realization that Mason served 3 generations (so far)  of this family—first through Daniel and then to his son and grandson. I don’t know the name of Mason’s mother and father, but perhaps they were enslaved by this family as well.  Daniel’s inventory is typical of one of the biggest brick walls we hit while researching slaves; there are no family groupings:

Slave Inventory

Slave Inventory

We can only hint at approximate ages according to value. At $500 and the highest value, Cyrus and Mason are probably teenagers or in their early 20s. Jane at $400 and the highest valuation for the women, is probably in prime childbearing years. I want to believe that Jane perhaps is the mother of Cyrus and Mason, and that at least in going to Daniel’s son William there was some attempt to keep her with some of her children. But I have no evidence for that other than heartfelt desire. I see these wills and the breaking up of enslaved families becomes real; so tangible. I think deeply about these people’s lives. I look at the list of names continually, hoping to see an inkling of connection. It does appear that Daniel’s children are left land where their father Daniel lived, so hopefully the slaves were all at least nearby and able to see one another.

I also discovered that this was a famous family, as Daniel’s brother James was the 2nd Governor of Kentucky from 1796-1804. He was involved in some of the early political conventions to create the state of Kentucky and interestingly enough, was anti-slavery. He tried unsuccessfully to get gradual emancipation written into Kentucky’s constitution. This family’s prominence helps me in that the Garrards are a very well documented family.

Because of that, I easily found Daniel Garrard’s father, Col. William Garrard of Stafford County, VA (yes, maybe not all, but many roads do lead to Virginia). He served in the Revolutionary War, and left a will written 7 September 1787. In it he bequeathed 24 slaves to his children and grandchildren. Of particular interest is his bequest to his son Robert:

“the following negroes Doll, Troy and Mason with their increase.”

Now, the 26 year time span means this is not my Mason, but I wonder if it was his father? Mason is not a common name. I’ll now include that Stafford County location in my crosshairs for further examination. I would love to discover Garrard family bibles or papers that further describe the slaves relationships, but I know that’s probably fantasy land talk. I’m happy to have gotten back this far, although  seeing bits and pieces of the reality of enslaved life continues to be a permanent thorn in my soul.

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My friend Aaron has made an incredible find that I wanted to share here because it is such a rarity. Many enslaved African-American women had children with white men, men whose names are sometimes passed down through oral history in the black family. But many times, only the knowledge of an “unknown white man” survives in the history.

Henry Dorsey

Henry Dorsey

Aaron’s ancestor in Texas was a man named Henry Dorsey, and Henry had 2 brothers named Texas and Richard Dorsey. The oral history gave their white father’s name as John  Dorsey, and John was living with the three brothers and their wives  in the 1880 census for Smith County, Texas:

1880Dorsey.jpg

1880 Smith Cty Texas

The amazing thing is that in John Dorsey’s will, probated in 1888, he named his three black sons and used strong language showing that he clearly had a close relationship with them:

 “It is my will …that whatever may remain [of my estate]…be equally and fairly divided between my beloved sons Henry Dorsey, Richard Dorsey, better known as Dick Dorsey, and Texas Dorsey, better known as Tex, these are three (colored) but bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh and my rightful heirs.” 

It is rare indeed to find direct evidence of a white man naming and claiming black children, and in Texas no less, in the 1880s! John apparently never married or had any white children, and he named his “best friend” as executor to carry out his wishes. His estate was valued at around $1000, and the fact that the brothers later pay the taxes on his land imply that the land was  indeed passed to the three sons. Here is one of the son’s death certificate where he names his father:

Texas Dorsey

Texas Dorsey

A later examination of the will of John Dorsey’s father, Benjamin Dorsey, reveals that the name of the enslaved mother of Henry (and his brothers) was the enslaved woman “Ann.” Aaron just added a 4th great grandparent to his tree, and is now tracing back through John’s roots in Georgia.

There are always surprises in store for us in this genealogical journey!

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In my class, I try to emphasize the importance of seeking original documents during our research. In this era of Ancestry.com and Familysearch.org, online transcriptions, indexes and databases are becoming accessible at a dizzying rate. While more access is always a good thing, sometimes what can be lost is the need to always view the original when we find evidence that appears promising.

Original documents can be hard to read. Transcribers do their best to interpret words, but we’re only human, and mistakes are plenty. My “Holt” ancestors are transcribed as “Halt”. Another thing is context. Someone wanting to create an alphabetized index to a set of records can inadvertently destroy our ability to get new evidence. For example, in alphabetized census records, we can’t see who the neighbors are anymore. Sometimes notes made in the margins of the original records aren’t included in the index. I’ve seen original Freedmen’s Bureau records that draw a semi-circle around names and indicate “wife and children”. I’ve seen original birth registers that note the child is “illegitimate”. We need all the clues we can get.

We must to be able to verify that the information we are receiving is accurate, and that can’t be done without seeing the original document.

To illustrate, I have a book of abstracts of Montgomery County, Maryland wills. While researching enslaved families, I found this entry for Rachel Magruder:

Will Abstract

A cursory look at this, with regard to slaves, could prompt one to conclude that Rachel did not own any slaves, since none are mentioned. But look at phrases from Rachel’s original will:

  • “…my negro man Hercules to be the property of my sister…”
  • “…my servant girl Helen to be the property of my mother-in-law…”
  • “…negroes Aria and Anna to go to Mira Magruder…”

Rachel Magruder did in fact own slaves. However, the book of abstracts does not abstract any of the slave data for any of the people in the book. A decision was made by the authors, for whatever reasons, to not include that data. Reviewing the original revealed important information.

That’s a simple example meant to demonstrate the point.

Always. Always. Always check the original.

P.S.–Elizabeth Shown Mills has a new website online, and her Quick Lessons should be required reading. Check them out when you have time if you haven’t already.

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