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Posts Tagged ‘probate’

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Slave and slaveowner research is not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure.

On top of all the genealogy methodology that you need to learn to do it well, there’s the emotional impact of simply looking at the documents that you have to deal with.

After 14 years, my heart still bleeds every time I see:

  • a will with “negro Sarah and her two children” in the same sentence with silverware
  • an older slave’s value being listed as “0” in an inventory after a lifetime of stolen service.
  • a slave being “divided” between heirs in a probate division, as if they can truly be split asunder,

I could list a hundred other examples that just make me sad for the human spirit.

But, we press on through all of this and keep reaching for each and every tidbit we can about our enslaved ancestors, or as I  like to think of it, ways to reclaim our kin. Every now and then, we inch forward. I’ve had quite a few interesting breakthroughs lately. I had to take a break because of my new son and I’m thinking maybe it’s because I’m able to look at some of my research with fresh eyes that I’ve had some recent successes.

I have been slowly (very slowly) working on finishing writing up all the research on all of my lines, and being sure to properly source cite them which is the most time-consuming part. It’s a good exercise because you can clearly see places where there are gaps in your research. While doing this for my Prather line, I noticed that I had not viewed all of the probate documents for the slaveowner’s family.

My Prather family is from Montgomery County, Maryland. We are descendants of Levi and Martha (Simpson) Prather; we had a reunion in 2009 of almost 200 people where we celebrated our heritage, laughed, ate & just had an all around great time. I had been frantically researching the line in preparation for the reunion, trying to research the enslaved roots of Levi. It was very, very difficult even with the terrific records available in Maryland and Montgomery County.

I found that Levi’s father was Rezin (Resin) Prather. You’d think both of those names would stick out in the records, but believe it or not, both names were popular in the area at that time and I found many African-Americans and whites with those same names. However, three things lead me to conclude that he is more likely than not Levi’s father:

1.       At age 70, Rezin is living in the household with Levi & Martha on the 1870 census.
2.       Levi and Martha named one of their sons Rezin.
3.       Rezin’s death in 1872 is noted in our Prather family bible.

1870 Census

Rezin was born around 1800, and writing the history had me thinking more and more about what his life had been like. At that point is when I discovered I had not researched all of the slaveowner’s family.

Rezin had been enslaved by Nathan Cooke prior to emancipation. Nathan was married to Elizabeth Magruder. Both of them died in 1869, but I finally pulled both their parent’s probate records. Sorting their families took forever–like many slaveowning families, they gave their children the same names and married first cousins and other close relatives. But once I did, I found gold: Elizabeth’s father was Zadock Magruder and he died intestate in 1809. In his inventory I found listed….a boy Resin, 7 years old!

Inventory clip

Many slaveowners gifted slaves to their daughters upon their marriages, or in their wills. Apparently, Rezin made his way to Zadock’s daughter’s household and was now the legal property of her husband, Nathan Cooke. Zadock’s inventory also contains the names of 2 young enslaved women, one of whom is likely Rezin’s mother (given his young age): Nelly or Milly. Zadock Magruder served in the Revolutionary War and there is a high school in Montgomery County today named after him.

This was a great find, just in time for my birthday. To just push it back that little bit further feels really, really good.

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Probate records hold a wealth of information about our ancestors. But when you’re searching, do you just limit yourself to the will (and inventory), and neglect all of the other documents that are part of the probate process? All parts of probate hold potential clues. Here’s a breakdown of other steps that could hold evidence for our family trees:

Petition: The process will start with a petition to the court to start the probate process. This is usually a relative or could be a creditor. Petitions, if they exist, should always be examined.

Hearing: A hearing date will be set by the court to prove the will (or in the case of no will, to administer the estate). The hearing date will usually be published in the local newspaper so all interested parties can have a chance to have their say. If no one contested, the will was proved and ordered recorded,or in the case of no will, an executor is named. Remember also that original wills were retained by the court (unlike deeds which were returned to the owner). Always try to examine original wills if they exist for your locality, versus the one recorded in the will books–transcribing always presents opportunities for error.

Relinquishments/Renunciations: These are interesting sets of records. It could be a executor or administrator relinquishing (or turning down) the duties he or she has been assigned. I found a renunciation for the estate one of my Prather ancestors, and it listed every living heir and where they lived.

Bonds: If a will is proved, the executor posted bond guaranteeing his performance of duties associated with the estate. If no will, the administrator posted bonds. I have found bonds to be extremely valuable, especially in the naming of the individuals who served as securities for those bonds. I have noticed bonds are often recorded in separate books. Usually the court will also approve a notice to creditors to be published in a local newspaper.

Letters Issued: Once the bonds are accepted, the court issued Letters Testamentary (Letters of Administration if intestate). This is the basically the court’s authority in writing for that person to perform those specific duties. Letters are also another set of records I often see grouped together in their own book.

Inventory: Usually the court will appoint three disinterested parties to inventory the estate. These are common records for those of us doing slave research. Just make sure that you search subsequent years ahead–if the case drags on, additions and subtractions are often made to the inventory. I’ve seen slave births be recorded in this way. But don’t neglect the other items int he list. The household items can be powerful measures of social history for that family and give you some insight into what kind of life your ancestor may have led.

Accounts and Sales: I can’t stress the value of this part of probate. Depending on the size of the estate, some will come to an end within a year, while others may drag on for 15 or 20 years, especially if there were minor children involved. During that time, periodic accounting is made to the court by the executor or administrator about the financial status of the estate. This also holds true for the guardianship process, which often mirrors many of these same steps. Again, don’t overlook these sections with regard to slave research–you can find slave sales and sometimes the name of the purchaser as well. Accounts many times are titled “First account”, “Second Account”, “Third and final accounting”, “First and final accounting”, etc.. And always pay close attention to the names of the family members and neighbors who are purchasing items from the estate.

Petitions for Sale: Executors/Administrators may petition the court to sell real estate. They will usually include the reason why. You’ll find many estates going broke who need to sell, or because the land can’t be equally divided among heirs easily.

I have been lucky in Maryland to find books entitled “Docket of Administrations” which listed each individual who had an estate administered, each part of the administration, and each book and page those parts can be found on. So that made life easier for me for that family line. Take full advantage  of the wealth of information available in all of the probate process–don’t just limit yourself to wills and inventories. You never know what you might find!

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