Archive for the ‘Probate Records’ Category

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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I recently got around to transcribing my gggrandfather John W. Holt’s will. John lived in Hardin County, TN, and spent his childhood enslaved by Giles Holt, along with his mother Malinda and siblings. By the early 20th century, John W. Holt was said to be the wealthiest black in the county, owning hundreds of acres of land. At one point, he was Postmaster at the town bearing his name (Holtville), had a school named Holtville, and he was a merchant who owned a country store. This is a photo of John and his wife Mary Garrett:

John and Mary Garrett

His standing in the community is also evident by the number of times he was named in other wills as executor, and served as security in numerous land records. He first purchased over 200 acres of land with a brother and possible cousin only six years after the end of the Civil War. I suspect, but have no evidence, that his father was a white man.

His will, written in 1911, is one of the most detailed I have ever seen in all the years of my research. John died in 1925 and his will had 15 individual items and ran over six written pages. The level of specificity is what is most notable. He clearly had been well-schooled in estate and land matters, although where and how he attained that knowledge remains a mystery.

He names his son Troy as executor but wisely places his vast estate within a trust that is set to last for twenty years:

“Out of the rents and income of the estate, the trustee will,
 during the said period of twenty years, pay all taxes assessed
against the estate, will keep the real estate in reason-
able repair…”

Troy was also the trustee, and was to use the proceeds from the trust to care for his mother Mary and other siblings, all who were named. John even detailed the meaning of his words, so there would be no doubt as to the purpose of his trust:

“…My object being to provide first, from the
income of my estate, a support for my widow and
minor children, that is for my widow as long as she
lives and my minor children as long as they or any
one of them are minors (whenever the word support is
used it is intended to embrace and include all necessary
food and clothing)…”

John W. Holt had a bout with infidelity, which produced a son named Hundley. Hundley is mentioned throughout the will, his inheritance being only one half of what the other siblings would receive:

“…the remainder of said rents, profits and
income in his hands be distributed by him annually
amongst all of my children, equally, except that Hundley
Holt shall be paid only one half of a child’s share in
said annual disbursements during said period of twenty

John also directed that the trustee was not empowered to:

“sell, mortgage or otherwise dispose of any of the real estate for any purpose, and any such attempted disposition shall be void.”

The repercussions were clear for disobeying this directive:

“…None of the beneficiaries under this will shall
possess the power or authority to dispose of any part
of my estate, herein willed and devised within said
period of twenty years. No deed or bargain and sale
can be made by either of them, no mortgage deed
of trust or other transfer can be made, and no
conveyance or alienation of any kind in anticipation
can be made by either, but such power is expressly
withheld, and any attempt on the part of
either to so dispose of the same will operate as an
immediate forfeiture of the interest in my estate.”

Oral history when I first started researching this line was that the land was in fact, quickly sold out of the family. I’d like to research whether or not his son Troy followed the letter of the will, which would mean that no sale or mortgage could take place until 1945.

Whatever the case, this remains an extraordinary example of the heights some of our formerly enslaved ancestors were able to reach because of education, industry and their own will to succeed.

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Inventoried Slaves

I talk alot on this blog about slave and slaveowner research because it’s one of my primary areas of interest. For those of us descended from enslaved ancestors, probate records are one of the first record sets we are taught to explore. If we’re lucky enough to discover that the slaveowner died before 1865, we may find our ancestors named in their will or listed in their inventories. As we advance in our skills, however, we’ve got to look even closer at probate records beyond just the will or inventory, not to mention the need to search beyond the slaveowner himself.

In this post, I want to show a recent example of how careful tracing through and understanding of those “other” probate records may provide a more complete picture of our ancestor’s path through the family. Familysearch has now posted probate record series for many states making this technique possible to do from home. Many Maryland counties are now up, which is what enabled me to explore this more fully.

First, I created a family tree of the slaveowner’s family. I encourage my students to use Rootsmagic or Family Tree Maker (or whatever software you have) and to create a separate file for the slaveowner’s family. This will be invaluable to your research. Many slaveowners married their first cousins, which makes keeping the names straight difficult (this is one practice Africans in general never imitated). It is imperative that you know at a minimum the parents of the couple, when/where the parents lived and died, all of the couple’s children, when and where they died, and especially who the daughters married.

As long as they died before 1865, start probate tracing with the slaveowner, then trace his wife if she outlived him, then their children if necessary. In a previous post, I talked about the various steps in the process, both for dying with a will (testate) or dying without a will (intestate).

Those who follow this blog know I’m a fool for charting. Take a look at the chart I made for Martha Willson, who died in 1837:

Magruder chart

Martha left a will (unlike the majority of people). I started with her date of death, and went to the probate book that covered those years. I went to the index, and easily found “Martha Willson, Will” on Page 164 of Volume V. Keep in mind that I am using the term “probate” to refer to these records in general. What they are actually called varies by state and locality—in the case of Maryland, these volumes are actually “Will Books [that also contain] Inventories and Accounts,” and are kept by the Register of Wills.

Back to Martha: my chart started with her Will, and noted any relevant phrases about her slaves. She specified that “Dick and Nelly” have their choice of going with either her son Robert or her son John. Dick and Nelly (from Martha’s inventory) are elderly slaves and were probably unable to do much if any work at ages 60 and 64. Martha specified that the rest of her slaves be sold at private auction.

The next important document in her estate probate is the Bond. Executors (in the case of a will) or Administrators (in the case of no will) must post bond with the State that they will faithfully execute their duties. It is important to know who is posting bond. They are usually family members. For example, Otho Magruder is Martha’s son-in-law. Also, a $20K bond told me this was a relatively wealthy estate.

Martha’s Inventory named 9 slaves. The next step after the Inventory were the Sales of her estatethis is where slaves can be missed! In these pages, the other 7 slaves are sold, but (because I know Martha’s family tree) they are all sold to her children. It seems that it was important to keep them “in the family.”

The next steps in Martha’s estate probate include a listing of Debts and periodic Accounting of the Estate. The number of Accountings (1st Acct, 2nd Acct, 3rd Acct, Final Acct, etc.) depends upon alot of things, like the size of the estate and whether or not minor children are involved. Those Accountings can also contain information about slaves, especially slaves being “hired out” for that year, so peruse them carefully. If minor children are involved, Guardianship records should also be traced, but may be handled in a different court.

Two other things I want to point out about Martha: Her estate probate spanned across 10 years. In the beginning of my genealogy research, I didn’t understand the need to trace forward decades after a death, but it is entirely not uncommon to find probates spanning large periods of time. I now trace at least 20 years forward after a death. As I mentioned, Martha was wealthy by standards of her time. Her final estate value of $11,098 in 1847 was roughly the equivalent of $303,000 today according to standard of living worth calculators.

I had already charted Martha’s husband, Zadock Magruder, who predeceased her in 1809:

Magruder Cooke Admin Slave Data_Page_3

As you can see, Zadock died without a will (intestate) in 1809. His estate probate spanned 11 years. Notice also that in his 1st Acct the value of his estate was calculated in pounds, not yet American dollars.

Zadock had 16 slaves in 1810 at the date of his inventory (The child Rezin, age 7, is likely my gggrandfather). It was clear that 27 years later, in his widow Martha’s estate in 1837, 6 of the slaves she then owned had originally belonged to her husband in 1810. Most likely, the rest of the slaves were split up and given to one or more of their 8 children. Trying to find who went where is why I started this whole exercise to begin with. Who got Mariah and Lucy and Beck and the others? Why was Jerry to be set free? Sadly, I still don’t have enough information from these listings to put together definitive family groupings.

Zadock Slaves, 1810

Another important point is this: the actual division of slaves, and to which children they went, is not always written in the official probate books. I have found them many times in original case files or loose papers (i.e., the papers that are apart of the probate proceedings but not necessary recorded in the official books). Always try to find that slave division. You can see from Zadock’s chart above that he owned 16 slaves. His wife Martha kept at least 6, so we know the others were likely divided amongst his children, but, that division is not recorded in the probate books.

This blog post was probably too long, but, hopefully I’ve highlighted a strategy you can use to get the most value out of probate records. Try it out on your slaveowning families, and see what you come up with. I’d love to hear about your finds!

(If you want to catch up on some of my previous posts on slave/slaveowner research, click on those topics in the right -hand “What I Talk About” box.)

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Image from morninggloryjewelry.com

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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I wrote in an earlier post about how much value there is to be found in court records with reference to genealogical research. Now I’ll be thej0301302 first to tell you, they won’t be in the first wave of record types that a beginning genealogist should approach. They are far to complex to dive into without first having a pretty solid grasp of your target family. But once you’re past the oral interviews and the census and the vital records and the land records and probate and you’re left scratching your face, going, “Hmm……where to next?” then maybe, just maybe, you’re ready to wrestle with this 3000 pound elephant.

My favorite subject to research in court records is slavery. Probably because I’ve had so many “Aha” moments (as Oprah says) using them over the past few years. Slaves were the biggest, most valuable asset most folks had and turns out they fought alot about them. So if you’re at the point where you are targeting a family for potential ownership of your ancestor (or even if you know they owned them already) there’s much to be gained by checking these records. I want to point out something that I sort of “relearned” recently.

I’m helping my godmother Carole with her Hyman family from Martin and Edgecombe Counties, NC. If you are from the area, you’ll find there was a huge white slaveowning Hyman family and one of them likely owned her ancestor, Arden Hyman.  We do know, from a marriage record, that our Arden’s father’s name was Zion. You know how we know that? From a subsequent marriage of Arden in 1900 after his wife’s death. That’s 35 years after slavery’s end, but that’s where we found the name of his father while he was enslaved. This illustrates the principle of searching far enough in time both before and after the period you are primarily interested in–with all associated people.


So now we’ve got two slave names we’re looking for. I pulled all Hyman wills in the area, but the will of Kenneth Hyman looked particularly promising because I see he names Zion, and he also owns an Arden. Those aren’t common names like a Mary or a Tom. The will was proved in 1834 and was actually rather brief. While at the North Carolina State Archives (NCSA), I searched all the relevant court books which include the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions as well as Superior Court. The goal is to milk every detail from the Hyman court documents that I can.

The “relearned” lesson came from the Loose Court Records. Those are all the little sheets of paper associated with a court case that are usually not written into any bound book, but kept in a metal tin case or other container in the
The NCSA has the originals, so I ordered the entire box for the Hyman family. What a treasure trove. Each person has their own file folder, careful organized by year. Kenneth Hyman had a big ol’ fat file. Don’t we LOVE to see fat files? Anyway, because it was all 1800s handwriting and time was short, we paid for them to copy the entire file to be analyzed it later.

Kenneth died in 1834 with a wife and several children. The critical phrase in his will was that:

all the rest and residue of my property I wish to be held in common stock until my youngest child attains the age of eighteen years with the exception that each one as they arrive at the age of twenty-one years or get married shall have one thousand dollars in money or its equivalent in property at the time

And what the loose records reveal is that because his youngest daughter was only about a year old when he died, his estate did not go through settlement until 1851! The records then name each and every slave, including an Arden and a Zion, as well as the final division into eight lots and which child they went to.

  • Lot No. 5- to F[rancis] M. Hyman: Arden, Eliza and child Hannah, General, Turner and Elsy valued at $2370
  • Lot No. 6- to Margaret E. Hyman: Zion, Adline, Daniel, Milly and Hilliard valued at $2200

The ensuing years had been tumultuous: Kenneth’s named executor, Theophilus, had also died during that time so an administrator had to be appointed. Theophilus had moved to Florida and died there, but not before purchasing land that turned out to be a scam–his relatives spent years fighting a court case there about that land. One of Kenneth’s daughters had married and her husband had already sold away her interest in her father’s estate before she could even inherit it. A brother Robert, who was ultimately named administrator, had beaten one of the slaves named “Boston” so badly, his siblings sued for damages.

What a horror this institution was, on a trillion different levels.

I remember reading that sometimes an estate wasn’t settled until many years afterwards, but this is the first time I’ve seen that principle in action and the payoff in terms of slaves. The year 1851 brings me much closer in time than 1834. The settlement documents show the slaves being rented out for each year. Imagine if I had stopped searching Kenneth’s files after the will and court books? Wow. I still have alot of research to do to tie together some loose ends on this line but I’ll say it again: Court Records Rock.

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