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:
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 estate—this 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:
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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