Petition for Letters

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:




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



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



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


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.

Figure11Familysearch is rolling with Freedmen’s Bureau Records. They now have Field Office Records digitized for Alabama, Arkansas, District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia! I have been looking at Alabama, which is one of my research states, and I am struck by several things.

Labor Contracts are one of the first categories of records that researchers should browse within Freedmen’s Bureau records, if they exist for that particular location. I posted awhile ago a suggested process to follow while searching these exasperating records. I have been searching through contracts in the city of Tuscumbia, Alabama. Most were for the calendar year of 1866. Contracts are very valuable because they were most often made between slaveowners and their former enslaved laborers.

After reviewing about a hundred of these agreements, I realize they tell us something more about the experiences of our enslaved ancestors.

There was no standard labor agreement; some were short where others went into great detail. What is apparent is that white planters were most interested in returning if not to slavery, than as close to slavery as possible. These agreements illuminate why it was so difficult for former slaves to achieve anything close to economic independence. Social equality was of course, off the table. What’s also clear is the devastation of freeing 4 million slaves who for the most part had no property of their own, were illiterate, and had no land when farming was the only skill most of them had. It was a recipe for disaster.

Slavery studies tell us also that freedmen wanted to get their wives out of the fields and refused to work as long and hard as they did during  slavery. Most agreements spell out that planters would provide the land, tools, animals, and seed, while freedmen would cultivate and gin the crops. Some planters paid the freedmen in cash, but most paid freedmen by giving them ½ or 1/3 of the crop. Agreements vary on who would provide clothing, medicine, and food. The restrictions on their behavior was what struck me most, as well as the ability of the planter to unilaterally cancel the agreement for supposed bad behavior.

Most added that freedmen were not allowed to either leave the plantation or have visitors without consent of their employer. What kind of freedom was that about? While freedmen tried to get more flexibility, planters all but forced them into year-long agreements instead of shorter timeframes. The language used in the agreements show the lengths some planters went to maintain not only their workforce but their absolute power and supremacy over that workforce:

  • Fred Sherrod, in addition to providing land, tools, animals, feed, cabins, meat and meal required the freedmen to  “commence work at daylight and work the entire day except for half hour for breakfast and dinner, to work six days out the week, and to work at night if necessary.”
  • D.W. Hicks added that freedmen would “abstain from all impudence, swearing or indecent and profane language to or in the presence of employer or his family.” Other planters added that freedmen had to be “respectful, obedient and submissive at all times.” That is a very interesting word choice…..submissive.
  • Kirk and Drake demanded in their contracts that there be “no general conversation to be carried on during work hours.”
  • Joseph Thompson wasn’t leaving any detail to chance. His lengthy agreements spelled out that freedmen would “do fair and faithful mowing, patching, hauling, plowing, howing, reaping, chopping, making rails, & boards, making and repairing fences, gates, houses, cribs, barns, shops, sheds, gin houses and all labor necessary for successful cultivation & management of plantation…Commence work at sunrise and stop at sunset reserving one hour in spring, fall and winter months and one and a half hours in summer for dinner…freedmen are not to leave the plantation w/o permission and they labor for Thompson at all times except the afternoon of  Saturday which is reserved to them for working their own patches…but…when the crop is behind or when any extraordinary occasions occur which requires their services on the afternoon of Saturdays it is to be rendered faithfully and cheerfully.” Thompson’s view of the freedmen is evident when he further states “anyone failing to work for any cause will be charged 50 cents/day and if any freedmen shall become habitually idle, worthless and troublesome then he or she will be discharged and sent from the plantation never to return.” He also noted that a journal would be kept of all start and finish times, quality and quality of work.
  • William Hooks may have been more progressive than other planters as he added in his agreements that he would see to it that “peace, harmony and good feelings prevail and equal rights are given.’ That was a rarity.

My guess is that these agreements reflect what the former slaves’ lives were like with that particular owner. By 1870, many of these former slaves would be still living near their former owners. They had few choices. William Ricks is shown below, from the 1870 Colbert County, AL census. His high real estate value suggests prior slaveownership:

1870 Wm Ricks

1870 Wm Ricks

Here is a portion of his labor agreement with several freedmen:

Ricks Contract

Many of his contracted freedmen (Jack Ricks and William Fort) are still living near him in 1870:



This was about the control of labor, plain and simple. It was also about trying to enforce dependence, and continued racial subjugation. That the US Government choose to perpetuate servitude and dependence at that moment in time is one of the greatest, in my mind, tragedies of U.S. History. Let’s not forget that many of the planters broke these agreements: Bureau Complaints are filled with refusals to pay the freedmen when the crop came in, violence against them, or just plain kicking them off the plantation after the crops were in.

Take a look at these valuable records. Seeing original historical documents still has a powerful impact on me, a strong emotional impact. They tell us much about our ancestor’s plight and the hardships that “freedom” brought.

How do you document the slaveowner in your research? Here are two ideas from my own toolbox:

Create separate family trees for each slaveowning family within your genealogy software. Most people never use the feature available in most software to do this. I use Rootsmagic, but this capability is available in most all the recent software. Just create a “New File” for each family, and it will be saved as it’s own, ready to be pulled up when you need it. (Rootsmagic has a free download if you’d like to test drive it for yourself.)

It is extremely important to keep track of the slaveowner and his family in order to trace how enslaved people were transferred to daughters and sons, as they were inherited, gifted and sold during estate sales.  You’ll want to include the wife’s parents, since many men came into slaveownership through their wives, men such as George Washington. Slaveowning families often married first cousins, and I have found it absolutely impossible to keep track of them without doing a separate tree. Then I can print it out and take it along with me on research trips, and check off each person as I search and find probate, deed, court, tax records, etc.

Within my own family tree, for the people who were enslaved, I create a new “fact” called “Slaveowner”:




In Rootsmagic, each fact can include associated media, so I can scan in the slaveowner will, inventory, tax documents, bill of sale, etc. as I find them and link them to the entry. That way all the relevant documents are accessible in my program. I write the Slaveowner’s name in the “Details” tab, and there is plenty of room for Notes. I can add source citations, which are built into all the major genealogy software programs today. I can also have the “Slaveowner” fact print out when I run narrative reports on my family, along with all the other facts. I can do a “missing fact” report, and see which people  are missing this fact. These are just a few of the many powerful ways having our research recorded in genealogy software can assist us.

These practices have made slaveowner research a little more structured and organized for me, although I will never say it is easy. But there are any number of different ways to incorporate this information as you go. Readers, tell me what ways you have created in order to track the slaveowning family within your genealogy computer program?

This was just such a heartwarming episode that I discovered in an 1882 newspaper article that I had to share it. These are collateral ancestors of mine:

1882 Washington Evening Star

1882 Washington Evening Star

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:



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:



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:

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




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:





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


I attended the National Genealogical Society’s annual conference last week in Richmond, and had a wonderful time catching up with old friends, making new ones, taking classes and eating out every night for dinner which I haven’t done in years! For those of you who haven’t attended an NGS (or FGS) annual conference, I hope you will do so in the future. Now on to my post:

The challenge to find the last slaveowner for those researching African-American ancestry can be daunting. We need to trace our lines back as close to emancipation as possible and the 1870 population census becomes a critical document. If you can’t locate your ancestors in 1870, you can use other documents to record their presence in a particular time and place. Voter registration records are a widely untapped source, and although in most cases they are incomplete, they should always be searched.

For my friend Carole Hyman, we traced her ancestor Arden Hyman to the 1880 census in Edgecombe County, NC, but could not find him in 1870.  However, searching the 1867 voter registration record for Edgecombe County showed us that our Arden was in fact there:


It also showed another Hyman—Zion Hyman—noted as living in the same district. Finding those names together uncovered an important link to Arden’s enslaved roots. That “Zion” was likely Arden’s father Zion who was named in one of Arden’s marriage records. That connection helped us identify his likely slaveowner:

Arden mrg

By the end of 1866, Radical Republicans were in control of Congress and wanted to ensure some civil rights for blacks in the defeated south, but the now- President Andrew Johnson (who came to power after Lincoln’s assassination) wanted to deal with the South more leniently, and firmly believed in white supremacist notions of black people’s inferiority. He also wanted little to no retribution for former Confederates, and this clash set the scenes for what would be very familiar to most of us watching Congress today.

Important bills were constantly vetoed by Johnson (like the Freedmen’s Bureau bill and the Civil Rights bill); but the strength of the numbers of Radical Republicans enabled them to override those vetoes. Finally, the Congress decided to impeach Johnson and just get him out of the picture altogether. The House voted to impeach Johnson, but impeachment lost in the Senate by one vote. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (and later 1875) and 4 Military Reconstruction Acts. This divided the South into 5 Military districts each run by a Union General (see map below-click to enlarge). Notice that Tennessee did not go through Congressional Reconstruction and had rejoined the Union prior to enactment of these laws:

As a condition of re-joining the Union, the Southern States were required to ratify the 14th amendment, conferring citizenship to former slaves, and after 1870, also the 15th amendment. Reconstruction, the name given to the period between the end of the war in 1865 and about 1877 (although the opinion varies) was a volatile time period that I’ve discussed here before.

Take a walk around the web and read about the battles between the Congress and President Johnson.  There’s much more to the story that deserves a post of its own.

The brief taste of voting rights for blacks, which beginning in 1870 ushered in the first wave of blacks to serve in the U.S. Congress would not last. Violence and intimidation increased against blacks who dared to vote. The Ku Klux Klan was born. After 1877, Democrats start to take back state legislatures and later re-wrote their constitutions with laws designed to circumvent the 15th amendment, but designed to strip blacks of the right to vote using grandfather clauses, poll taxes, literacy tests and other tactics. Supreme Court cases like Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and the 1883 cases that overturned the Civil Rights Acts of 1875  all closed the door to black voting and led to the resurgence of white dominance over black lives. By 1900, southern blacks were almost completely wiped out of the electorate.

Some of the voting records created during Reconstruction survive.  Here are some of the voting records that I am aware of for the various states (not available for all counties):

Tennessee, 1891 Voter’s List. Available on Ancestry, gives election district, name, sometimes race, and age.

Alabama: 1867 Voter Registration. searchable online at the AL archives. Some of these include length of time in county. (also check Alabama’s 1866 state census)

South Carolina: 1867-68 Voter Registrations available for some counties, Clarendon County is online (also check South Carolina’s 1869 state census and militia enrollment)

Georgia: 1867-69 Returns of Qualified Voters and Reconstruction Oath Books. Available on Ancestry.

Texas: 1867-1869 Voter Registration Lists. One of the best resources of its kind, these list how long the person has been in that county, in the state and what state they migrated from. Available on Ancestry. Someone posted a PDF of these records for Tyler County.

North Carolina: A book entitled “North Carolina Extant Voter Registrations of 1867,” by Frances Wynne lists records from 17 counties. This book is what led me to the Hyman discovery. Originals should be at the State Archives in Raleigh.

Louisiana: I find references to records available for New Orleans, but no info for other counties in Louisiana.

Mississippi: their records are strangely missing (?).

Virginia: Search by county in the Library of Virginia’s catalog, and search under the heading “Election records.” Some records exist, although many seem to be from the 1880s, 1890s.

Arkansas: The Arkansas Genealogical Society offers a “1867 Voter’s List” on CD for 25 counties.

Related to these records are the Poll Taxes that many southern states created to try to disenfranchise blacks. If they are available, they are also an excellent source to locate your ancestor between censuses. In one of my research counties, Hardin County, Tennessee, the tax collector wrote valuable notes beside each name like “dead,” too old,” or “gone.” These were found in county court minutes.

Some of these counties have voter registers through the 1880s and 1890s—be sure to check those as well. In various state archives, voting records are often “hiding” under Secretary of State Records. Also, check the online Family History Catalog for your state and county. They have a category called “Voting Registers.”

Please post a comment if you can add to the list above or have a story about how a voting record helped your research.

Note: Some of the richest records relating to the violence during Reconstruction, other than those found in Freedmens Bureau records, are the Congressional hearings that took place on the Ku Klux Klan the violence in places like Mississippi. You can read an excerpt here.


Boy, that Familysearch.org is going to eventually crush the major paid genealogy websites. They have been uploading Freedmens Bureau records and this weekend I lost my mind when I found out that they had uploaded the Field Office records for Maryland. My entire week is shot. Look at what they have thus far:

On FamilySearch

I did a post on researching in Freedmens Bureau records sometime ago. NARA also has a page dedicated to links and resources about the Bureau records and they have a finding aid that an intern wrote from the Atlanta branch of NARA that is tremendously helpful for genealogists using these records. You will definitely want to download the descriptive pamphlet from the NARA website for your research state before diving into these records. Making these records accessible online is a major step forward: the records are notoriously complicated and mostly unindexed and unpaginated.

But the rewards are many, even if you find nothing for a specific ancestor. These records illuminate the post-war lives of former slaves and the struggles they faced like no other record set. I stayed up way too late last night paging through the records for Montgomery County, Maryland. Indeed, I did find a record on one of my ancestors, Nicholas Moccabee:

Nicholas Moccabee

Nicholas Moccabee

Nicholas faced one of the most common problems freedpeople had: trying to get paid for the work they did, many times for a former slaveowner. The records are also replete with the violence meted out on freedpeople during the period, a topic I discussed in my post about reconstruction.

The monthly and annual reports of conditions that the officers had to submit are invaluable. The ones I downloaded last night gave the most complete picture of what my ancestors dealt with in the community in 1866-188, and on the efforts of the freedpeople to create schools, and the Bureau in helping them secure their children back from whites who refused to “release” them, which was a particularly bad problem in Maryland. Maryland illegally “apprenticed” thousands of children, in a blatant effort to extend the reach of slavery.

Familysearch ROCKS! Stay tuned as I’m sure they will continue uploaded records from the other states.




Freedmens Bureau


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