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  • African American Probate Records

    Beth Anne Bower

    Probate records are the official documents of a deceased person’s estate. These include the will, inventories, accounts, and administrative records. Probate records are often overlooked—or ignored—by family researchers. Here are a few reasons why:
    • It is believed that their ancestor did not have an “estate” to probate.
    • They are unaware of the wealth of genealogical information that probate records can provide.
    • They are unavailable or difficult to use.

    In fact probate records, especially for African American genealogists, can provide valuable information. Why? Other “official” records, such as birth, death, or census records are created by others and potentially subject to bias.  Probate records, especially wills, are the statement, frequently written in their own hand, of your African American ancestor.

    Let’s look first at the three reasons genealogists might avoid or overlook probate records:

    My ancestor did not have an “estate.” As we all know, there are many people who do not have wills and do not own land. However, there are several reasons why your deceased ancestor might still have probate records. Even if they did not have a will, they may have assets, such as bank accounts and/or debts, that require a “settling of accounts” at their death. Sometimes after an individual’s death, the family will examine the paperwork and find that they disagree on certain matters. Another scenario involves land or other property the deceased owned that the family was unaware of. Did they have a store in a rental property? Then the stock in the store would be part of the estate.

    Thomas Cole, an African American hairdresser, died in Boston in 1847. He did not own any real estate, but had personal items and accounts worth around $2700. His detailed will gives specific bequests to his minister, his minister’s wife, his nephew, a friend’s son, and several friends. Bequests to the Bay State Lodge of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, the Ogden Lodge of New Haven, Connecticut, the First Independent Baptist Church in Boston, and the Adelphic Union Library Association tell us something of his civic and social activities. And he bequeaths “to Mrs. Elizabeth Riley three hundred dollars, my feather bed which formerly belonged to my mother” and all his linens and china. The accounts of the estate tell us that Elizabeth Riley served as his nurse during his illness.1 Thomas Cole’s will provides the genealogist a wealth of information on family relations, friends, and an active life.

    Probate records do not contain “genealogical information.” In fact, many probate records are treasure troves of genealogical information, all of which should be checked and double-checked against other sources. Those writing wills are leaving their money, land, furniture, and other items to those they cherish. An example is the will of Jonas W. Clarke, an African American clothing dealer who died in Boston in 1870. He leaves his son, Jonas W. V. Clark all the stock-in-trade in his store. He leaves his wife Frances H. Clark all the rest of his personal estate. He leaves his real estate to his wife and his daughter, Frances Jane Weedman, wife of James A. Weedman “in her own right free from all interference or control of her husband.”2 From this record we have learned the names of his wife, two children, and the name of the husband of his daughter. Other records might contain information on adopted children, children from previous marriages, siblings and their families, disowned children, parents, or friends.

    Probate records are unavailable or difficult to use. Probate records are public records, so they are almost always available. Yes, probate records can at times be difficult to find and use, however not checking to see if your ancestor had a probate record means you may be missing out on valuable clues in your genealogical search. For instance, Ann Jackson, age 63, died in Boston on May 7, 1861, of peritonitis. She was a widow who was born in Richmond, Virginia. Her death record lists her father’s name as York.3 If we check the  NEHGS online database People of Color in the Massachusetts State Census, 1855 - 1865, we find that she lived in what appears to be a boarding house since all of the “families” in the building are single women and men. One would assume that the likelihood of a probate record for Ann Jackson would be low: she is listed as “colored,” she is female, and she lives in a boardinghouse. However, Ann Jackson had a bank account containing $805.36. In her will she left the money to her son, a slave in Richmond, Virginia, so that he could buy his freedom.4 The will even lists the plantation where he was a slave.

    Here are some suggestions on how to proceed with your African American genealogical probate research:

    1.  Know the name of decedent (the person who died), their date of death, place of death, and, most importantly, where they lived. The probate record will be in the city or county where they  resided. For example, Peter Clark, a Boston and Albany Railroad laborer, died in 1873 in a railroad accident and was buried in Washington, D.C. But he lived in a boarding house in Boston, so his probate record was filed in Suffolk County, Massachusetts.5

    2.  Where are the probate records for that jurisdiction located? The best source for New England is the Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research by Marcia D. Melnyk (NEHGS, 1999 and 2001). Also consult state specific articles such as Joyce S. Pendery’s “Guide to Genealogical Research in Connecticut (New England Ancestors 3, [2002], 3:17-18). Call ahead to find out hours and any special considerations. For instance, many archives will only initially let you use microfilmed records rather than originals.

    3. How do I know this is my ancestor? When doing probate research it is important to bring any information on the decedent’s family, addresses of their known residences, names of friends, and some knowledge of the community they lived in. For every Emiliano Mundrucu there are thirty John Smiths or Joseph Johnsons. It will be easier to narrow your search if you have as much information possible at your fingertips. Also, African American lawyers or leaders in a community often witnessed or served as executors or administrators of estates. If you know their names it may help sort the Irish or English John Smiths from the African American John Smiths.6 Finally, as you move back before the abolition of slavery in New England (anytime between 1777 and about 1820 depending on the state 7) the name of the slave owner becomes an important piece of information, as does the probate record of the slave owner.

    4. Make sure you look at all of your ancestors’ probate records. A person who wrote a will died testate and the person they name to execute their will is the executor (male) or executrix (female). A person who died without a will died intestate and the probate court names an administrator. There are many documents, other than the will, that are created during the probate process including but not limited to: bond documents, inventory of real and/or personal estate, notices of the estate probate and any auctions, accounting reports, and a final disposition. All are potential information sources. Inventories and accounts are particularly rich documents since they list all of the real and personal property of the decedent, as well as all money owed by and owed to the person.

    Caution: In many New England jurisdictions probate records were written on various pieces of paper and collected into “packets.” The individual papers were often copied into probate books as the papers were filed, meaning that the records for one estate can be scattered among many books. It is usually the books or microfilm copies of the books that are available to family researchers. This is to conserve and protect the original documents. First, make sure you check all citations in the index even if they are in different books. Second, the bigger and more complicated the estate the more likely it is that not all the papers in the packet were copied into the books. If you think this is possible the jurisdiction may allow you to access the original packet. Third, probate clerks, responsible for hand-copying hundreds of small documents, often made mistakes in the process of transcribing or abbreviated the information to save time. It is important to check any genealogical information you find in a probate document against other sources to confirm the information.

    Probate records can often cover many years. If the deceased left children under the age of twenty-one, then the probate court required the estate to file reports on the disposition of their support and eventual receipt of a legacy. Also, in some states the probate courts handled cases related to “incompetence,” meaning a case where the family or friends felt that a person, because of illness or age, was not able to manage their estate and/or family affairs. If the court agreed, then an administrator was named to manage the person’s estate while they were still alive.

    Remember that probate records are sources to be consulted for every ancestor on your chart, not just the early ones. Especially for New England African American family researchers with southern roots, late nineteenth and twentieth-century probate records may provide additional or new information on your ancestor’s migration north. The New England Historic Genealogical Society has many resources to assist you in preparing for and carrying out your probate research in New England. Check their online library catalog for the published and microfilmed sources of probate records available at their research library. Consulting the NEHGS collection of probate indexes can save you a trip to the wrong county. Abstracts, which summarize probate records, may be used to narrow the search for your ancestor, but you should always then go to the full documents to collect all of the available information.

    For examples of nineteenth century African American probate in New England see Carol Stapp’s Afro-Americans in Antebellum Boston: An Analysis of Probate Records. (Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993). Also, NEHGS has just added  People of Color in the Massachusetts State Census, 1855 - 1865 to their growing collection of online databases. It is a valuable tool to confirm the county or town where your African American ancestors lived during the mid-nineteenth century.



    1.Suffolk County Probate #35173, and Carol Stapp Afro-Americans in Antebellum Boston: An Analysis of Probate Records (Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993), pp.164-178.
    2. Suffolk County Probate #50262.
    3. Massachusetts Death Record #1300.
    4.Suffolk County Probate #43504.
    5. Massachusetts Death Record #2699, Suffolk County Probate Record #54096.
    6. For more on African American community networks in probate records see Carol Stapp’s Afro-Americans in Antebellum Boston: An Analysis of Probate Records
    7. Hine, Darlene Clark, William C. Hine, and Stanley Harrold. The African-American Odyssey. Vol. 1 (Prentice Hall, 2000), pp.94-97.
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