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  • Probate Inventories: A Window to Your Ancestor’s World

    Patricia Law Hatcher,, CG, FASG

    Published Date : March 14, 2003

    There are not many opportunities in genealogy to get close to your ancestors, particularly as your research takes you further and further back in time. The documents they most commonly left, such as deeds and even wills, were often boilerplate in form, with few snippets of personal information. However, a relatively common document, the probate inventory, may help us obtain an image of the world in which your ancestor lived.

    Like many genealogical documents, we find wide variation in both practices and content. The names and jurisdictional structure of the courts handling probates vary from state to state. Probate inventories were part of the probate process, but not every probate contains an inventory. The purpose of the inventory could be two-fold: to determine the value of the assets of the deceased in order to divide them among the heirs (assuming there were any assets left after debts were paid) and to list the assets to assure that the administrator or executor accounted for everything and did not mismanage the estate.

    In theory, the original probate inventory resides in a probate packet, but this presumes that the packets survive. In at least one location I know of, the early packets were reorganized by type of document, and the inventories held separately in a different location.

    The inventory may also have been recorded in a book. A bit of sleuthing may be required to determine what the book is called. Inventories may be found in a general book with wills, administrations, bonds, and other probate documents, or they may be segregated in a separate volume. Even within one locality, early probate documents of all types may be in a single book, but later probates may be subdivided in multiple volumes.

    Many probate volumes have been filmed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and can be borrowed through family history centers and family history center libraries such as NEHGS. They have also filmed individual packets for a few locations. Often there is a docket book, which usually was filmed. This will tell you if there is an inventory, and if so, where it is to be found. Then you can correspond with the appropriate office to obtain a copy. Check to see if there is a website. Usually you can't order documents online, but many offices will respond to your email query about the number of pages and cost. Sending a check along with a printout of their email response can cut quite a bit of time out of the process.

    One would expect the inventory to be conducted soon after the court confirms an administrator or executor. However, in some instances, this step seems to have preceded the appointment, while in others no inventory was done until it was time to liquidate the estate, usually when the youngest child came of age or the widow remarried or died.

    What will you find in a probate inventory? It may or may not include real estate. Look at the opening paragraph. Outside of New England, inventories are often styled an "inventory of the goods and chattles" of the deceased, which means personal property only, not real estate. It may or may not include items specifically given in the will (with or without a notation to that effect). It may or may not include personal property of other family members (such as the widow's clothing). It may or may not include notes (debts owed by someone else to the deceased). In slaveholding regions, it may or may not include slaves. It may or may not include accrued interest on notes or rental on property (real or slaves). It isn't uncommon for additional items to be discovered later and noted. In other words, don't overanalyze about what is not listed in an inventory. Local practice seems to have a lot to do with it.

    Exactly who took the inventory also varies, but it was usually two persons. One may have been the administrator or executor. One or both may have been a disinterested party or a local official. One or both may have been family or a close friend. In the latter case, they were familiar with the deceased and his possessions, and helped assure that all items were included in the inventory.

    Generally, the items in an inventory are listed down the left (often preceded by the word "To"), with the value in a column on the right. You will often see "do" for "ditto." Lines may have several items on them, not necessarily related. I just examined an inventory that on one line listed "an old bed stead, 4 augers, and 6 chizels." One wonders if they were in the process of repairing the bed.

    Beware of spelling. This is especially true if any of the parties involved were not native English speakers. Many inventories list hows [hoes], chists [chests], and articles of lining [linen] or irin [iron]. Try saying the words out loud and studying the items around them to help you decode them.

    What can you learn about your ancestor by studying an inventory? Many researchers routinely note the total value of the inventory, which gives you an overall idea of their prosperity (albeit offset by the debts they owed). For example, one of my ancestors had an inventory valued at just over 107 pounds. I can learn more about his relative status in his community by examining other inventories of the time period, but I find I also can get a more intimate picture by looking at individual items, especially furniture, kitchenware, and livestock.

    His inventory listed few items of furniture: a chest, 2 bedsteads, 3 chairs, and the previously mentioned old bedstead. The dishes tell a different story: 4 pewter basons [basins], 2 pewter dishes, 16 pewter plates, 1 dozen spoons, a flesh fork [meat fork], a pepper mill, and a coffee pot. His livestock holdings were also relatively substantial: a roan mare and colt, a young mare colt, an old horse, a young horse, a young stallion, a black cow and calf, another black cow, a black heifer, a speckel'd cow and calf, 10 sheep, 2 lambs, 5 geese, and 6 hogs.

    Did you just skim the preceding paragraph, or did it create mental pictures? Either way, read it again now, one item at a time. Create a mental house for the furniture, a table for the dishes, a barnyard with each individual animal placed therein. That is the power of a probate inventory. We don't have to assume our ancestor was a typical farmer with a typical house, typical furniture, and typical livestock. We know exactly what he had. We have stepped into his life and looked around.

    The most practical way to take an inventory is room –by room. Imagine the appraisers moving from one room to the next. Follow their steps and place items accordingly. Very occasionally each room is identified, but usually you have to use common sense, and realize that the process may not have been strictly organized.

    Having imagined the familiar, we want to learn more. Study carefully the tools and farm implements. You may be able to determine your ancestor's occupation from the tools and items in the inventory. Look for items out of the ordinary or more than the ordinary. If there are more hides, barrels of cider, sacks of grain, or hogs than an average family would need, they probably represent an inventory of goods not yet sold. Look for items related to an occupation, such as millstones, a forge, or a collection of finish-carpentry tools.

    Each time you see an item and you don't know exactly what it is, research it immediately. The third item on this inventory, "a pair steel yards," was one I often see on inventories, but have always skimmed right past. I turned to my trusty Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, which had not only a definition, "a balance in which an object to be weighed is suspended from the shorter arm of a lever and the weight determined by moving a counterpoise along a graduated scale on the longer arm until equilibrium is obtained," but also a very nice illustration. I recognized it immediately; I used to have one hanging over my kitchen sink holding a plant, but I called it a hanging scale.

    The fourth and fifth items, a hemp hatchel and a flax hatchel, were again familiar (I recalled also seeing “hetchel” as the spelling), but required research. I remembered learning about flax growing and processing from Dr. George Redmonds in England when we saw vestiges of retting ponds, where flax was soaked in an early stage of the process, but I was blank on hetchels. My dictionary was no help on either spelling. So I turned to my next-favorite source when researching old documents, The Oxford English Dictionary (most major libraries have a copy of this multivolume work), which informed me that a hatchel was "an instrument for combing flax or hemp." This seemed to be woman's work, but lacked the additional detail needed to visualize my ancestor's life.

    There are many books published telling about life long ago, aimed mostly toward schoolchildren writing reports for social studies class, so look in the youth section of the library. One of these books contained illustrations of a hatchel and described how it was used. It is something like a hairbrush or single wool comb, with handles on both ends and with very long, very wicked looking teeth.

    These two short lines told me much more than two items my ancestor possessed; they told what he did, and what his wife did. The family raised flax and hemp. This was hard work, requiring strenuous tasks by the men of the family to break down fibrous plants before the women began hetching and spinning. It was often cold and wet, working with the plants in the retting ponds.

    The outdoor tools were listed between household items and farm animals in the inventory. I found the Internet of great help here, and located pictures and explanations of how to use these tools, which included a grubbing hoe, a scythe and cradle, a dung fork, a dung hook, a drawing knife, hopples, a log chain, a swingle tree, and so on. The information came from historical and genealogical sites, from vendors who market the items, and from antique collections. Each picture and explanation added to my image of the daily life of my ancestor and his family.

    A different but equally valuable image, was formed by the inventory of a relative of an ancestor for whom every possession and every article of clothing was listed in detail, down to “a pair of blew worsted stockings, a pair of black worsted stockings, a pair of blew yarn stockings, a pair of pale blew yarn stockings, a leather belt, a pair [of] mittings [mittens], an old handerchief, and a shred of cloth.” Many books are available on clothing in specific time periods.

    In many instances, you may not find an inventory, but there may be an accounting of the sale of the personal property. This is less likely to be organized as systematically as an inventory, and it probably is not as comprehensive, but it still tells you about many of the possessions of your ancestor. Other lists, such as dower divisions and accountings may also provide details.

    By paying close attention to the possessions owned by your ancestor at the time of his death, you can get a rare glimpse into his immediate world.

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