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Documents of the dead: What probates can tell us about people’s lives

February 10, 2012

Today marks the first in an occasional series of posts that I’m calling the “Friday Feature.” These will be published on (surprise!) Fridays, and will be longer-form discussions of some aspect of archaeology, history, theory, etc., that doesn’t lend itself to a regular, daily post. I’ll also be archiving Friday Features on a single page for easy access.

The topic for this inaugural Friday Feature is a particular class of historical document that is both chock-full of data for the aspiring researcher and a lot of fun to read through. I’m talking about probates – inventories of a property owner’s possessions at the time of his or her death for the purposes of settling outstanding debts, tallying taxes due, and divvying up inheritances.

We’re fortunate in that vast numbers of probates have survived and are fairly easy to access. That makes sense, because governments were quite interested in property within their jurisdictions, both for tax and for legal purposes, so they took care to preserve them. They’re typically held in county courthouses, usually on microform. And even better, Colonial Williamsburg has posted transcripts of … well, a whole bunch of probate inventories from 17th and 18th century York County, Va. Let’s take a look at a few.

Reading probates

I picked one inventory more or less at random to get the discussion started. If you click here, you’ll find the inventory for the estate of one Richard Stanup, recorded 24 September 1707. Don’t worry, the link will open in a new tab or window.

This looks pretty straightforward: a column on the left listing items, and one to the right listing … hmm, that’s odd, isn’t it? That’s where the value of each object is enumerated, and it’s probably the trickiest thing to wrap your head around when you’re looking at Colonial-era probates. For our friend Mr. Stanup, the first row, “One feather bed boulster &c Rug blankets 2 pr sheets &c,” is valued at “£2.10.0”.

First things first. “Feather bed” is clear enough. “Boulster” is an old spelling of “bolster,” like a mattress or large pillow. “&c” is “et cetera,” meaning “and various small related objects,” in this case perhaps a smaller pillow or bit of bedclothes. “2 pr sheets”is, as you might guess, “2 pair of sheets.” Pretty simple.

Now, the numbers on the right column indicate the inventory-taker’s estimate of the value of Mr. Stanup’s “feather bed boulster &c Rug blankets 2 pr sheets &c,” in pounds, shillings, and pence. There were 12 pence to a shilling, and 20 shillings to a pound. Somewhat confusingly to a modern reader, the letter “L” was sometimes used to indicate pounds, “S” for shillings, and “D” for pence.

There are other little oddities that add to the color of probate inventories. For instance, the use of antiquated measures like “pennyweight” and “dram,” and the notation “do” or “dto” or “d’o,” all of which stand for “ditto,” which simply means the item or condition of one thing is the same as for the previous entry. In the second row of Mr. Stanup’s inventory, we see “2 old Chests 1 Do Trunk 1 Case 1 Small Box” – I’d read this as “two old chests, one old trunk.”

So, you might ask, was 2 pounds 10 shillings a lot of money? Well, monetary values are difficult to translate into today’s terms, so it’s more helpful to compare the value of one item or set of items to another. How valuable was item X compared to item Y, for instance? This is even more powerful when you start comparing similar items between probates.

In Stanup’s case, we don’t see anything as valuable as his bedroom accoutrements until we get near the end, to the listing for “1 old Horse & 1 Mare,” valued at £3.15.0. So the enumerators considered his parcel of bedroom furniture to be almost as valuable as two horses – albeit, one of them “old.”

Going a bit further, we come to where Mr. Stanup’s real assets lay. Nine cows, and “Eight Young Cattle Severall ages,” both at £18.0.0. From this, you get a sense of what’s economically important and widely understood. The fact that “cows” are listed separate from “cattle” indicates the importance of distinguishing animals that provided milk from those that would be raised for food or trade.

And then we hit something startling: “one Negro man,” valued £30.0.0. Based on what we’ve noted above, you’ll notice that this man was estimated to be nearly as valuable as Mr. Stanup’s herds of cows and cattle. In fact, you’ll notice that this man alone represented almost 40 percent of the estate’s wealth, which was tallied as £77.5.6. And he doesn’t even get a name.

I’ve posted before about how morbidly fascinating document-based research can be, and this is a prime example.

Transcriptions vs. originals

A page from Jeduthan Ball's 1750 probate, King George, Va. Source: Probing the Past

You’ll notice Mr. Stanup’s probate, and the rest on the Williamsburg site, are transcriptions of the originals. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, a transcription greatly simplifies the job for a modern reader. Though 17th and 18th century script can be strikingly beautiful, well-spaced and stylish, it can also be a spidery, cramped mess. Ink can fade, paper can tear, and so on. Transcriptions, whether collected in a book or posted on a Web site, are both easier to read and a good way to protect the integrity of the data, by cutting down on the amount of handling the original document is subjected to.

But, there’s always the risk of transcriber errors, both of omission and of commission. The problem is, you can never really know whether something’s been left out or wrongly transcribed unless you compare the original with the copy. (Update: In the comments below, Martha Katz-Hyman describes the exceptional care that Colonial Williamsburg takes to guard against transcription errors. Thank you for the note, Martha.)

I’ve also come across transcriptions in my own research where the writer has tried his or her best, but can’t decipher a certain part, and is forced to write “illegible.” It happens.

One site where you can view actual scans of the original documents online is Probing the Past, a collaboration of George Mason University, Gunston Hall, and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Above is one of those, an image from the probate of one Jeduthan Ball, recorded in 1750 in King George, Va.

Just glancing at the image is enough, I think, to make one appreciate how fragile the document itself is – a good argument for relying on transcriptions when they are available. If you’re reading probate inventories on microform, you’ll often be confronted with a double-whammy: A direct copy of the original document, with the added monochromatic weirdness of microfilm.

What can probate inventories tell us?

All of this is fine, and interesting enough, but probates also have research value. Archaeologists and historians have examined probate inventories in service of research questions – in other words, they’ve used these documents as primary sources to help understand a certain aspect of life in the past. Probates are good sources to use when examining issues like:

Wealth. As we’ve seen, comparing probates allows us to get a sense of the value of the goods held by one person at his or her death, and by looking at, say, probates from lots of people in the same geographic area (like a town) in the same basic period (i.e., late 18th century), we can start to get a sense of who held the wealth and who didn’t in a certain time and place. Once we know this, then we can apply this knowledge to flavor our understanding of other documents, like court rulings and bonds.

Status. This is subtly different from wealth, in ways that are more or less complex, depending on your particular theory and the assumptions that color your research questions. But think of it this way: It’s possible to have high wealth but low status, and it’s possible to have low wealth but high status. It’s also possible to try to project a different status than your wealth would otherwise imply. How could probates help us unpack this? You might scour probates for examples of unusually valuable items relative to the rest of an inventory, especially items that would be highly visible to someone outside a household. A classic example in historical archaeology is teawares: the ceramic vessels used to prepare and serve tea. Tea ceremonies were associated with high status – the image of rich, idle people sipping tea out of beautiful porcelain cups, with matching dishes for milk and sugar, was a strong one. We (historical archaeologists, I mean) often look at the presence of fine teawares as an indicator that a person was trying to display wealth and/or status. If a probate recorded, say, a porcelain tea set with a value higher than most other items in a household, you might argue that this particular person was trying to project a higher status than he or she might otherwise have. A modern analogy would be someone who can barely pay his bills but has a big TV set in the living room. (I’ll add as an aside that some archaeologists and historians have raised what I think are valid objections to, well, most everything I wrote above about teawares. That’s a discussion for another time).

Slavery. By now you can see how valuable probates are when looking into the history of slavery. In some cases, these are the only records we have of people held in bondage. The Virginia Historical Society’s Unknown No Longer site has posted a number of probate inventories (scans of originals), which forms part of the database that group has compiled that lists the actual names of some 3,000 enslaved people. Great work, there.

Social connections. Probates often give us clues about social connections between people in the past, or at least suggest connections we might not have expected otherwise. For instance, in addition to property, they will often list debts of a deceased person. I’ve come across both monetary debts (“owed to John Smith, 0.10.0”) and property debts (“1 barrell beer, prop. John Smith”). So probates give us an entre into tracing the ties of social obligation that united people in the past.

Last thoughts (for now)

As you can gather, I think probates are quite interesting and even fun to look at. But more than that, they’re a valuable source of data on the lives of people in the past. I’m curious if anyone out there has anything to add to the discussion, any links of interest, or any stories of interesting finds they came across while mining this nifty source of information.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 14, 2012 9:50 am

    Probates are wonderful tools. The folks at Historic St. Mary’s City, particularly historian Lois Green Carr and Russell Menard, have been using probate records for years to learn about life for 17th century Maryland colonists. There work, along with the archaeologists there, have been pretty foundational in this respect…and also, historians using material culture! Isn’t that a swell idea?

  2. John R. Roby permalink*
    February 14, 2012 2:47 pm

    Yes, Historic St. Mary’s City is an excellent research project, and a cool place to visit as well! Their site lists a huge number of resources relating to history and archaeology here:

  3. Martha Katz-Hyman permalink
    February 14, 2012 4:07 pm

    The York County probate inventories on the Colonial Williamsburg website were transcribed directly from the originals and then checked several times before publication. There are still errors, but going back to the original document (they are available on microfilm from the Library of Virginia) usually resolves any questions.

    • John R. Roby permalink*
      February 14, 2012 4:23 pm

      Thank you, Martha! My caution about transcription error wasn’t meant to imply any fault on Colonial Williamsburg’s part, merely that it’s an issue to keep in mind when looking at any transcription. Indeed, what you describe is a best practice on the part of the holder of such important documents, that’s great to hear.

  4. February 25, 2012 8:51 am

    While it’s true these are wonderfully rich sources, not everything a person owned at the time of their death was represented in a probate. Sometimes items might be removed before the inventory was done and common items were either grouped together (clothing) or left out (chamber pots for one) all together.


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