I was speaking to a young woman at the Virginia State Archives this week who did not understand what she was looking at on the microfiche. The documents were wills and estate records from the late 1780’s and early 1800’s. She thought they were rather boring, her words with a sigh. I told her it was because she failed to see that there is a good amount of information gathered from even the simplest of estates.
Here are just a few things you can glean from estate inventories. There is much more to this, but this should get your mind thinking that perhaps even what seems dull is intriguing.
- Personal property is usually listed as the recorder(s) arrive at the property of the deceased. The same happens if it is a small house, a farm or a plantation-sized estate or business.
- Beginning with the outbuildings, stock, equipment etc. This can often give you clues to the owner’s business or trade and can give you an idea of the economics of the business or wealth of the owner.
- Multiple types of animals can tell you if they also may have needed to lease other properties. Look for that information.
- What types of items are in the outbuildings? Could the person have been a weaver, blacksmith, shoemaker, etc?
- Starting in the home the listing would begin in the front hall and go through the public rooms first, then into the offices, library/study, kitchens and finally into the family areas and bedrooms.
- Looking at the public areas can tell you the wealth, education, and standing of a man, and his family. How many books they have, what kind of furniture, musical instruments, imported goods, etc. Or perhaps there is not much in the home, basics only? The Will will give a note of items given to a specific person and are often still included in the estate inventory.
- The private areas can tell you a lot about a person. Especially a wife. What did she see as important for her children? Were they well-educated? Did they play instruments, learn skills or did they help on the farm or were they, apprentices? In a wealthier home, there might be school books, desk, globes, scientific instruments, etc listed. In a middle-income family, there might be a limited amount of books, and all to educate.
- Beds or pallets? How many? How many blankets, bedding, clothing, personal effects? These can tell a lot about who lived in the home. Earlier in our history, everything in the house, even if it was the personal property of a wife or child, belonged to the head of the household.
- Viewing all the property listed, inside & out, can help you to visualize the home. Often when all we have are deeds and grants it is hard to imagine what kind of home was on the property, but by looking at the estate’s inventory you can get a better glimpse of the personal life of a person.
Many times in an estate file will be listings of the disbursement of the property. I have even found these when no will or inventory has been found. These are very useful. Brick walls are sometimes taken down with the information contained in these documents. If the executor or administrator is not someone you recognize as a family, look into who they are. Business partner or acquaintance, in-law, a close friend, neighbor or possibly a creditor? Who purchased from the estate, could they be family or friends. Follow the people. Follow the money.
I hope with a new eye, you will take a look again at inventories and disbursements and start to see a home or business and thereby make that person come to life in a new way.
Now, have I told you about Guardianship records??