Feed on

Today we can leave behind many items which help our descendants understand our times. There are newspapers, books, computer records, letters and other documents which have been preserved (many hopefully in acid-free folders), and so forth. Back in time most of these things did not exist; however, wills and deeds do exist, but they seldom provide much in the way of personal information.

On the other hand probate records offer a great deal in the way of describing the lives of our ancestors. This is particularly true of those instances where the probate records include an inventory and sometimes the results from the sale of the inventory items. Often the sale records indicate who bought which items.

What follows is an example from one of the finest pieces of genealogical research of which I am aware. While I played a very minor part in this research, from this effort I learned a great deal while working with a brilliant team which continues to work on the project years later. The results of this continuing effort can be seen at http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~berry/. Jim Jackson was the author of the excerpt from the web site which follows:

“There are some quite interesting observations and interpretations to be made from this data (a probate inventory). First of all, I organized all of the items listed in the inventory into five categories and tabulated the listed value for each category with the following results:

1) Livestock = 23% of total

(49 animals which included horses, cows, pigs, sheep and geese)

2) Crops/Products = 4%

(rye, corn, flax and wool)

3) Slaves = 58%

(two slaves)

4) Household Items = 9%

(furniture, kitchen utensils)

5) Farm Equipment = 6%

(tools and other stuff)

“By far, the most valuable items of personal property were the slaves. Individually they were more valuable than any other item, and combined, they formed over half of the total value of the physical property items. The next most valuable category was the livestock, which was worth almost one fourth of the entire moveable property value, belying their survival value for a pioneer life style. And he did have a lot of animals! – 5 geese, 2 horses, 6 sheep, 22 pigs and 14 cows – 49 in all. I don’t think there was much of a sales market for livestock, you’d have to transport it to “the city” for butchering and all, so these were probably animals raised for home consumption – subsistence farming and ranching.

“The last three categories account for a small part of his estate, but the information they provide far outweighs their low percentage values. A detailed analysis of all of this data allows us a closer look into the everyday life of Thomas Berry. For example, we can get a pretty good idea of his diet. The meat appears to have consisted, primarily, of pork and beef. There certainly could have been deer and other wild animals included, as well, but we have nothing in this data to help on that issue. There were also dairy products, probably milk and butter, and possibly goose eggs. The appraisal itemized a churn, which, no doubt, was utilized to separate butter from milk. The butter probably indicates that they had a high fat diet, but they probably needed it due to their labor/energy intensive lifestyle. I imagine the goose down could also have been used for pillows and bedding (feather ticking). The wool of the sheep would have been processed (washed and carded) and run through a spinning wheel (another appraisal item) to make yarn, and if someone in the neighborhood had a loom, then bolts of cloth, and possibly felt, could have been made, which would be quite useful for making all sorts of clothing items The yarn probably would also have been used to knit clothing items, such as scarves, socks and sweaters.

“Kitchen items included several kettles, a pot, an oven (could this be what we refer to as a Dutch oven?), a pot rack, tongs, and pewter dishes, plates and spoons. The pewter ware could have been brought over to America from the old country. There were also earthen plates, knives and forks. Furniture items included a chest, several bedsteads, a chair, and a looking glass (mirror). It’s a good bet that these were all homemade items except for the mirror, which was probably brought over from the old country. Household items also included dog irons for the fireplace, candlesticks and a book (presumably a bible).

“The crops tabulated in this appraisal included rye, corn and flax. Rye was used to make flour for bread, not to mention whisky. The process of separating the chaff from the seeds was quite labor intensive. Corn, of course, was for corn meal or corn on the cob, and both corn and rye had to be ground into flour. Flax was used to make linen in a process somewhat similar to processing wool. Flax has a central hard shaft that had to be physically removed, then the flax is carded to get it oriented in the same direction so the spinning wheel could be used to make thread from it.

“The tools and equipment owned by Thomas Berry are interesting for the clues they yield in regard to his life style. He owned a plough, which must have required a draft animal, such as a horse or ox, to pull. The bridle, harnes, chains and bridle, saddlecloth and saddles, quite clearly show the importance of horses in his life. These animals also pulled a wagon, and there were several wagon boxes. Planting, harvesting and other processing tools included shears (presumably for shearing wool from sheep), several scythes, sickles, a shovel, hoes, and a pitchfork. Wood working tools included an axe, a cross cut saw, a wedge and an auger. There were also three different kinds of knives (a graining knife, a currying knife and a drawing knife), as well as a grindstone to keep them sharp.

“The material appraised in Thomas Berry’s estate reflect the labor intensive life of a pioneer in the backwoods of America. We see evidence for raising animals, preparing wool and flax, spinning them into thread, planting and harvesting crops, separating and grinding grain and corn and acquiring and preparing firewood. This was almost certainly what we would consider to be a hard life. It appears that they spent much of their waking hours ensuring that they had the basics of food, shelter and clothing. In addition, they had the assistance of several slaves, whose basic necessities also had to be provided for.”


One could turn such an analysis into a novel about their family in the 16 or 1700s. Or, this analysis presented in a Register Report would vastly improve the quality of one’s research.

One Response to “Probate Records”

  1. I’ve recently obtained a couple of documents that I can apply a similar categorization scheme to. It will be very helpful. Thank you for presenting a different way of looking at things.

Leave a Reply