For those doing African-American research, antebellum estate inventories are commonly used to find enslaved ancestors.
But all genealogists should make it a regular practice to examine all the items in an inventory. This practice will help us understand our ancestor’s day-to-day lives.
Scrutinizing inventories can provide many interesting little details to make a written family history come alive. The first thing I realized when I started doing this was that I had no idea what many of the items were! Especially all the animals and agricultural items.
What’s the difference between a bay horse and a sorrel horse? (answer: the color) What’s a shoat? (answer: a baby pig) What exactly is fodder? (answer: feed for farm animals).
Luckily, Google is helpful to find definitions and even pictures.
Better yet, I recommend “From A to Zax: A Complete Dictionary for Genealogist and Historians.” This is a great book to have in your personal genealogy library.
Let’s take a look at a few and see what we can discovery.
Let’s look at Alfred Reeds 1858 estate inventory in Russell County, Alabama:
- How the appraisers walked through the property room by room.
- They started outside on the farm and he had lots of animals. Twenty-nine herd of cattle may suggest that he was selling meat.
- Horses and mules had names.
- Alfred did not just have a buggy and harness, but also a rockaway and harness. This was a much fancier carriage that would imply his higher status, as opposed to the average farmers who may only have buggies or oxcarts.
- The slaves are listed by name, but relationships or ages are provided. However, their values can allow us to guesstimate age ranges.
Let’s look at the next set of items:
- The appraisers moved through the bedroom or living quarters.
- A piano and accordion indicate musical talent and were signs of his status.
- The ability to own a gold watch also suggest status and wealth.
- He had more guns than was typical (2 pistols, 3 double-barrel shotguns). Did he hunt?
The last set of items shown are key:
A glance at the book titles suggests that Alfred Reed was a lawyer. Book titles are not always listed, so it’s lucky they were included here.
Now, Let’s look at the 1859 inventory of Caroline Sibley of Richmond County, Georgia:
Her social status immediately is visible. She owned paintings and valuable portraits.
She owned a bible and hymn book, which tells us she was probably a member of a local church. What was a “saviour’s tomb”?
There are no agricultural items or animals. She lived in Augusta, GA, but obviously did not farm. How did she earn a living? Let’s look at the last page of her inventory:
I spoke too soon. Caroline owned $33,000 in bonds and notes! According to one online value calculator, that would be $940,000,000 today. Ms. Sibley clearly does not need to farm.
We also see she owned a pew in the Presbyterian Church—a great clue. Researchers could find that church.
There’s a piano again, as well as jewelry, and silver.
She has four female slaves listed without ages or relation, but we can discern that they were likely working in her home as domestics or rented out.
William Bryant, also of Richmond County in the same year, owned some bee hives and was making honey along with his other agricultural ventures:
Three feather beds indicated he had a family. 100 pounds of bacon on hand is no surprise since he had 20 hogs.
He also may have been a cooper (someone who made barrels) since his inventory includes some cooper’s tools. Someone in his household was spinning fabric, perhaps a wife or daughter.
Mrs. Dudley White
Lastly, let’s look at Mrs. Dudley White’s 1934 estate in Halifax, North Carolina. A court clerk typed this volume of records, which makes it easier on the eyes:
She clearly was involved in peanut farming—look at all the peanut equipment.
She also owned 2 cars—both a Star and a Chrysler, as well as a Ford truck.
In the following section of her inventory the rooms are spelled out for us, and we can really envision the house. A violin, grand piano, Victrola record player, and 30 records suggest she enjoyed music. Perfect for entertaining:
This section is revealing:
Now this is the kitchenware of someone who does a lot of entertaining. She also owned a sewing machine and table, so perhaps she herself sewed.
1. Compare your ancestor’s inventory with their neighbors to assess his or her relative economic standing.
2. Books are indicators of literacy. Many homes only owned a bible.
3. As mentioned above, we can make generalizations about slave ages from their monetary values. The most highly valued males will be in their late teens and twenties with many working years ahead of them.
The most highly valued women will be in their prime childbearing years, also late teens-twenties, maybe early thirties. Children and elderly people will have lower values.
4. Some inventories enumerate whips and other slave torture tools. They remind us of the centrality of violence in slavery.
5. Wealthier people will obviously have more luxury items. Carriages, silver and gold jewelry, books, high-end furniture, and lots of china may indicate lots of socializing which was associated with the planter class.
Tell me—what interesting items have you come across in estate inventories? How did it help you better understand that person’s life?
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.