One of the most important pieces of information those of us researching enslaved ancestors need to know is how the slaves are distributed after the owner’s death.
If we’re lucky, there’s a will that tells us to whom each slave is bequeathed. Most of the time, there’s not.
There are many wills that simply say “to my wife [child, etc.] I leave all of my estate both real and personal….”
Maybe we’ll find at an estate inventory, but that won’t tell us which child inherited which slaves. For that, we need to find the estate distribution.
For an estate that includes slaves, that document might include slave distributions.
Here’s a good example from Montgomery County, Maryland. This part of the inventory shows the enslaved property of Nicholas Griffith, who died in 1814:
There are 20 slaves listed with monetary values and no indication of families, which is all too common.
However, in the same probate book I found the distribution of Nicholas’ estate. His wife, by law was entitled to 1/3 of the estate.
We can see what his six children inherited of what was left (I have cropped just the entry showing the slaves):
Estate Distribution Principles
The primary goal was to make sure each child received approximately the same value in property.
It was not the goal to keep families together (although some slaveholders did try to do that). Most of Nicholas’ children inherited two young enslaved children.
I’d like to believe Nicholas’ widow, who inherited seven slaves, took 29 year old Milly with four of her kids. But I can’t know that just looking at this document.
The hope is also that they lived near one another, so that the enslaved people were not entirely broken.
But as the probate, land and other records demonstrate, very young children were often sold away from parents. Couples were very often split apart.
Richard Thomas came from a prominent and wealthy Quaker family. They founded the town of Brookville in Montgomery County, Maryland.
They were famous (infamous to some) for having freed their slaves very early in the 19th century. This created a community of free blacks, along with their associated churches and schools long before the Civil War.
How fortunate any researcher connected to this family would be. Thomas recorded the birthdates of his slaves in the probate book, and recorded their mother’s names!
That is almost inconceivable:
Sometimes testators willed that slaves be freed at certain ages. The birthdates were sometimes copied into the probate records so the appropriate date of manumission could be established.
How to Find Slave Distributions?
Look for these slave distributions when you are researching enslaved ancestors. They can be difficult to find or it may not be documented in surviving records at all.
Nevertheless, look in the county probate records and loose estate files. I have also seen some separate books that contain nothing but estate distributions.
They may be named differently depending upon the locale.
Slave research, as I’ve said before, is not for the faint of heart and often feels like a game of chicken. But if you are a diligent researcher, rest assured that you will uncover something.
It may only be the name of an ancestor long silenced and whose memory was lost to time. Even if I can’t find a birthdate or a family group, I always feel a sublime satisfaction at uncovering the name of an enslaved ancestor.
Readers, tell me: have you uncovered any slave distributions, and if so, where did you locate them?
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.