Inventories are one of the key documents researchers use as evidence to support their assertion of slaveownership. Before 1865, a slaveholder’s estate inventory includes their enslaved property.

They vary in the information that they provide, but remain an important source for those researching African Americans.

What is an Inventory?

The inventory is a report of property owned by a decedent (i.e., the person who died). The inventory is usually created by:

  • -the executor (named in a will)
  • -the administrator (appointed by the court), or
  • -a group of (usually three) men unrelated to the estate and also appointed by the court.

The estate inventory was created for the purpose of valuing a person’s estate. As such, they are an excellent source to assess the relative wealth of a person. I wrote a post sometime ago discussing some of the things we can discern from estate inventories.

Small estates might list just a handful of items in the inventory. The estates of wealthy individuals, however, can easily spread across twenty pages or more.

Enslaved Property

Enslaved people were often the most valuable part of the slaveholder’s personal property. In 1860, slaves were worth $3 billion dollars, more than all the businesses, banks and railroads in the US.

Pay attention to how the estate inventory is ordered. Slaves are often listed either first or last in the list, though they can be listed anywhere. Sometimes, the enslaved property is  listed from most valuable to least valuable, and sometimes they are listed by gender.

Woman are often valued together with any infants. It is common to find older children valued separately. Contrary to popular belief, very young children were often sold, apart from their mothers. And the fathers of these children are most often not listed with them.

Slaves in Inventories

There are inventories that only include the names and values of the enslaved property. These inventories make it difficult if not impossible to discern family units. Here are examples:

Eliza Lanham, 1829

Aaron B. Scott, 1851

For inventories with no ages included, you can use the assessed value to estimate an age range. The most valuable slaves will be either men with special skills (blacksmith, carpenter, etc.), men in their prime (20s-early 30s), and women of childbearing age (20s). Also, slaves with special skills are often identified as such.

Children and the elderly will have the lowest assessed values. Elderly people are often valued at $0 or $1.

Slightly better for our purposes are inventories that provide ages. In the first example below, we see that the person making the list perceived “boys” as 17 and under, and “men” to be at least 19:

Somerset County, MD, 1843

Caroline Co., MD, 1836

Rare, but an obvious boon for genealogists, are inventories that arrange slaves by family unit. Here is one (thanks to Melvin at Roots Revealed!):

Rarer still, are inventories that include surnames of the slaves:

This next example is also uncommon. Because Samuel Riggs wanted his slaves freed at certain ages, he had their birth dates recorded into the probate records!

Finding Clues

There are inventories that suggest enslaved family units, without explicitly stating they are families, such as this one below. They usually have the telltale pattern of women of childbearing age followed by children:

Here is an example of the kinds of notations we see in inventories :

We see lots of slaves marked as “yellow” or “mulatto,” and even notations such as “infirm,” “idiot,” “blind,” or “sickly.”

For larger farms/plantations with more than one enslaved person of the same name,  for example Sam, they are often referred to as “big Sam” and “little Sam.” That does not mean that the two men are biologically related. In the same vein, we also see “young Sam” and “old Sam.”

I recommend also looking at other inventories in the same time period and locale. You can get an idea of the relative wealth of the slaveholder.

Always be in the habit of researching the entire probate process. That includes not just the will and inventory, but periodic accounting reports, sales, guardianships,  bonds, and perhaps loose papers that include such things as receipts. Clues abound in every source for the scrutinizing researcher.

If the decedent left a will, it may provide slave relationships even though the inventory itself may not.

For example, here is Henry Griffiths inventory, which does not state relationships:

However, Henry’s will includes several phrases that reveal relationships, such as this one:

In fact, Henry identified 33-year-old Harriet as a daughter of 55-year-old Beck. He also identified Kit, Beck, Aryl, Wilson, Harriet and Charles as children of 33-year-old Harriet. Surprisingly, the 9-month old child Remus was the son of 14 year old Kit.

Where Did the Slaves Go?

Slaves that were not bequeathed in a will were often sold. That sale could be at public auction or a private sale. Sales as part of probate were often recorded, and in many cases, will note the buyer of each item of the estate.

You’ll want to always check these for the sale of enslaved property. Some buyers may be family members of the decedent, such as his widow or his children.

This is yet another reason why we need to know the slaveholder’s family well.

In the example below, we can see Polly, Henry’s widow, purchasing two slaves that she was not bequeathed:

Griffith Sales

At the close of the probate process, whatever wealth remains (which includes slaves), will be distributed among the heirs. Slave distributions are not always recorded in probate books, but here is an example of one:

I want you to notice that what was important was that every heir receive the exact same dollar amount of enslaved property. Maybe families were kept together. Maybe not. If one “lot” had more value, it had to pay to the other lots to make each lot equal in value.

Consider also that a slaveholder might die with young children. In that case, the court will likely appoint a guardian for them. The status of their inherited property (including slaves) will be reported every year until the children reach the age of majority.

These documents often show the rental of slaves every year:

Think about the configuration of slaves that you see in an estate inventory. Are there enough grown men and women to have formed any family units? Do you see mostly kids and teenagers? How many children are shown?

As a general statement, infant mortality was high for enslaved women. If you see several women of child-bearing age in an inventory but few or no children, that is worth noting.

It suggests that these women are being worked or disciplined such that their reproductive capacity has been harmed. We see that in the brutal regime of growing sugar-cane in Louisiana.

It could also mean the slaveholder is selling off the children, or that they were not surviving infancy.

More Tips for Analysis

How does the number of slaves relate to the number of slave houses indicated on the 1850 and 1860 slave censuses? If the numbers mean 10 or 12 slaves had to share a house, that tells us about their quality of life.

What kind of farm implements are in the inventory? That is going to tell us about what crop was grown. If there is no farm equipment (e.g., if the master lived in a city) this might imply that their slaves were domestic slaves only or were being rented out.

Were whips included in the inventory? Any other artifacts that might indicate the torture of the enslaved property? (Yes, it was torture.)

We went to always explore the probate records of the slaveholding family’s parents. We may be able to see overlap in the names of the enslaved property. And don’t forget that many slaveholding males came to own slaves through their marriages.

The inventory below identifies which slaves came from and, in this case, still belong to the wife (marked “dower” slaves):

Finding These Records

Counties typically have record books devoted to recording probate. Rural and smaller counties might include many parts of the process process in the same book. For example:

Madison Co., FL

Some counties had separate books that contained only inventories, such as this one:

Charles Co., MD

Ancestry’s Red Book lists what probate records are available in each county.

Familysearch has many of these records digitized (though not necessarily indexed). You can get a free account at Then, search their catalog using the “online” button to discover what is available to search from home.

The courthouse and the state archives are two other repositories where you can access probate records.  If you find something in a published book, always remember to review the original sources.

Understanding Inventories and Probate

My favorite book on estate inventories is “Estate Inventories: How to Use Them” by Kenneth L. Smith.

I also use “From A to Zax: A Comprehensive Dictionary for Genealogists and Historians,” by Barbara Jean Evans, to understand items named in the inventory.

Learn how to analyze probate records in Chapters 16, 17 and 18 in The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, 4th edition, by Val D. Greenwood. (*Please tell me you have this book. No genealogist should d be without this book*)

Also, Chapters 5 and 6 of Courthouse Research for Family Historians, by Christine Rose, discusses probate records.

I also really like this handout on Probate from Familysearch.

Case Studies

Here are several good case studies about researching enslaved people that utilized probate records:

  • -William A. Cox, “From Slavery to Society: The Jerry Moore Family of Virginia and Pennsylvania,” NGS Quarterly 103 (December 2015): 281-304.
  • -Michael Hait, “In the Shadow of Rebellions: Maryland Ridgelys in Slavery and Freedom,” NGS Quarterly 100 (December 2012): 245-266.
  • -Rudena Kramer Mallory, “An African-American Odyssey through Multiple Surnames: Mortons, Tapps, and Englishes of Kansas and Missouri,” NGS Quarterly 85 (March 1997) 25-38.

If you are a member of the National Genealogical Society, you can access these articles on their website. If not, your library, genealogical society, or state archives might have these publications.

Closing Thoughts

The entire probate process can hold important information for those researching enslaved ancestors. Take the time to learn what each step can reveal. Inventories are key documents for those researching former slaves. And they can convey more information than we initially think.

You’ll want to use these records in conjunction with bills of sale, slave mortgages, taxes, court and other records that document enslaved property.

I hope this post gives you some ideas and suggestions for how to approach these important sources in your own research.

Readers, tell me in the comments how inventories and other probate records helped you to identify your enslaved ancestors.







Print Friendly, PDF & Email