For those of us descended from enslaved ancestors, we are taught to research probate records early in the process. They can be used to verify slaveownership.
If the slaveowner died before 1865, we may find our ancestors named in their will or listed in their inventories.
As we advance in our skills, however, we need to look closer at probate records beyond just the will or inventory. We need to understand how to use every step in the probate process.
Careful tracing through the entire probate process may provide a more complete picture of our ancestor’s path through the family. Familysearch (online) contains probate records for many states making this possible to do from home.
Many Maryland county records are now available, which is what enabled me to explore this more fully.
First, I created a family tree of the slaveowner’s family in writing. You should have this information from prior background research.
Next, I used Rootsmagic to create a separate file for the slaveowner’s family. This will be invaluable to your research. Having a separate file for the slaveowning family will help to keep track of each person in the family.
For the slaveowning husband and wife, it is imperative that you know at a minimum:
**the parents of the couple,
**when and where their parents lived and died
**all of the couple’s children,
**when and where their children died, and especially
**who the daughters married.
As long as the slaveowner died before 1865, begin with his probate. Trace his wife’s probate if she outlived him. Next, their children if necessary.
In a previous post, I talked about the various steps in the process.
Examples: Martha Willson Magruder
Those who follow this blog know I love to create charts and tables. The chart below traces the probate process for Martha Willson, who died in 1837:
Will, Inventory and Bond
Martha’s estate probate started with her Will. In my table, I noted any relevant information about her slaves.
In her Will, Martha specified that “Dick and Nelly” have their choice of going with either of Martha’s sons, Robert or John.
From Martha’s Inventory, we know that Dick and Nelly were elderly slaves. At ages 60 and 64, they were probably unable to do much work.
Seven other enslaved people were apart of the estate. Martha specified the sale of the rest of her enslaved property at private auction.
Martha’s estate required a Bond. Executors or Administrators must post bond with the State, which promises they will faithfully execute their duties.
It is important to know who is posting bond since they are often family members. For example, Otho Magruder was Martha’s son-in-law. Also, the $20K bond suggests this was a relatively wealthy estate.
Sales, Debts and Accounting
After the Inventory were the Sales of Martha’s estate—this is where slaves are often missed! In the estate sale, seven slaves were sold.
However, they were all sold to her children. This is another reason why we need to know the slaveowner’s family.
Martha’s estate probate also include a listing of Debts and periodic Accountings. How many Accountings appear in the documentation (1st Acct, 2nd Acct, 3rd Acct, Final Acct, etc.) depends upon many factors.
These factors include the size of the estate and whether or not minor children are involved.
Accountings can contain information about slaves. They often note slaves being hired out, so peruse these records carefully.
If minor children are involved, Guardianship records should also be traced Remember that those records may be handled in a different court.
A Tip to Remember
Notice also that Martha’s probate process spanned across 10 years. In the beginning of my genealogy research, I didn’t understand the need to trace forward many years after a death.
However, it is entirely common to find probates spanning large periods of time. I now trace at least 15 years forward after a death.
Her Husband’s Wealth
Martha was wealthy by standards of her time. Her final estate value of $11,098 in 1847 was roughly the equivalent of $303,000 today.
Martha’s husband, Zadock Magruder, who predeceased her in 1809. Here is my chart of his probate:
As you can see, Zadock died without a will (intestate) in 1809. His estate probate spanned 11 years. (Notice the calculation in pounds, not dollars, of the value of the state in his 1st Accounting.)
Zadock owned 16 slaves at the date of his inventory. Martha’s 1837 estate probate included six of the slaves Zadock owned in 1810. Their children probably gained possession of the rest of the slaves.
Trying to follow the slaves through the family is why I started this whole exercise to begin with. What happened to Mariah and Lucy and Beck and the others? Why was Jerry freed?
Sadly, I still don’t have enough information from the inventory to discern family groupings. This is very common, unfortunately.Zadock Slaves, 1810
Division of Slaves
The official probate books do not always include the actual division of slaves. I have sometimes found them in original case files or loose papers (i.e., the papers that are apart of the probate proceedings but not necessary recorded in the official books).
Always try to find that division of slaves. If you can’t find it, you’ll have to search the records of the children and perhaps make some inferences about their disposition.
This blog post was long, but hopefully I’ve suggested a strategy you can use to get the most value out of probate records. Try it out. I’d love to hear about your finds!
(If you want to catch up on some of my previous posts on slave/slaveowner research, click on those topics in the right -hand “What I Talk About” box.)
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.