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.
GReat advise. Thank you. A quick question, Do you also find your ancestor Rezin with the last name Willson as well?
I am glad you enjoyed the post. I have not found any Rezin Wilsons in my line, but lots and lost of men named Rezin living in Maryland and DC at that time. (19th century through early 20th century)
this post is so valuable to me! Thank you!!
Excellent post and helps me develop a strategy for future research. I’m in the process of transcribing the Will of a previous slave owner that own a branch of my family in NW AL. He listed about 300 enslaved people in his Will of 1846. I heard he own as many as 700.
Thanks for your post. Check out my blog:
After obtaining information on the slave owner’s father and his wife from ancestry.com, I sent messages to the owners of the ancestry tree owners. A responder sent back the wife’s gift deeds.
Your suggestion of a chart or spreadsheet is excellent. The slaveowner’s father had so many children (14) and the wife deeded the enslaved Africans to her children. It will take time, further research ( I have only scratched the surface) and organization to go back another generation or two on my maternal line.
Just started to follow u , great tips am sharing with my networks and getting great feedback from it, Thanks
An outlier perhaps, but I was able to find a treasure trove of info. by researching one of my ancestors’ slaveholding family through Google books. The result of my research was that there were published decisions from the Ga. Supreme Court regarding a dispute individuals within the slaveholding family were having regarding the disposition of a group of family slaves. The slaves were named, and their physical descriptions, age of each, and family groupings among the slaves were clearly outlined.
Wow! Zenobia, you hit the jackpot with that find. Sometimes, lady luck is on our side;) What a jewel.
WOW! Another EXCELLENT post Robyn! Thank you so much for giving examples as to how you organize slave owner research. I love charts too and followed your example without any problems.
I haven’t done any probate research yet. But I plan to. I’e been having some very good success locating information about my ancestors via land records and by searching county clerk records in the areas my ancestors lived for recorded deeds, homestead apps, and affidavit of heirships. Again, THANKS!
The importance of tracking down every single scrap of paper in probate proceedings cannot be overstated. You never know what you’re going to find!
Great post, as usual. 🙂
You have given good advice. I use a process similar to yours and highly recommend your tips in researching slave ancestors.
Linda, I appreciate your kudos greatly!