Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reading Primary Sources: Estate Inventories

Dan Allosso

One of the things that fascinates me about doing historical research, is that it doesn’t always involve long trips to exotic archives or well-known historical sites. For example, wills and estate inventories going all the way back to the earliest days of settlement are often kept in the county records office. Whether you are trying to find information on a particular family or individual, or looking for background material to help you rebuild the world your subjects lived in, probate documents can be a really interesting window into the material culture of the past, and into the attitudes and values of people long ago.

I went to the western Massachusetts town of Northampton a while back, to look at estate information for the town of Ashfield. Hampshire County encompassed the area which is now Franklin County until 1811, so I went to Northampton expecting to find Ashfield documents up to that time. In fact, I found several later than 1811, suggesting that people in the habit of going down to the Northampton Courthouse to conduct their business were not turned away. Sometime soon, I’ll make a similar trip to Greenfield, and see what they have in their files.

Wills are public records, so you don’t have to provide any credentials to look at them—but I don’t imagine they get a lot of use. In Northampton, there’s an old-fashioned card catalog where you can find the names you want to ask for, and a simple form you hand to the records clerk. The January 3, 1811 will and April 10, 1811 inventory of Joseph Clark is typical of what I found. Most of the old documents are folded into palm-sized packages, often bound with string. The inventory, taken by Clark’s executor Japhet Chapin, lists everything of value that Clark owned. First and most important, of course, are “Fifty acres of land including the buildings valued at $800.” Everything else Clark owned was worth about $159, including six cups and saucers valued at 12 cents, a vest worth 42 cents, and seven sheep and two lambs whose $13.50 value suggests they may have been newly introduced Spanish Merinos.

In his will, which Clark executed four months before his death, he first specifies “I would have all my just debt paid.” Next, Clark orders the division of his remaining assets. He specifies cash settlements to be paid “within one year after my decease” to his five daughters; fifty-five dollars to each of the unmarried, and five dollars to the married woman, who had probably received the fifty when she wed. He gives fifty dollars to his son Otis, and “to my dearly beloved wife” Clark orders “she should have a comfortable maintenance out of my estate so long as she remains my widow then the income of one third of my estate during her natural life.”

Clark’s widow’s income and maintenance would come out of the balance of his $959 estate after the $275 in cash bequests and whatever went to pay his debts. This balance was to be split equally between his two remaining sons, Joseph and Loring, who would presumably either work the farm together, split it into reasonably equal halves, or find a way for one to buy out the other’s equity. There was a practical limit to how small a farm could be and remain viable; if all fifty acres were “improved” cropland, they may just have been able to split the property. On the other hand, one or both of the brothers may already have owned other property, before their father’s death.

The will and inventory raises several questions that can help direct my further investigation. I can check the town’s Vital Records book (there’s one for every town in Massachusetts, covering births, deaths, and marriages up to 1850), to determine the ages of the family members in 1811. Town “valuations” (tax lists) will tell me what land the sons may have owned already, if they lived in town, and possibly whether either of them had cash on hand to meet the “within one year” requirement of the cash bequests. Since Clark left no cash and I believe he had no large sums owed him (I don’t know for sure, but I assume there are none because the two notes he held were crossed out at the bottom of the inventory list, suggesting they had been settled), the brothers would have needed to raise over three hundred dollars relatively quickly, to satisfy their siblings’ and provide for their mother.

In addition to these particulars of the Clark family, the documents tell me several things about Ashfield, that I can check against historians’ understanding of similar places at this time, to get a better sense of the town. Clark writes affectionately of his wife and leaves her not only a widow’s maintenance, but a third of the income of his estate, suggesting that he valued her contribution to the family's fortunes. The inventory is witnessed by Ebenezer Smith Jr., son of the Baptist minister and grandson of the town’s first settler, suggesting Clark (who was a member of the Congregational Society) was on good terms with neighbors outside his denomination. The will itself is witnessed by Polly Chapin and Margaret Wood, who signed their own names, suggesting that among Clark’s friends, both men and women were relatively well educated. It would be interesting to know exactly where the farm was, what type of land it was on, and how many buildings were on it; since the $800 valuation makes up the majority of Clark’s estate and seems a little high for the times. Finally, the list of items Clark owned is very valuable, not only for the relative values of the items, but as an inventory of the items that surrounded him during his life. The combination of indoor and outdoor tools, the three cows and three heifers, four dining chairs and four pewter plates, all help set the scene and give us clues about Clark’s life. They also suggest ways he may have been connected to extended family and neighbors. Ten “cyder barrels” but no press: so who pressed his apples? No plow and team: did one of his sons have one? One axe: how much of Clark’s land was cleared? This will and inventory give a fascinating glimpse into both the physical and social world in which Joseph Clark lived and died in 1811.


hcr said...


This post strikes me as a wonderful document for beginning college students to show them how much we can glean from primary documents. You've also made me want to run right out to the town clerk's office to root around!

Randall said...

I was talking to my students the other day about what it is that historians do.

I think you've shined a light on one of the things we do: look at evidence and draw conclusions from it. That's a very portable skill. Peter Stearns elaborates on it in his short "Why Study History?" essay on the AHA site. Here's a snippet:

"What matters is learning how to assess different magnitudes of historical change, different examples of conflicting interpretations, and multiple kinds of evidence. Developing the ability to repeat fundamental thinking habits through increasingly complex exercises is essential."

The essay works well in survey classes to get students to think about the uses of history.