Probate records are very popular with genealogists, and no wonder. Probates basically tell the story of who got what and what it was, which is always interesting, and to this end, it includes an heir list and an inventory of the deceased’s property, often down to the contents of the house. A probate file can even outline the family’s spending habits through the bills submitted to the estate.
The forms themselves are an interesting record of the time period in which they were used. On the back of the inventory form for a 1868 Scott County probate file, for example, are instructions on the specific property that is ‘exempt from execution,’ if the deceased left a living spouse. In, other words, this is a list of the type and amount of possessions that the executor of an estate had to set aside for the widow, safe from the claims of creditors or other heirs.
Here is a breakdown of this list:
- Wearing apparel, trunks or other receptacles to contain same;
- The proper tools, instruments, or books of any farmer, lawyer, &c;
- Horse, or team, not more than two horses or mules, or two yoke of cattle, and wagon, or other vehicle with harness;
- All private libraries, family bibles, portraits, pictures and paintings not kept for sale;
- A pew;
- An interest in burying ground, not exceeding one acre;
- One cow and calf;
- Fifty sheep and wool therefrom;
- Five hogs, and all pigs under six months;
- The necessary food for animals exempt for sixty days;
- All flax raised, and manufactures therefrom;
- One bedstead and bedding for every two in the family;
- All cloth manufactured by the deceased, not exceeding one hundred yards;
- Household and kitchen furniture, not exceeding one hundred dollars in value;
- Spinning wheels and looms, and other instruments of domestic labor kept for actual use;
- The necessary provisions and fuel for the use of the family for six months.
Some of the above were obviously chosen for the sake of survival, economic stability, or personal sentiment. But a few might seem slightly obscure–the pew, for example, might seem odd, unless you know that in some churches, parishioners could buy (or ‘sponsor’) a pew, which meant that they and their family had the privilege of sitting in it and perhaps installing a plaque on the aisle side stating that this was the case. The allowed bedstead and bedding for every two in the family might also seem a little awkward to the modern mind as well, depending on the numbers and demographics of the household, but in a time when there might be little indoor heat or floor space, two to a bed was quite generous.*
So if you’d like to find how who really inherited your ancestor’s estate, the extent of that estate, and perhaps other information beyond date of death and place of burial, why not try probate records? And if your ancestors lived–and died–in Scott County, why not try our collection?
*In fact, compared to some of the Scott County divorce settlements recorded in our early documents, the terms of this list are positively luxurious. It is perhaps a credit to the honesty and integrity of early Scott County citizens that more marriages didn’t end in mysterious death, rather than divorce.