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Monday, January 16, 2012

Create Portraits of Your Ancestors with Probate Inventories – Part I

Reading inventories found in probate records are an excellent way to learn more about our ancestors.  Many assumptions can be made about an ancestor’s wealth and lifestyle by paying close attention to the possessions owned by that ancestor.  In my office, I have a desktop computer connected to two monitors, a printer /scanner, a portable scanner, a netbook, and an iPad. There are shelves of genealogy books, a closet full of binders labeled with family names, speech pathology books, many travel books, a microfilm machine, old newspapers on microfilm, and several pictures of my children. Just from my brief inventory, you can assume that I am a well-traveled, tech savvy, mom and speech-language pathologist with an obsession for genealogy.

If you are lucky enough to find a probate inventory for one of your ancestors, you may have the opportunity to view an intimate portrait of his or her home and daily life.  Few other documents contain such information.  Note the value of the inventory for a clue of their prosperity. Look at furniture and household items, livestock, and crops.  The inventory may or may not have included personal property of other family members, slaves, or land.  What is found in the inventories are determine by the local government at the time of death.

Not all probate records will include an inventory and not all probate inventories are found with probate records. Inventories may be found in will books, with administrative bond records and even in deed books. Where you find the records will, again, depend upon the locality at the time of death. 

Below is the inventory of the estate of John W. Giddens, brother to my great-great grandfather, George L. Giddens. John died in 1896 in Sampson County, North Carolina. The inventory was recorded in Record of Assets No4 page 362. This inventory was filmed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and can be borrowed and viewed at local family history centers.   

I am not sure who inventoried the estate below.  Often two or three men in the community were appointed to settle the estate.  Appointed men inventoried and put a value on each item in the estate.  You can sometimes see by the lists, the order that they moved through the family estate.  These men could be neighbors, relatives, and/or local officials. Three men appear to be handling this estate and may have completed the inventory; W.W. Clifton, JP, J. K. Boyett, and J. D. Clifton.

Record of Assets  - John W. Giddens – Sampson County -  1896
  • Fifty bushels of corn valued at $20
  • 700 lbs. Fodder valued at $2.80 {feed, hay, etc.}
  • Lot Sweet potatoes valued at $300
  • Bale of lint cotton (480lbs) valued at $33.60 {ginned cotton}
  • Lot cotton seed valued at $2.90
  • 507lbs seeded cotton valued at $12.00 {unginned cotton}
  • One Black horse (10 or 11 years old) valued at $45.00
  • One Buggy valued at $5.00
  • One cook stove, 2 tables and safe valued at $5.00   {The safe may have been a pie safe used to store baked goods, flour and other kitchen items.}
  • One Lounge valued at $1.00  {chaise Lounge or sofa}
  • One desk valued at $1.00
  • 9 chairs valued at $2.80
  • One clock valued at $2.00

The total value of estate items was $136.10.

From the list of household goods, I can hypothesize that John and his wife lived simply. He may have grown some crops, but note that there are no tools listed. At one time he was a merchant and owned a turpentine distillery. Land and a home were not mentioned.  As I know that this John W. Giddens owned businesses and bought and sold land frequently, I know that I might have to look farther to determine his actual wealth. 


Probate Records – From Learn about the kinds of records generated by the probate process and details found in wills.

Next – Part II – A large probate inventory for John Giddens, of Wayne County NC,  who died in 1802.


© 2011, copyright Diana Quinn