When doing genealogy research, a person’s Last Will and Testament can provide a lot of information — names of spouses and children (and failure to mention these may be an indication that they predeceased the testator); coordinates of real property; hints of family disputes; and, of course, financial holdings.
What I have found even more interesting, however, are the probate inventories that list with specificity the personal property owned by the person at the time of his or her death. Our ancestors did not have as much “stuff” as we have, and they certainly did not live in a “throw-away society” like we do. Clearly, they had no need for a professional organizer.
Here we can sense the rarity of things we don’t give a second thought — things like glass bottles, books, and nails. Additionally, our ancestors were likely to own items that we’re unfamiliar with . . . like piggins. (No, a piggin is not a small pig. And it has nothing to do with overeating. In the colonial era, some buckets were made like a small barrel, but with one stave left extra long for use as a handle, turning the bucket into a scoop. It was used on farms for things like scattering feed for the chickens, slopping the hogs, and as a grain scoop.)
The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, edited by Szucs and Luebking, points out some of the other clues inventories provide: “A man was often judged by the kind of bed he slept in, so inventories usually listed bed and bedding in considerable detail: bed curtains imply a canopied bed to keep out cold drafts. Featherbeds, sheets, coverlets, blankets, and spreads may also be listed separately.” The owner’s trade or occupation may be reflected in the types of tools he owns. The types of livestock and crops grown may be apparent from the listings, as well as whether a planter owned slaves.
Below are details of the estate inventories of a few of my maternal ancestors. The listings are not necessarily complete — in most cases I wrote down only what was interesting to me; perhaps you will find them interesting, too.
Benjamin (Benois) Brassieur – My 9th great grandfather, who was born in France and died in 1662 in Calvert County, Maryland:
The inventory indicated Benjamin to be a wealthy man. It includes several feather beds and bolsters, blankets, pillows, chairs, chests, cabinets, cupboards, household goods such as candlesticks and pots and pans. One trunk contained “sixteen pairs of sheets, a pair of pillow bears [pillowcases], two holland [a plainwoven or dull-finished linen] shirts, thirteen diaper napkins, three diaper [a soft linen fabric] tablecloths, one cupboard cloth, one mantle [cloak], one holland tablecloth, twelve oxenbridge [a sturdy or coarse linen] napkins, two towels, one mantle of woolen…” Benjamin owned several pieces of silver — tankards, cups, spoons, chimes, whistles, a silver hatband — and a gold seal ring. He had a good supply of gunpowder (90 lbs) and a certain amount of bar iron for manufacturing whatever implements happened to be needed. He had 2 dozen peregrine falcons, used for sport hunting. His had “11 barrows and 2 boars of about 2 yrs. old, 27 hog sows and barrows of about 2 yrs. old apiece, 25 pigs and shoats under a yr. old, 12 cows and calves, 6 cows more, 3 steers of 4 yrs. old, 3 steers of 2 yrs. old, 2 hogs of 2 yrs. old and 8 servts.”
Thomas Mattingly – My 8th great grandfather, born in England and died in Maryland about 1664:
One still with accessories (the most valuable item in the estate); 1 cow and calf and yearling heifer; parcel of books; several shirts; 2 washboards; 3 old pair of drawers; 3 suits and a coat; 5 pair of stockings; 1 pair of boots and 1 pair of shoes; 5 hats; 18 napkins and towels; 2 tablecloths and other linens; 11 bottles; 2 beer glasses; 2 beds; 4 pillows, bag of feathers; 4 pewter dishes; 2 pewter basins; 2 plates; iron pot; 2 copper saucepans; pothangers and pot hooks; 1 old gun; hand saw; 2 hoes; lathing hammer; half a grindstone; box of nails; silver dram cup; half the crop
David McElfresh – My 6th great grandfather, lifelong resident of Maryland who died in 1738:
A parcel of old books; silver stock bucket; parcel of old pewter; parcel of old bedding; 4 old chests; 2 trunks; 2 boxes; 2 old tables; 5 old chairs; 2 stools; parcel of meat & hog’s lard; old iron; earthenware; 3 glass bottles; 1 old razor & hone; old warming pan [to warm the bed]; old pr. of scissors; old spinnng wheel and card; old saddle and bridle; 8 barrels of corn; 2 old plows and old horse harness; one old negro man named Cindell; 3 plow horses; 4 cows; 3 yearlings; 2 3-year olds & 2 2-year olds; ass; 14 sheep and 11 lamsb; 25 lb. of wool; 3 lb. of cotton; 4 barrows, 1 sow, 6 shoats, 8 pigs; 3 old iron pots; one trammel [used to suspend a cooking pot over a fire]; 1 skillet; 1 old frying pan; 1 old hand mill; 1 mill picker [to rough the buhr stone of the mill]; 7 old cider casks; old lumber; old pr. of trucks & sledge [for hauling]; 2 old hammers & pr. of old marking irons [used to imprint the owner’s mark in the end of logs]; 3,566 pounds of tobacco
William Carpenter – My 6th great granduncle, born in Germany, died in Virginia in 1745:
Negroes Tom, Sarah, Moth, Jack, Jimmy, Dick, Jenny, Tom; white horse, sorrel horse, gray horse; 2 colts, 5 yearlings; 3 steers, 8 cows, 5 calves; some books; 1 cart; 1 still; 4 pewter dishes; 1 brass kettle; 1 cross cut saw; 2 saddles and bridles; some tobacco, oats, 20 lbs. corn, 1 bu. beans; trays and tubs; 3 axes and wedges; 1 bed and furniture; 1 bed and blankets; 1 bellows; 3 cards, 1 spinning wheel; 1 looking glass; 1 mug
Andrew Carpenter – My 5th great granduncle, lifelong resident of Virginia, who died in 1795:
Slaves Henry, Adam, Seth, Elizabeth, Emma, Michael, Thomas, Ann, Peggy, Humphrey, Sam, July, Jonas and Henry; 1 large Bible; money scales; 1 lot hemp seed; 1 still; set blacksmith tools; 1 pepper mill; 1 brass clock; 1 set plastering tools; 1 pair flat irons; loom; quilting wheel; 3 spinning wheels
John Carpenter – My fifth great grandfather, a lifelong resident of Virginia, who died in 1804:
4 negro slaves named Harry, Eve, Moses, and a boy; Dutch oven; pair pot hooks; some books; 6 bottles; 1 box of tinder; trunk; 1 chest; 1 chamber pot; 2 drawing knives [for woodworking]; 1 dish; 1 money scales; 1 bread tray; 1 flax wheel; 2 bee hives; 3 basins
John Gaar – husband of my first cousin six times removed, lifelong resident of Virginia, who died in 1808:
Gray horse, bay horse, bob bay mare, gray mare, young bay horse, mare colt, fly mare, horse colt; Negroes William, Lender and child, Benjamin, Jeremiah, Lucy, and Julia; black pide [black and white] cow, brown cow, white-face cow, brindle steer, pide [red and white] cow, bull, steer; 4 yearlings; 21 sheep; 15 hogs, 29 shoats, 2 hogs; 30 geese; 7 plough; 3 grubbing hoes; 6 hoes; waggon and gear; one barrow; one wagon; 2 lock chains; 1 still and furniture, one boiler, 10 still tubs, 3 casks; 12 bridles, 3 saddles, parcel of sleys and harness; loom and furniture, 1 cotton wheel; parcel of plank, parcel of feather-edge plank, heading plank, crosscut saw, nine axes, steelyards; gun and shot bag; 1 raw hide; 1 grindstone, 1 wheel; 1 walnut table, 1 small table, 6 chairs, 11 chairs; cupboard and earthenware; candlesticks; 1 looking glass; 5 beds and furniture; 3 chests; 2 rugs; blanket; 1 cask, 1 kettle, 2 jugs, 1 tub; shoemaker’s tools; 1 dictionary, parcel of books; smoothing irons; funnels, etc.
William Carpenter – My fifth great granduncle, of Virginia, who died there in 1810:
15 negro slaves; 24 hogs; 21 German books; 4 gourds with powder; 1 bed with cords; 3 snuff boxes; 90 gallons of brandy; 2 candle snuffers; 1 small trench with soap; 1 bottle castor oil; 1 German reap hook; 3 flax wheels; 2 piggins; 1 pewter basin; 1 skillet with lid and piggin; 1 brass spoon; 1 sugar canister; 1 box flints; 1 jug of honey; 4 caskets of dried fruit; 6 rose blankets [Rose blankets began to appear in Virginia by the 1770s. They were inexpensive and imported from England, where women sewed abstracted rose or compass patterns or stars in the corners]
Joel Carpenter – My 3rd great grandfather, who was born in Virginia and died in Bullitt Co., Kentucky in 1822:
2 piggins; 2 wagons and gear; bedstead & bedding; table; 1 lot of sheep shears; desk; small chest; looking glass; 2 scales; 2 small chairs; 6 Windsor chairs; handsaw; rifle; 3 barrels; hay; 1 saddle; 1 woman’s saddle; tinware; coffee pot; tray; 1 big wheel; still; 2 ovens; grindstone; drawing knife; auger; hoes; 5 axes; 4 bells; 1 box of iron; 1 gimblet; 1 hammer; 1 pair saddle bags; 4 halter chains; jack screw; log chain; 3 collars; 3 blind bridles; 1 bridle; 1 lot tubs; 3 pair gear; T steer; 1 red cow and calf; 1 white cow; 1 horse; 1 mare; 1 dun horse; 1 lettering box [presumably for pen, inkwells, etc.]; lot of plank; lot of hay; kettle; 1 set of rasors [razors]; 1 lot of bare [bear?] skins; sugar chest; 1 barrel vinegar; 1 back cart; 2 lots of hogs; 1 negro man
Vachel Hinton – My 5th great grandfather, who was born in Maryland and died in Fleming County, Kentucky in 1825:
1 dining table; candle stand; old table; 4 beds with bedding; 2 blankets, 8 quilts; 2 trunks; desk; cupboard; looking glass [mirror]; 8 chairs; lot of pewterware; lot of tinware; coffee mill; jug; lot of pottery ware; tin bucket & strainer; tea kettle; frying pan; 2 buckets; lot of coopers ware; gridiron ladle; pot rack, shovel & tongs; 3 old pot racks; old metal pot; pair smoothing irons; lot carpenters tools; 3 anvils; lot of iron tools; sheep shears; lamb curry comb; gimblet [boring tool]; basket of old iron tools; halter chain; wedge & 2 hatchets; wash tub; dye tub; wheat sifter & meal sifter; loom & appendages; lot of books; 2 shot moulds & spoon moulds; gun barrel, gun lock & nippers; sheet of rolls & yarn; 1/2 dozen knives & forks; 2 flax wheels; 1 large wheel; 2 pair plow gear; 2 saddles; cut reel; 2 bread trays; grind stone; barshear plow; lock chain; 4 kegs; 1 funnel; hogshead [cask]; 1 barrow [castrated hog]; 5 cider barrels; 9 tubs; scythe & sickle; 3 stacks of wheat; lot of flax; 132-1/2 bushels of corn; 1 gray mare; 1 mare & colt; cow & calf; cow; two-year old calves; 3 sheep; 1 shovel plough; 10 acres of corn; 40 head of geese; 12 head of hogs; 2 turkeys; 65 bushels of rent corn [presumably paid to him in lieu of rent money]; 2 stacks of hay; 100 dozen oats; old hoe & scythe; spinning machine