Probate Inventories

The indexes and inventories assembled here are made available to help you gain an understanding of how scholars assemble documents and interpret patterns. Readers unfamiliar with probate research, with its possibilities and problems may wish to look at the bibliography offered in the subdirectory, bibliographies, in another section of the Historic Preservation listing. The collected documents represent a considerable effort on the part of many scholars, because there are no easy methods for gathering this information, but they are not the intellectual properties of those individuals. Instead these documents are the raw materials from which conclusions and interpretations were generated. With few exceptions these documents are public records whose information is available to all. The trick is finding them and, of course, the tremendously time consuming efforts of collecting the material. I hope that by offering these documents in an electronic medium, that some students will be motivated to move beyond mere collection to contemplation of what the contents of these documents can tell us about the communities and conditions under which these artifacts were created. Before suggesting some important caveats upon the use of this material first let me thank the generous scholars who have shared this material.

For Virginia much important work on systematically collecting inventories was begun by Dell Upton for his dissertation, "Early Vernacular Architecture in Southeastern Virginia," completed at Brown University, in 1980. In researching early Virginia houses, Dell created a listing of room by room inventories in the Tidewater, from the beginning of settlement to 1720. His card file of inventories was computerized by Mark Wenger of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Mark was assisted by K. Q. Clement, an intern to expand the listing of eighteenth century room-specific inventories, by examining the inventory books of tidewater counties that had been microfilmed by the Virginia State Archives. They also referenced the transcribed inventories in the library at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Mark received information on some additional room-specific inventories from Susan A. Borchardt, curator of Gunston Hall, whose staff had been collecting information about interior detailing of eighteenth century houses for comparative purposes. Other sources of references are the Virginia Historical Society and individual scholars, Jeff O'Dell, Camille Wells, Gary Stanton, Willie Graham, and others. In many cases more information is available on the individual inventories, but these indexes do not list rank of the deceased, nor the total value of the inventory. This represents a finder's guide.

The Virginia material is alphabetically indexed, with dates of inventories given in years, counties given, and the room names listed. In addition the document location is also given, where it was known. The location of transcribed copies of these inventories are listed where known. The greatest collection of transcriptions is the Colonial Williamsburg library. Contact the reference library there for access.

Several cautions must be made. First, these do not represent published lists and therefore, if you were to plan publications of your conclusions from this material, experience would suggest checking the original policies, or a microfilm version, to insure that errors had not contaminated your sample.

Second, notice the tremendous variability of spellings. The greatest source of variation comes from the verbal spellings common to the periods when these inventories were taken. Universal public education (and Noah Webster) had not yet achieved a sense of spelling as the ultimately correct version, and many people spelled it as they heard it. The English alphabet itself was still in a state of change and the Germanic schlos (), (rendered as an f) had not yet been eliminated. Another reason for variation is scribal error, both then and now. These working documents have not been proofed to be error free.

Third, these are sources made from lists made from lists. In many instances the lists of room names have not retained their original order. Also some editing for space has often happened, sometimes more than once, so that the exact listing of the room names has probably not been retained. For example, the original document may have read "in the chamber" but the list may have truncated that to "chamber." Leading prepositions whose meanings are easily assumed, i.e., "in" "at" and articles such as "the" or "ye" may have been removed. Other descriptive prepositions of room place, "above" "beside" "outside" and the like have been retained.

The South Carolina material is comparative. The listing of room-specific inventories for Charleston in the early Federal period was initially compiled by Hugh H. Wilson, a docent at the McKissick Museum. I typed up the listing and gave it to Bernie Herman of the University of Delaware, who used city directories to locate the street addresses of the buildings where the inventories had been taken. The addresses he identified are listed under the names. All of this then is a finders guide, not a publication.

The Indiana files in this subdirectory are from three southeastern counties. These counties are Franklin, Dearborn and Ripley counties. The inventories, along with estate sales records, and widows selections were photographed using a variety of black and white films, principally Eastman Direct MP Film 5360, a 35mm direct reversal duplication film that can be hand loaded and developed with Dektol. I thank Charles Martin for explaining the availability and procedures of this duplication. The images were transcribed as part of dissertation research between 1980 and 1984. The three counties differed in the preservation of documents and applicability to the research project.

Three files will guide you to the transcribed inventories from each county. Franklin County inventories that have been transcribed are listed in resources.umwhisp.org/inventories/franklin/19cinfra.htm. Not all inventories were found while I was doing this research. The inventories associated with Will Books A and B were not found and few of the inventories were included. To see the names and appreciate how much is missing please see Will Books A & B "A Record of Last Wills and Testaments, Entries of the granting of letters of Testimentary and of Administration." Dearborn County inventories that have been transcribed are listed in resources.umwhisp.org/inventories/Dearborn/19cindea.htm. Ripley County inventories that have been transcribed are listed in resources.umwhisp.org/inventories/ripley/19cinrip.htm. I intend to periodically add to the collection of transcribed materials, as I find time to format them. The total number of Franklin County probate inventories photographed and available for transcription is 690+. The Dearborn County records number 400 and Ripley County inventories are approximately 400.

Researchers familiar with Eastern States and the room-by-room inventories of the eighteenth century will be disappointed by the seeming randomness of these inventories and the lack of information about where on the property objects were found for appraisement. This is compounded by the transcription process. I had originally used double columns, as did many of the records, but the 65 character line limit of Gopher (now web pages) has forced me to move the columns. I made no attempt to recreate the original in this formatting change. Thus the vacillation from household to barn objects may reflect nothing more than that's how they broke for reformatting. However, researchers who are seeking to effect fuzzy theory co-dependence and need to recognize the original structure of the documents are welcome to write me (gstanton@umw.edu) about particular inventories and I will check the slides.

Franklin County inventories were copied from the complete probate records. These handwritten documents were transcriptions of the documents taken at the house of the deceased--copies bound into a series of volumes in the Court House in Brookville. These were not complete records of all possible personal property--some inventories were mentioned in the probate records, but not recorded. In other cases the inventories represented translations from German texts. The most serious lack, however, were those estates where wills were in effect and no inventory was necessary. However, there are inventories from 1811 while Indiana was still a territory until 1860, the cutoff date for the dissertation research. This is not the end of the probate documents.

Dearborn County, Indiana probate documents were also a collection of bound volumes of copies. Lawrenceburg, Indiana, the County seat is on the Ohio River and has been flooded numerous times over the past 150 years. The combination of Greek Revival Courthouse architecture (providing a low pitched roof, with little attic storage) and flooding has severely reduced the number of volumes available from Dearborn County. The books are quite good for the 1840s and 1850s, the period of greatest German migration into the region. However, as copies, the German inventories suffered the greatest from scribal error, and, as I recall, several records indicated inventories that were not transcribed, but were meant to be affixed, and had not survived.

Ripley County represented the best survivability of any court house. Housed in a pyramidal roof courthouse on high ground in Versailles, Indiana, only here were the original documents still available. Unfortunately, many had been lost or damaged in the casual care that they had received, being alternately shuffled from an adjacent building and then back. I did not use the complete probate record to verify the completeness of each inventory copied.


Last Update 3 January 2011

Name: Gary Stanton

Email: gstanton@umw.edu