The two main records that you will use in historical research are wills and inventories. If a person died intestate, s/he died without a will. When a person died intestate, often an inventory was taken of the property. Inventories are lists of possessions owned by the head of household at time of death. They were taken to insure that all debts would be paid. In eras when cash was scarce, people frequently ran ongoing credits and debts with each other that needed to be settled.
Sometimes when reading an inventory, you can tell that the recorders went from room to room listing the contents of the house. Sometimes they listed the most valuable items first. Sometimes they listed all the contents by use—for example, all the farm equipment might be in one long list, rather than by outbuilding. The Oxford English Dictionary can be a useful tool when deciphering interesting items such as beds (the mattresses) and bedsteads (the beds) or when trying to figure out a person’s occupation based on his or her possessions.
While inventories can help you ascertain a person’s wealth and status, beware as you analyze a person’s inventory—s/he could have given away significant possessions before death. The season of the year can also affect a person’s wealth. Sometimes what’s missing can reveal as much as what’s listed.
Probate records can also contain clues to women’s status—sometimes the “widow’s third” is marked by a line running right through the outhouse!
For instance, when Windsor tavern keeper Samuel Patrick died in 1825, Robert Lord, A. Forbes, and Allen Wardner inventoried his estate. They went through the horse barn, farm barn, corn barn, grind stone house, and the main house listing everything from the hay in the barn to the wine glasses in the dining room. After finding the estate to be worth $11,861.00, they set off the “widow’s third.” Along with marking off one third of the farmland for his widow Isabella, they divided the house and gardens. Downstairs, Isabella was allowed the east room and accompanying closets, the right to enter the kitchen, the east side of the cellar and the east side of the cellar stairs. Upstairs, she received two bedrooms and the east side of the garret as well as the right to use the stairs. Her portion of the garden was marked off by a series of ash stakes and included a right to use the well and the privy.
Property rights for women were changing after the Revolution and not every widow was automatically given the widow’s third. Indeed, when Windsor resident Benjamin Cady wrote his will in 1820, he remembered his wife and daughters, writing:
“I give and bequeath unto my beloved wife Sally Cady all my land, house and other buildings, it being the land I now live on. … I will and bequeath unto my four eldest children, Mrs Mary Hall, Mrs Lucy Curtis, Mrs Betsy Silsby, and Horace Cady the sum of five dollars to each one to be paid within one year from my decease. … I also give and bequeath unto my youngest daughter Maria Cady one hundred dollars worth of land of the farm on which I now live, also my Brass clock, Desk, one bed & bedding, she not having the use of any of them until she shall the full age of eighteen years….”
How did Isabella and Sally fare as widows? A trip to the cemetery or to the marriage records at the town hall might reveal whether or not they married again. Did they manage their land by themselves or did they have a son move in to help? Land records might give us the answer. Combining this primary evidence with information about changing laws in the Early Republic can help us connect ordinary people to broader themes such as changing gender roles and rights. Probate records can be a powerful way to bring the past to life. Combine them with a trip to the cemetery and an analysis of the census, and the shadows of an entire past village can start to grow.