Mary Ball Washington Museum and Library, Lancaster, Virginia

Let me tell you about an interesting and very important project based on probate files. With a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grant, members of the Museum have created this database:

The study of the Lancaster County Estate Records 1835-1836 reveals:
284 people died leaving no will (intestate)—about 60%.
236 people died leaving a will (testate). 68 of these people left only a will and no further estate records. This is primarily due to the fact they either lived outside of Lancaster County but owned property here, or they are part of the missing Estate Books. The Lancaster County Estate Books are different and apart from the Will Books. As shown above, nearly 55% of the people in this period died leaving no will. It is in the Estate Books that the rest of the probate records are found.

The Estate Record Database cites 3019 slaves who are identified in the documents for this project. Information recorded about each slave may include given name, surname (rarely given), gender, occupation or skill, value, age (rarely listed), and disposition (to whom the slave was bequeathed, sold, hired, or traded). Below are some statistics based on the database:

  • 50% of decedents were slave-owners.
  • The number of slaves owned by any particular person ranged from 1 to 94. However, only 6 decedents owned more than 50 slaves. 75% of the slave-owners had 15 or fewer slaves. 25% owned only 1 or 2 slaves. The mean (average) number of slaves owned = 11.6, median = 6.5, mode = 2.
  • Only 62 slaves were listed with surnames.
  • Only 18 slaves were listed with an age.
  • 20 slaves were listed with a specific occupation or skill. These were a midwife, three cooks, two woodcutters, a tailor, a weaver, a carpenter, four millers, a house servant, a foreman, a hackney driver, two blacksmiths, and two sailors.
  • 10 slaves were recorded as having run away, eight of these during the Civil War.
  • 54 slaves were emancipated by the will of the decedent. 44 of these were by the bachelor merchants of Kilmarnock, James and William Kelley, in 1856. Nine were by the wills of Rawleigh W. Downman (1838) and his widow Elizabeth (1840).
  • The sale of slaves out of the estate was uncommon. There are only about 90 recorded instances of outright sales in the database.

If you have ancestors in the Tidewater or Southern Tier of Virginia, check this database. I am researching the Downman family and here are indexed Rawleigh W. and his wife Elizabeth. With the very important details about their nine slaves located in Lancaster.

The Museum website, where I got these precise details, points out that this database is based on estate records which include four components:

  1. Inventory of estate, sometimes listed room by room
  2. Sale of estate items listing who bought what
  3. Income and expenses of the estate including the hiring out of slaves
  4. Division of estate portions to the heirs, who are listed

These details allow us to find marriages not yet recorded, slaves not listed in the will, unknown heirs, and precise pieces of personal property owned by the deceased.

Have you checked this database and others created by this amazing historical organization? Your favorite Virginia genealogist, Arlene Eakle

PS How I love finding a new research tool! And sharing the information with you. Stay tuned.

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