Recently I spent a lot of time poring over probate records. One particular entry caught my eye. It was a receipt turned in to the court by a guardian for items he had purchased for a child. Among the shoes and the gloves was “a pair of plaid pantaloons!” Can’t you just picture them? Bear in mind this was the mid 1800s and they were probably all the rage for children in Tennessee.
Now you may be wondering why in the world a genealogist would want to look at probate receipts as part of her research. Well, there are a number of good reasons. The first one would be just for the sheer fun of seeing how the family lived. Within a probate packet you often find an inventory of everything that was in the house at the time of death of the owner. You can visualize by the length of the list and the description of the items how well off the family might have been. Did they have any special things besides frying pans, chickens, and cows? Lots of furniture? Fine laces? Any other extravagances that might let you know that the family was fairly well to do?
Some of the most interesting probate records I have examined are death inventories from Spain. In these records you often get a feel not only for what the person owned but also the layout of the house. Often the person doing the inventory went from room to room making his list and there are indications in the document when the record indicates that he passed from one room to the next.
Another use for probate packets for those of African American ancestry is to find out if their slave ancestor happened to be listed among the personal property of the deceased. Yes, it’s a sad thing to think about but it can be a great discovery if you find a white slave owner living where your ancestor is from with a slave with the right name and age to be the person you are looking for.
Probate records also serve as a great substitute death records. You can narrow down the date of death if your ancestor wrote a will knowing it was sometime between the date it was written and the date it was proved in court. If your ancestor didn’t leave a will, often papers filed to administer the estate will give the date of his demise.
Next time you find yourself reading through page after page of a probate packet, take some time to visualize the life of your ancestor. You never know when you’re going to find a pair of plaid pantaloons!