Finding Hidden Treasure in Estate Inventories

Recently, I spent an entire day in Richmond at the Library of Virginia, also known as the State Archives.  Like always, I prepared a research list.  While most of my research procured nothing, which isn’t unusual after you’re already plucked all the fruit you can readily see – I did come up with one big winner.

The estate inventory of Edward Mercer who died sometime between May 4th 1763 when he last appears in the Frederick County, Virginia court minutes in a road order, and November 1, 1763 when his estate was probated.  At that same court session, he was replaced as overseer or the road, so he apparently was still “working” up to a few months before he died, even though he prepared his will “being sick, aged and weak of body” in September of 1762.  Edward was probably just shy of 60, certainly not an old man – so his estate should reflect an active life, not a “retirement,” if there was such a thing then.

The first bingo I found in the library was a book of transcribed wills and estate inventories.  I was quite relieved because that meant I might not have to ask them to pull the microfilm and read that.  Old books on microfilm are not always legible nor is the indexing ever complete.  The only individuals indexed are the primary individual – not witnesses or wives or anyone else.  Many times the “rest of the story” is told in who surrounds individuals during their lifetime – so we need all of that additional information.

So, when I found Edward Mercer’s estate inventory listed in the transcribed book, I was ecstatic.  I read the estate inventory, and it was short and general.  It listed things like, “agricultural produce and farm animals.”  Well, I have to tell you, I’ve seen a lot of colonial wills and I have never seen one list something like that.  They list the produce and they list the animals, individually, or at least by breed.  In other words, you in far more danger of receiving far more information that you wanted than not enough, if an estate inventory was taken and filed.

It appeared that I was going to have to get the microfilm after all.

Estate inventories are a vastly overlooked source of information not available elsewhere.  The wills tell who your ancestors left his or her worldly goods to, but the estate inventory tells you what those goods were and those goods tell a huge story about your ancestor’s life.  In addition to what IS in the estate inventory, what ISN’T in the inventory tells a story too – especially in the context of the time and place in which they lived.

Many men did have a will.  Most wills were not written much in advance.  Sometimes wills were made verbally as the individual was on death’s doorstep to whomever was nearby.  These are called noncupative wills.  Sometimes, death was unexpected and there no opportunity for a will.

Most women did not have wills because most women did not own items outright, meaning outside of a marriage where the man was assumed to be the owner of the land (except for her dower rights.)  Often women retained what is known as a “life estate” where the woman holds either property or other items for the term of her life, at which point their ownership reverts to others, generally one or several children as specified in her husband’s will when he died.

If the woman dies before the man, the husband automatically owns everything so no will for the wife is necessary.  I’m talking about historical US wills, not current law.  I’m not a lawyer…I don’t play one on TV or anyplace else:)

Understanding how wills and ownership of both property and personal items worked helps in unraveling what estate inventories tell us.

When the man died, an inventory of everything was taken, even if the wife was to retain “household items.”  While that seems vastly unfair, especially since she often had to bid to buy her own cooking utensils back at a sale, it’s a huge boon for genealogists.

Sometimes individuals are mentioned in inventories – and in some cases, an item is left to a daughter in a will, but by the time she collects that item, she is married and a married name is listed.  In other cases, if something is left specifically to an individual, it is not included in the appraisal.  It doesn’t seem standardized, you say?  It’s not – and often it helps to look at other wills and estates from that county and time to observe what was customary.  Any deviation from custom must have been caused by something…and that something could be interesting to a genealogist.

Even the individuals who appraise your ancestor’s estate are important.  In Virginia, if your ancestor’s spouse was still living, one person who was from the “wife’s family” was chosen, keeping her interests in mind, the largest debtor of the person who died was selected, keeping their interests in mind, and one person completely disinterested in the outcome of the estate appraisal was selected.

With that information, you can sometimes add to your knowledge of the family, especially if you know the wife’s family is likely in the area.  How would you know that?  If your ancestor lived in that area when he married, his wife’s family would have been from that area too.  Young people often met at church or social functions – and with limited transportation – that social group wasn’t from any great distance.

People often married their neighbors or individuals from just a mile or two away.  Courting was likely done on foot, or maybe on horseback.  You can’t marry someone you can’t court!

So, let’s take a look at Edward Mercer’s will and see what is actually in the estate inventory.

The subscribers by virtue of an order of Frederick County Court being first sworn has met and appraised such of the estate of Edward Mercer, deceased, as was brought to our view by Ann Mercer and Joseph Fanset the executors – viz –

The values would be given in pounds, shillings and pence.

Edward Mercer estate 1

  • One old loom 0-15-0
  • Red Cow 0-15-0
  • 1 Cow and bell 3-0-0
  • 1 brindle cow 2-10-0
  • A brindle cow 2-0-0
  • A white cow 2-10-0
  • White back heifer 2-0-0
  • White bull 2-0-0
  • White heifer 1-15-0
  • Speckled heifer 2-0-0
  • Red yearling steer 1-0-0
  • White steer 1-7-0
  • White faced heifer 1-10-0
  • Brindle calfe 0-15-0
  • A pide yearling 1-0-0
  • A brindle yearling 1-0-0
  • Six calves 3-6-0
  • 2 pide steers 3-15-0
  • 2 heifers 2-10-0
  • One stear 2-10-0
  • A roan horse 6-0-0
  • An old mare 2-10-0
  • A mare and colt 3-10-0
  • A bay mare and colt 5-0-0
  • Old wagon and gears 9-0-0
  • A pen and gears 1-3-0

Edward Mercer estate 2

  • Eight swine 0-?-0
  • 2 sows and pigs 0-16-0
  • Harrow pens 0-10-0
  • Cart wheels 1-0-0
  • A rick of hay 3-0-0
  • 2 ricks of hay 6-10-0
  • Hay in the barn 2-0-0
  • Grain in the barn 12-0-0
  • Unbreak flax 0-5-0
  • 2 caskes and flax seed 0-9-0
  • Corn foder 0-10-0
  • Hay in the stable 0-15-0
  • A mall and wedges 0-5-0
  • 2 old axes 0-5-0
  • Indian corn 2-0-0
  • 2 old hoes 0-7-0
  • Small grind stone 0-3-0
  • An old gun 0-15-0
  • Another old gun 0-10-0
  • 2 bells and collar 0-5-0
  • Some old carpenters tools 0-14-0
  • Old iron 0-2-6
  • A pair of small stilliards 0-5-0
  • Few nails 0-2-0
  • Some more carpenters tools 0-10-0
  • An old saddle 1-5-0
  • Suit of cloathes 5-10-0
  • Side saddle 1-5-0
  • Old lumber 0-6-0
  • 8 old chairs 1-0-0
  • Old dough trough 0-3-0
  • A chaf (?) bed and cloaths 1-15-0
  • One bed and furniture 4-0-0
  • Seven old bags 0-7-0
  • Old casks and reel 0-5-0
  • Old chest 0-10-0
  • A morter 0-2-6
  • A warming pan 1-0-0
  • Old reeds and wifts (or mosts or wefts) 0-4-0

Edward Mercer estate 3

  • Some salt 0-6-6
  • Smoothing box and candlestick 0-3-0
  • Hand and gridirons 0-8-0
  • Iron poths (pots?) hangers and frying pan 1-3-0
  • Old books 0-6-0
  • Puter (pewter) 2-6-0
  • Some old tins 0-2-0
  • Sythes and hangings 0-14-0
  • Old copper 0-1-3
  • 3 old casks 0-5-6
  • 1 cask of cyder 1-4-1
  • 2 old whelbs(?) and branding iron and old tea kettle 0-11-0
  • Warping barrs and boxes 0-5-0
  • Hannah Mercers puter 5-0-0
  • Her bed and furniture 8-0-0

Jesse Pugh, Joseph Babb, Peter Babb

At court held for Frederick County the first day of May 1764.  This appraisement was returned and ordered to be recorded by the court.

The first thing this inventory tells us is that Edward Mercer was very involved in animal husbandry and likely only farmed enough to feed his animals.  He did not have plows and other typical farming implements and had many more animals than the typical farmer.

Edward’s family had chairs, not just a bench to sit on. And almost enough chairs for each person to sit at the same time.  He had 7 children, so the estate is one chair short for the entire family to sit together.  Perhaps one chair broke.  They are described as “old.”  However, there is no table listed.  That’s rather odd.

Edward was a good-hearted person.  He did not kill his old mare who was probably no longer useful.

Edward was likely a carpenter.  Every man on the frontier had a specialty skill, and his appears to be carpentry based on his tools.  This means that when you find homes built in that timeframe in that area, Edward may have worked on those.

Edward owned no slaves, but he clearly could have afforded slaves had he so chosen.  His lack of slaves then must have been either a personal moral judgment or a religious conviction.  However, other Quakers did own slaves including the family his daughter, Hannah, married into.

The flax and loom suggest that his wife and daughter spun and wove, although interestingly enough, a spinning wheel is not listed.  However, you can’t get from flax to weaving without spinning it into thread first.

There is cyder, but no alcohol.  There is no still.  This is highly ironic, since Edward Mercer was kicked out of the Quaker church in 1759 for…you guessed it….drinking.  In fact, “too frequently drinking strong drink to excess.”

Edward Mercer signed his will and owned books, so obviously this man could read and write.  How I’d love to know what those books were.

There is no Bible, although Edward was a Quaker up until he was kicked out of the church in 1759, ironically, for drinking, not attending meetings and not being penitent about either.

Other than Hannah’s furniture, which did include a bed, there were two other beds mentioned.  Was there a bed for the parents, then a boys bed and a girl’s bed?  There were two girls and five boys.

And speaking of Hannah, she is mentioned in the estate inventory, but it’s very likely that she was married by this time.  However, the fact that she is mentioned by her maiden name does not prove that Hannah was not married.  They may simply have referred to her as she was listed in the will. I have often wondered if she was already married when the will was written, even though Edward does not refer to Hannah by a married name.  The reason I question this is because Edward says that the “puter” (pewter) is already “in her possession.”  That would likely mean that she is not living at home, but unless she were married, where else would she be living?  Edward said the same thing about Hannah’s 6 head of cattle as well, that they are already in her possession.  But then he goes on to say she can leave her mare on his plantation as long as she remains unmarried, so obviously she is not married at that time.  There must be something here that I’m missing.  Perhaps she was living with another family member before she married.

Edward does have two old guns, and he fought in the French and Indian War, so this makes sense.  These are likely the guns he carried with General George Washington at Fort Necessity.  What I wouldn’t give to see those guns.

And speaking of things I’d love to see…that old chest is one.  I want to open that chest and see what is inside.  I’m guessing that might be where Edward kept any spare clothes he had or anything of value – like maybe letters!!!

We also know that Edward’s wife, Ann, was living because she was one of the individuals who administered his will and “presented” his estate to the court.

We know that the family had candles.  The poorest families didn’t and worked only by the light of the sun.  Sundown meant bedtime.

In Edward’s case, either his estate was not sold at public auction, or there is no court record of the sale.  Many times, the sale is recorded, item by item, and who was present at the sale can tell you a huge amount.  In some cases, you can track valuable family heirlooms this way.

In one case, I knew who bought my ancestor’s family Bible – which means I know who subsequently lost it by leaving it when they sold a house and moved (in the 1880s.)  Yep, it’s in the possession of the family of the new homeowners who have no idea WHY they have this old German family Bible – but they are convinced that it’s important and valuable.  The good news is that they are protecting it.  The bad news is that they do not wish to part with it.

The moral of this story?  Don’t think you’ve found everything when you find your ancestors will, or even if you don’t find a will.  There is likely to be an estate appraisement with or without a will, and sometimes the information in the estate inventory tells you far more about your ancestors life and how they actually lived than the will itself.  Wills tell you who is supposed to get what, but estates tell you the story of your ancestors life through what they left behind.

If you look around your own house, you’ll realize that your sewing machine and quilting tools, for example, at my house, are far more personal and representative of what you do with your daily life than the land you own.

In terms of getting to know your ancestor, their stuff is far more important than their land.

Let me close with one very personal example.

The farm I grew up on was lost to the family through a long series of estate errors and complex legal maneuvers.  I swore I’d never return.  However,  I decided a couple years ago to “drive by” out of curiosity when I was driving cross country to a speaking engagement and had to drive within a couple of miles of the property.  The draw was just too strong and several years had passed since all of the drama.  The individual who wound up with the property immediately sold it, so there was no one living there that I knew.  The coast seemed to be clear.

I pulled into the driveway by the road, not pulling up any further, and about a minute later, a man in a pickup truck approached from behind asking if he could help me.  I could tell he wasn’t terribly happy.  I explained who I was and why I was there.

The man in the truck was the current owner (who I didn’t know and who was not involved in the legal mess) and he was very kind and gracious.  It was a very emotional visit for me (understatement!), as it was the first time I had been back since I moved my mother to town back twenty years before, after Dad’s death.

We chatted for a few minutes, talking about the property, and he asked me if I wanted to walk around with him.  The house had burned, which was another shock, but the barn looked just the same, just with a new coat of paint.

It was the barn that represented Dad in my mind anyway, so we walked in that direction.  We went inside and I was sharing with him my memories of how the barn used to be, when I spotted something in the hayloft, right above where my Dad used to sit in his favorite “barn chair.”  I asked the owner what it was.  He climbed up in the hayloft and retrieved an old box, handing it down to me.

It was Dad’s old box.  I recognized it right away.  He made it years ago and kept “stuff” in it.  Dad was always making something utilitarian like this out of almost nothing.

There were only a couple small things of no value in the box, plus some straw, but it was undoubtably, unquestionably his box.

Dad's box open

I no longer cared about the land or the farm, but I desperately wanted this box that my Dad had made with his own hands.  The current owner said he liked old boxes like that, and my heart just sank.  He had every right, of course.  But then, he gave me the box. I was ever so grateful.

This box which carries the spirit of the man who crafted and made it with his hands means far more to me than the land.

Dad's box closed2

I feel like this was a wink from Dad.  A special gift to me some 20 years after he left this earth.

Perhaps there is a surprise ancestor-wink waiting for you in an estate inventory too.



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17 thoughts on “Finding Hidden Treasure in Estate Inventories

  1. Yes I have a box fetish. I have two my Dad made one is brass and he made in Boy Scouts the other he made for my Aunt and Uncle as a wedding gift. Its Hammered with a leaf and bird design…..

  2. There are also interesting records of estate sales. In the bill of sale for the 1847 estate sale of Jacob Crabtree, my 4x Great Grandfather Greenberry Cloud is listed as purchasing a large steel trap for $1.12-1/2 cents and a “lot of old tools” for 75 cents.

  3. Inventories are great. Always check for one – or a classified ad for an estate auction: some are quite detailed. But I would like to add something. If anybody is around who would have known the person, consult them also for oral history and family lore.
    A self-made woman who founded and ran a medium-sized clothing factory included quite a good car in her inventory. This rang warning bells, as it was highly unlikely that she herself drove, although she was very resourceful and might have learned. The house was in a well off area, but following the inventory from room to room did not suggest the presence of live-in servants. A cousin who knew her when he was a child, mentioned that she had a chauffeur.
    (She was the one person in the family who managed to make their own fortune [and not blow it in over expansion].)
    Oh, and on widows having to buy back their stuff at an estate auction. From small communities there are many stories of the locals refusing to bid on items held dear by respected widows.
    Again, you will usually only hear it from people – very occasionally from letters and memoirs.

  4. Interesting inventory – thanks for posting it and for the emphasis on looking at them when possible.

    While this recorded copy is very hard to read in spots, the “hilliards” were stilliards.

    Sometimes the recording clerk had trouble reading the originals, too. One estate record I’ve seen has only the clerk’s notation, “In German,” with no translated details at all. Curious, since in the vicinity were quite a few who spoke both German and English.

    The man who gave you the box from the barn was an angel.

      • Couldn’t resist researching this. Stillyard today is spelled “Steelyard”, literally a “steel yard” according to You can look it up in Wikipedia but it doesn’t explain the word (yard) which, in archaic language, means a stick or pole. Today it seems we’d call this type of balance scale a “steel beam”. And so it is if we look up “Beam scale” in the dictionary which a modern version of the same.

  5. How awesome to find the box!

    Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, imagination encircles the world. Albert Einstein

  6. Executors accounts can also give clues as to place of death or burial if they include payments to coffin-makers and merchants for burial clothes or shrouds. They can also give names of heirs if a recorded division or payments were made from the estate.

    I had a distant aunt who died in the early 1830’s leaving a will in Ohio, but she also left property in Virginia, which was accessed and auctioned. Her Virginia-based executor, who was probably her brother, had to render his accounts to the County Court, including monies he paid for a coffin and shroud to individuals in Virginia. So, I guessed that she was more likely to have died in Virginia than Ohio. She had no children and was a widow and had no close relatives living near her in Ohio, so it is plausible that when ailing she came home. The Virginia-based executor had to report payments he had received from the Ohio-based executor letting me know this was the same woman. After this initial discovery, I have kept a sharp look out for fees for coffins and burial clothes in executor accounts! And I have found them, not in every instance, but in many.

    The buyers at estate auctions are also important. For wealthy individuals the entire community could come out, but for smaller estates, buyers were often relatives. At the sale of said aunt’s Virginia estate, all the buyers but one were related to her. It’s also interesting to note the difference between assessed value of property from the estate appraisals and the sale value from the executors’ accounts.

  7. Sorry for posting more than one comment, Roberta, but I had to tell ya how you made my eyes moist talking about the old box and your father. I miss my dad too. I dearly loved this post because I, too, love to try to figure out how these people lived. Let’s face it, they were real people. I want to know more. – – – – – – – – That’s why I also wanted to mention your comment, “… there is no table listed. That’s rather odd.” Not really. According to it was actually quite common in Colonial Times. A transcript of an 1898 description of colonial dining explains “Perhaps no greater difference exists between any mode of the olden times and that of to-day, than can be seen in the manner of serving the meals of the family. In the first place, the very dining-table of the colonists was not like our present ones; it was a long and narrow board, sometimes but three feet wide, with no legs attached to it. It was laid on supports or trestles, shaped usually something like a saw-horse. Thus it was literally a board, and was called a table-board…”- – – – – – – – I’ve read that such boards were sometimes attached to the wall on a hinge and had a single, folding leg which supported it. I wonder if this is why it wasn’t listed? I’ve also read, though I don’t know how true it is, that we get terms today such as “chairman of the board”, etc. from eating around the “board” or table in centuries past. – – – – – – – Just guessing but “reeds and wefts” may be talking about spare parts for the loom. According to Wikipedia, a reed is a part of a loom that resembles a comb. If you ever watch a weaver compact the cloth after she/he passes the weft yarn through the warp and back, that thingy they’re using to compact it with is called a “beater” and the thingy with it that separates the individual warp yarn is the “reed.” One last tidbit… The “chaf(?) bed” refers to “chaff”, the stuff left over from winnowing grain, in other words the straw. They stuffed the bedtick for their rope beds with fresh straw. Can you imagine the bed bugs? I hope this isn’t more than you or your readers wanted to know. I’m the type that can’t rest ’til I figure things out.

  8. You left me crying again this morning, Roberta! I was wanting to find out more about estate inventories and came across this post. Thanks for sharing both about the estate and your visit and the box!

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