The Magic of Probate Records

Most of us don't just want to know the names of people in the past, we want to know who they were, how they lived, what mattered to them most, who they considered family. Probate records are one important key to unlocking these mysteries. Probate records sound boring: who wants to sit around reading wills or estate inventories? I hope to show that probate records are actually a goldmine waiting to be excavated.

When I was recently in Barbados, I managed to convince my father we NEEDED to go the Department of Archives to look at probate records. I was interested in historical research, and he was interested in family history, and for both of us, probate records provided a lot of answers to our most urgent questions.

My father knew his great-grandfather's name and date of death, but he didn't know anything about how he died, what kind of life he led, or how he felt about the family he left behind. Probate records helped my father answer these questions. By finding his great-grandfather's will, he found out he owned a small plantation, had a small amount of livestock, and a carriage. The size of the plantation and the basic holdings told us their lot was not as glamorous as that of the owners of large plantations, nor as desperate as the poor whites known as "Red Legs." We discovered our ancestor cared about his children, all of whom were mentioned by name in the will, and to whom he chose to leave equal portions to "share and share alike" after his death rather than trying to consolidate wealth with his eldest son. Although we didn't find out what precisely caused his death, we did find out that he knew he was going to die reasonable amount of time before he did, suggesting that he wasn't carried off in a sudden illness. We also found out the name of plantation. With this information in hand, we looked up the deed to the plantation and found out the exact location of the family property, the date the family sold it, and the amount of the sale after debts were paid. This gave us a sense of what our great (great) grandmother had taken as a nest egg to the United States as a young woman.

Intrigued? I'd like to offer a few general suggestions on where to find probate records and what to look for when you find them, and then I'll turn to some specific examples from Barbados to talk about the significance of what people say in their wills.

1. Where to find probate records. In order to locate probate records, you will need to know when and where someone died. In the United States, probate records are usually found in the court records of the county in which the person died. Sometimes these records have either been moved to state archives (if they are early and fragile) or are available in state archives in duplicate form. Many state archives have good websites with information about what records they possess and provide research services at a small cost. (See the resources at Mass. Archives as an example.) For more specific tips on how to find the exact document once you have located the correct archive, see these Probate Research Steps. If you don't live near the archive (or even after you get there), don't be afraid to ask someone who works there for help. Some places have printed excerpts of probate records: while these are useful, I'd encourage you to look for (or order) the original document. Although they are better than nothing, synopsis often leave out personal information: precisely the details that will help you understand who the person was and what mattered to them most. If you can't read the handwriting, don't despair: there is often a later (nineteenth century or early twentieth century) transcription. These are different than synopses as they are complete and they are usually much easier to read. If there is no transcription, try my early American handwriting game to get up to speed on reading early American handwriting. You may also find the common name and abbreviation quizzes to be helpful.

2. What you may find. Probate records vary tremendously by location, date, and the wealth of the deceased. The best case scenario is that the estate will be inventoried. This provides you with a complete list of household items owned by the deceased (see image at the top of the page). Other common features are statements about the deceased's religious beliefs, a list of real property and prized personal possessions, suggestions for how they should be commemorated, the executor of the will, and a list of heirs (and their relationship to the deceased). Sometimes what people aren't given is as important as what they are given: for example, in one will I saw, a child who had married against his parents wishes was left a dollar, while other children were given vast quantities of money. Here are some examples of what you might find:

Religious Statements
Sometimes these are stock phrases, so it is worth looking to see what the "norm" is for the era. For example in eighteenth-century Barbados, many wills included some sort of religious aspirations for after death, but in the nineteenth century, religious statements were less common (my great-great-great grandfather's will had none). Here are some examples from those who did:

  1. From the will of Abigail Henriques (15 August 1755, Barbados): "First I recommend my Soule unto the hands of Almighty God in hope of his infinite mercy to obtain forgiveness of my sins and a joyfull resurrection with my breathren the Israelites, my body to the Earth to be buryed at the discretion of my Executors here after named." This statement interested me, as resurrection motifs can also be found on the gravestones at the Synagogue.
  2. From the will of Rabbi Raphael Haim Isaac Carrigal (27 May 1777, Barbados): "First I recommend my soul to the Almighty God of Israel imploring his Divine Goodness to pardon my sins." Notice how similar this is to Abigail's phrasing, suggesting a stock motif.
Prized Personal Possessions
  1. From the will of Rabbi Raphael Haim Isaac Carrigal (27 May 1777, Barbados): "I direct all my books and wearing apparel be send to Mr. Abraham Levi Hemenes of London one of my Executors here after mentioned to be remitted by him to my loving wife Hori Carrigal and my loving son David Carrigal of Hebron to be equally divided share and share alike." In order to earn his living in the colonies, Rabbi Carrigal had lived apart from his wife and son for many years. Since he was a hocham (scholar), it isn't surprising that Rabbi Carrigal prized his books, but it is touching that he wanted to make sure that his clothes were sent back to to his family! When Carrigal was in Newport, Ezra Stiles made note of Carrigal's distinctive Turkish dress, which was also featured in the portrait Stiles commissioned from Samuel King after Carrigal's death.
Suggestions for how they should be Commemorated
  1. From the Will of Sarah Belifante (4 Nov. 1785, Barbados): " I then direct that my body be interred after the Custom of the Hebrew Nation and that a white marble stone to cost eighteen pounds sterling money of Great Britain be placed over my grave I then give to the poor of the Hebrew Nation in the island the sum of twenty five pounds current money of this island to be divided amongst them at the discretion of my executors." Notice that Sarah is interested in her legacy on a variety of levels: through how she should be buried, the type of gravestone to be used, and by leaving tzedakah for the poor.
Executor of the WillWho the deceased designate to take care of their real and personal property after their death can say a lot about who they trust most. Rabbi Carrigal takes care to mention that he appoints his executors because they are his "loving friends." Likewise when Sarah Henriquez (1774 Barbados) appoints "Rachel Henriquez sole Executrix of this my Will," she does so only after noting that Rachel is her "dearly beloved friend."

Lists of Heirs
My father and I were touched that our great (great) grandmother received an equal share in the will, even though she was one of the youngest children in the family. It is worth comparing a list of descendants with those who are left money. Do the obvious people get the largest amounts of money? If the deceased has no children, who does she see as her closest kin? Sarah Henriquez left her entire estate to "Rachel Henriquez of the same Parish & Island Spinster [and] her heirs." The fact that Sarah and Rachel share the last name suggests that they were related, yet Sarah identifies Rachel as her "dearly beloved friend," not as a relative. More historical research would be useful to determine to whom else Sarah might have left her possessions.

I hope this post helps people see what gems can be found in Probate Records and encourage people to find records from their own ancestors!


Happy Mother's Day from Barbados

Happy Mother's Day from Barbados! Photos in are from Nidhe Israel Synagogue, Huntes Garden, St. Nicholas Abbey, Bridgetown, and other locations on the island. Music is the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in D Major, Czech Radio recording. All photos by Laura Leibman and Stevan Arnold.

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