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Probate Inventories: Voices from the Past

A grave in Bruton Parish Church yard“As part of the process of settling an estate after the death of an individual, in many cases a probate inventory was taken. The inventory listed the personal and chattel property in the possession of the deceased at the time of death.” 1 So begins the background information provided on the Gunston Hall (eighteenth-century home of George Mason) Probate Inventory Web site. In our age of living wills and trusts, the practice of inventorying a deceased person's personal possessions may seem a bit insensitive. In the eighteenth century, however, the economy was based largely on credit, making a inventories necessary intrusions. The family of the deceased needed to assess the value of the estate before outstanding debts could be properly settled. [Note: for some excellent background information about George Mason, whom Thomas Jefferson described as a man “of the first order of wisdom,” visit the Gunston Hall site at: http://gunstonhall.org/georgemason/essays.html.]

Historians examine inventories to find “patterns of consumption that may indicate social class, change over time, and urban versus rural distinctions.” 2 Since no surviving inventory of George Mason's estate has been found, Gunston Hall researchers used other Virginia and Maryland estate inventories to help them appropriately furnish the restored plantation.

These eighteenth-century inventories can also be used as effective teaching tools in your classroom. Students will find inventories fascinating. They can examine the inventories to discover similarities and differences between people from a variety of social classes. They will also discover many items with peculiar names, such as looking glass (mirror), fire dogs (andirons), or snuffers (a tool used to trim the charred portion of a candle wick). Sometimes an item's use can be determined by looking at the other items listed with it. For example, if “fire tongs” are listed next to “fire dogs,” it suggests that both items were used as fireplace equipment. Some inventory items and words will be a mystery to students. Such mystery items are excellent candidates for additional student research and creative writing activities!

Where to Find Inventories

A Colonial Williamsburg historian studying primary sourcesThere are several places to find inventories, but since we're focusing on rural life in the eighteenth century American colonies, begin your search at the Colonial Williamsburg web site. Go to http://www.history.org/History/teaching/sample/inventory.htm to find some basic information about colonial inventories and a sample inventory for a man named Robert Smith. Then, visit the Gunston Hall Web and explore their Probate Inventory section at: http://www.gunstonhall.org/probate/index.html .3

You should select at least three or four inventories for students to examine. All of the inventories at the Gunston Hall Web site are in PDF format, so you will need a current version of the Adobe Acrobat Reader (available as a free download at http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readstep2.html ). Once you have read over the background information in the “About” section, use the “Search” option. The inventories are divided by colony—Virginia and Maryland. They are also divided into a First Matrix and Second Matrix format (see image below).

Choose the “Decent” or “Old Fashioned” links in the Second Matrix for “VA” or “MD” or “Both VA & MD.” That will allow you to choose a filter, which in this case will be “Rural.” Explore the inventories in your search results and select examples that are appropriate for your students' reading level. Two good inventories are for John Minor (September 9, 1753) and Hugh West (January 29, 1755). When the inventory appears within your browser window, click on the diskette icon and save it to your computer's hard drive. [NOTES: 1) The reading levels range from quite straightforward to fairly complicated. 2) The inventories will print more quickly if you save them and then opening them directly from Acrobat Reader. 3) You may also wish to print them directly onto transparencies to display during whole-class discussions. Be sure to use high transparency film specifically designed for your type of printer.]

How to Use the Inventories in the Classroom

1. Create a simple six-section graphic organizer to help students organize inventory information. Label the six sections: “Furnishings & Bedding,” “Crop Assets,” “Livestock Assets,” “Tools,” “Kitchenware & Dishes,” and “Slaves.”

2. Divide the class into groups of three or four students each. Give each group and inventory and a graphic organizer. Have the groups examine the inventory and complete the graphic organizer. Also, have them list the names of unusual items on the back of the organizer for later research or use in a creative writing activity.)

3. Have each group share their findings with the class, reporting what they have learned about the person to whom the inventory belonged. Ask students to offer their thoughts regarding the individual's wealth, social status, and occupation. Other speculations might include whether or not the individual was a slave owner, the size of their family, and where they lived. Students should support their opinions by citing specific inventory items. [NOTE: As each group reports, you may wish to display a transparency of the inventory and highlight the inventory items that are mentioned.]

After each group completes its report, have them write their conclusion as a statement on the board (or the overhead).

4. Have each student write one paragraph in which they compare and contrast the people for whom the various inventories were made. Have some students share their paragraph with the class. Conduct a class discussion about how the items listed in an inventory reveal information about the life of their owner.

Extension Idea

If time permits, go over some inventory items students listed on the back of their graphic organizers. Can they solve the mystery and identify of what the items are and/or how they were used? Consider using a dictionary as a resource for this exercise. The Oxford English Dictionary is an excellent choice because it contains a lot of information on old English words that are no longer in common use. And we were, after all, once English colonies!


1Shupe, Kevin. Gunston Hall Plantation. Gunston Hall Plantation, Mason Neck, Virginia, March 2004, <http://www.gunstonhall.org/probate/backgrou.htm>

2Shupe, Kevin. Gunston Hall Plantation. Gunston Hall Plantation, Mason Neck, Virginia, March 2004, <http://www.gunstonhall.org/probate/backgrou.htm>

3Site linked with the permission of Kevin Shupe, Library, Internet & Technology Manager, Gunston Hall Plantation.



This article was written by Dale Van Eck, Manager of Educational Partnerships, Department of Education Outreach, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

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