One of the most important pieces of information those of us researching enslaved ancestors need to know is how the slaves are distributed after the owner’s death. If we’re lucky, there’s a will that tells us to whom each slave is bequeathed. Most of the time, there’s not. There are many wills that simply say to my “wife [child, etc.] I leave all of my estate both real and personal….”
If luck is on our side, we’ll find at least an inventory, but that won’t tell us which child got which slaves. For that, we need to find the estate distribution. For an estate that includes slaves, that document might include slave distributions. Here’s a good example I recently found in Montgomery County, MD. This is the portion of the inventory showing the enslaved property of Nicholas Griffith, who died in 1814:
There are 20 slaves listed with monetary values and no indication of families, which is (sadly) common. However, in the same probate book, I found the distribution of Nicholas’ estate between his wife, who by law is entitled to 1/3, and his 6 children (I have cropped just the entry showing the slaves):
The primary goal was to make sure each child received approximately the same value in property–not to keep families together (although some slaveholders did try to do that). Most of Nicholas’ children inherited 2 young enslaved children. I’d like to believe Nicholas’ widow, who inherited 7 slaves, had at least taken 29 year old Milly with 4 of her kids, ages 8 months to 9 years. But I can’t know that just looking at this document.
I haven’t researched this family, but the hope is that they lived near one another such that the families of slaves were not entirely broken. But as the probate, land and other records demonstrate over and over again, very young children were very often sold away from parents, and couples were very often split apart.
Look for these estate distributions when you are researching enslaved ancestors. They are difficult to find. I personally have many more cases where this information could not be located in records. Sometimes they can be found in original probate loose papers, so be sure to examine those where they exist.
I’ll also share another interesting thing I’ve seen a few times in probate records. Where testators willed that slaves be freed at certain ages, the birthdates were sometimes copied into the probate records so the appropriate date of manumission could be established.
Richard Thomas came from a prominent and wealthy Quaker family, and they founded the town of Brookville in Montgomery County, Maryland. They were famous (infamous to some)for having freed their slaves very early int he 19th century, and creating an enclave of free blacks, along with churches and schools for them long before the Civil War.
How fortunate any researcher connected to this family would be. Thomas recorded the birthdates of his slaves in the probate book, and recorded their mother’s names:
Slave research, as I’ve said before, is not for the faint of heart and often feels like a game of chicken. But be a diligent researcher and rest assured that you may uncover something, if only a name of an ancestor long silenced and whose memory was lost to time. Even if I can’t find a birthdate or a family group, I always feel a sublime satisfaction at uncovering the name of an enslaved ancestor.
Readers, tell me: have you uncovered any slave distributions, and if so, where did you locate them?
Note: If you are in the Metro DC area, don’t forget to check out my good friend Tim Pinnick tomorrow at 1:00 at the Suitland Family History Center. He will be speaking on “Finding African-Americans in Historic Newspapers,” a subject that he is an expert on.