Sarah Green Probate Record

Overview

In this exercise, teachers examine a probate inventory taken at the home of a woman named Sarah Green in York County, Virginia, in April 1759. A probate record or inventory is a list of possessions recorded after someone dies by court-appointed appraisers—usually local men who visited an estate, listed what was there, and estimated its value. In this activity, participants will examine Sarah Green’s probate inventory, and the worksheet listing selected items from the inventory, and then answer the following questions:

  • What do you notice about each item?
  • What questions do you want to ask about the individual items listed on the worksheet? About the probate inventory as a whole?
  • What conclusions can you draw from this probate inventory about Sarah Green?

After discussing these questions, teachers learn more about the historical context of 18th-century Virginia, probate inventories, and women and property rights, and draw conclusions about Sarah Green’s life and social status. After completing the activity, teachers discuss classroom applications.

Source Analysis

Transcribed Probate Record
Student Worksheet

  1. Distribute the transcribed probate record to each person, while projecting the original at the front of the room to give participants a feel for how this record would look to a historian encountering it in the York County ledger.
  2. Ask teachers to work in pairs and read through the entire probate record, noting questions they have about context and historical background, and anything about the probate record that surprises them.
  3. Then, distribute the worksheet with selected items listed. Instruct teachers to use the worksheet to write down what they notice about each item or group of items and a list of questions that they want to ask about the items.

Group Discussion

Write three columns onto the whiteboard: Notice, Questions, and Historical Background.

Use the following questions to guide discussion:

  • What did you notice about the probate inventory as a whole?
  • What items were you surprised to see listed?
  • What did you notice about the relative value of items?
  • Which items do you think were bought/imported vs. made?
  • What kind of work do you think was done in the house?
  • Was anything missing that you expected to see listed in the inventory? Why might those items be missing?
  • What do you already know about probate inventories? About the time period in which this one was taken?
  • What might these items and their values tell you about Sarah Green? Was she wealthy or poor?
  • What further information would you want to know (i.e., about the time period, 18th-probate inventories, southeastern Virginia, women’s roles)?

Historical Background

Present this historical background to enhance the group's knowledge of the time period, and as a basis for drawing conclusions in Step 5. Write the words in bold on the whiteboard, and use the rest of the text for guidance.

Probate Inventories

When a person died in the 18th century without a will, the local government often intervened. They assessed the person’s wealth in order to distribute items to heirs and pay off creditors. At this time, much of a person’s wealth, in addition to their real property holdings, consisted of the goods and slaves that they owned. County court-appointed officials went to the home of the deceased and made a list of all the goods remaining in the house, assessed their market value, and submitted it to the court. In general, courts ordered probate inventories only for relatively wealthy individuals.

Values were assigned in English currency and coin, divided into pounds, shillings, and pence. Each colony had a distinct exchange rate for its currency with England and the other colonies. Thus, it is difficult to tell the value of goods looking only at probate records, but it is possible to determine the relative values of goods within one probate record. In general, the more valuable materials now, like mahogany or silver, were also valuable in the 18th century. To determine wealth overall, however, would require examining other wills and inventories from landholders in the same county.

Terminology

Specific items or language may be unfamiliar. For example, many probate inventories list items room by room; the word “hall” refers to a room. “Teaster” is a canopy over a bed frame. “Do” means “ditto,” or same as previous or above. The Oxford English Dictionary < http://www.oed.com >, which lists the history of words is a useful source for understanding probate inventories.

Southeastern Virginia

York County, settled in 1634, is on the east coast of Virginia, not far from Williamsburg. This inventory was ordered on June 20, 1757, during the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years’ War). While there was little fighting in Virginia at that point, there was a lot of upheaval in other parts of the North American British colonies. Virginia faced the threat of Indians and French attacks on its frontier, but since York County is in the east it was largely shielded from those attacks. It is likely, however, that Sarah Green would have been paying higher taxes to support the war.

Many wealthier residents of York County, and the rest of Virginia at this time, were farmers, though some were merchants and traders. Tobacco was a major crop in the colony and one that required an intensive amount of slave labor.

Women and Property Ownership

All of the North American colonies followed the English law of coverture. This stipulated that a married woman and her husband were a single economic unit, and that once married a woman was under the guardianship of her husband she no longer had the right to own real property, sue or be sued in court, or make contracts. She could own a small number of personal goods, but not substantial chattel property. Thus, the only women who would have had probate inventories taken of their possessions most likely would have been widows, who could act like male property owners under law.

Conclusions

What conclusions about Sarah Green can we draw from the items listed on the worksheet?

Books/Desk/Bookcase/Pictures

Background: While literacy was not rare at this time, it was much more common in New England, and less common among women than men. Pictures were not common in Virginia at this time. Since there were few local artists at the time making or painting pictures, the pictures and maps were most likely imported.
Missing: There is no Bible listed, which was the most common book that people at this time kept in their house. It likely was taken by a relative in the two years between when the probate inventory was ordered and when it was recorded.
Conclusions: The desk, books, bookcase, and maps suggest a level of literacy and an interest in learning. It is probably that either Sarah Green or, more likely, her husband, could read—an indication of higher social status. The ability to import paintings and maps also suggests wealth.

Chairs/Glass/Silver/Mahogany

Background: Looking glasses were expensive and difficult to obtain, as glass was generally imported. Silks, spices, and ivory were also imported. The leather-bottomed walnut chair was also a luxury item.
Conclusions: In general, the more imported goods there are in a home, the more likely that the family living there was of a higher social status. It is also interesting to note that many of these items are described as “old.” Given that, and the existence of coverture laws, it is thus likely that Sarah Green was a widow, living into old age with many signs of her former wealth surrounding her.

Tea Drinking

Background: By the mid-18th century, many wealthy colonists imitated English tea drinking rituals, and imported fancy silver goods, tea kettles, and teaspoons. Women especially would gather and make a ceremony of brewing and pouring a certain kind of tea and eating teacakes while socializing.
Conclusions: As a way to demonstrate social status and connect with other wealthy members of the community, the existence of items use for tea drinking indicate Sarah Green’s higher social status.

Slaves

Background: Slaves comprise the biggest proportion of the estate. The least valuable slave is worth more than the second most valuable item on the inventory (the silver teapot). Sam, a boy slave, is worth more than Sarah, a girl slave, presumably because he could work in the tobacco fields. A girl slave could work in the tobacco fields, but she would be more likely to work as a domestic or to take care of children.
Conclusions: The value of the slaves suggests how central they were to the Virginia economy and to the production of wealth in the colony. The presence of slaves on this inventory suggests that much of the wealth of wealthy Virginians at this time was made up of human property. Since there are six slaves on the inventory, it could suggest that Sarah Green didn’t have a large plantation. When her husband was alive, the plantation might have been larger. By law, a widow was entitled to the “widow thirds” of her husband’s estate, though land generally went to male heirs. So, either she is the recipient of a small portion of her former husband’s estate and slaves, or he was a small prosperous farmer who earned money as a merchant or trader. Sarah Green also may have profited from her slaves’ labor by hiring them out, as labor continued to be in short supply in colonial Virginia.

Classroom Applications

  • Do you think this activity would work with your students?
  • Could you use this strategy with other resources?
  • Would you do anything differently in your classroom?

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