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Dee Burris Blakley ([personal profile] dee_burris) wrote2013-09-14 08:48

The importance of probate records to African American researchers

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been having delightful email and text correspondence with a woman who found some of my Find a Grave records on her family members.

I had gone graving one fine day in Desha and Phillips counties to locate graves and exact dates of death for my research on the Gordon/Martin/McCarroll family tree.
Virtually every family historian knows the importance of finding probate records for their ancestors and collateral relatives. You get so much good information from mining them.

But for African American family historians descended from slaves, 18th and 19th century (and earlier) probate records generally have a bittersweet quality.

They don't mine their ancestors' probate records from that time, because their ancestors didn't own things.

They were owned. And they were included in inventory lists of the master's and his descendants' estates.

My new friend just shared with me that in her quest to find out how her ancestor is related to a white family, she received a probate record with such a list.

And her ancestor was not among the slave inventory.
I can only try to imagine the feeling you have when opening that envelope or electronic file.

On the one hand, you really, really want to see your ancestor listed. So there has to be some disappointment if s/he is not.

And on the other, if your ancestor is on the list - although now you've got some vital information...Well, your mind would have to wander to what kind of life your ancestor might have had.

Keep those lists coming, folks. For those of us who had slaveowner ancestors, we need to post those lists. People are looking.

And yes, some of us had ancestors who owned slaves. I'm not going to pretty that up with some euphemistic phrase.