This week’s Summer Reading series features two titles I purchased from genealogy bookseller Maia’s Books at the recent Genealogical Institute of Pittsburgh. I have been working with probate records recently and was pleased to find two books highly recommended during my Intermediate Course with Paula Stuart-Warren and Josh Taylor.
Inheritance in America
Inheritance in America: From colonial times to the present by Carole Shammas, Marylynn Salmon, and Michel Dahlin is the result of an academic grant “Inheritance, Family, and the Evolution of Capitalism in America.” It touches broadly on the concept of inheritance (as stated in the title) from Colonial Times to the Present, with a focused look at the colonies or states at four points, each a century apart. The book also looks carefully at laws in Pennsylvania and California.
Roughly half of the 320 page book is devoted to inheritance law before the mid-nineteenth century. Chapters in Parts One (Inheritance Under Family Capitalism) and Two (Family, Property, and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism) focus on
English Inheritance Law and the Colonies
Colonial Testamentary Practice and Family Capitalism
Changes and Attempted Changes in Postrevolutionary Inheritance Law
Inheritance Law and the Rights of Women and Children in the Nineteenth Century
Testamentary Behavior in the 1790s and 1890s
Part Three features an analysis the the Federal Estate Tax and Inheritance in the 20th Century.
Most of my present research is grounded in 18th and 19th century probate records, and I am finding the sections on colonial law to be a useful survey of the inheritance laws that would have been known by my ancestors. I wonder if they would have embraced Limited Family Partnerships, Family Trusts, and LLP arrangements in an effort to direct distribution of their assets after death?
Estate Inventories: How to Use Them
Estate Inventories: How to Use Them by Kenneth L. Smith is a short volume packed with useful information for anyone working with probate and estate documents. Reading an old estate inventory is a bit like opening someone’s medicine chest; it feels kinda sneaky in an interesting way.
I didn’t know just how poor my ancestor really was until I compared his inventory to those shared by Smith. A few pots and pans, minimal dishes, and a bit of furniture and bedding all tell the story of a family of very modest means.
Smith’s chapter on spelling variations, paleography (handwriting) and phonetics are useful reviews on how to decipher handwritten documents. His own personal experience in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia directs the examples with German phonetics, handwriting, and customs, but are useful for researchers working anywhere in the United States.
The discussion of net value and worth is out-of-date, using a 1982 reference chart for converting money to current value, but the footnotes suggest that a newer version of the same table could be substituted. He also makes the good point that values are relative to wages, cost and scarcity of goods, and other economic factors. Sample inventories and discussion help understand the concepts more fully.
Nearly half of the 137 page book comprises a Glossary of Uncommon Terms that are typically found in estate inventories. Some of the vocabulary is regional featuring Pennsylvania Dutch words and nicknames for objects, but most words are not focused on any particular part of the country.
Both are useful volumes I am glad to add to my genealogy library.
About Maia’s Books — Martha Mercer brought an extensive selection of titles to GRIP, with an especially good variety of books focused on Pennsylvania and German research. I also purchased two map books for the German research that is on my ToDo list.
Please leave a comment if you can recommend other useful books or articles for working with probate and estate records.