Estate Records


Once an ancestor has been traced back to 1866, you have to determine if they were free or enslaved before that date. If they were living in 1850 or 1860 and their names do not appear on the censuses taken those years, most likely they were slaves. At this point your attention must turn to the white slave owners in the area where they lived in 1870. If you know that an ancestral family took the surname of a former owner, look in the 1870 census for the names of all the white land owners with that name. Then check the 1850 and 1860 slave schedules (supplements to the population schedules taken those years) to determine if any of those land owners also had slaves.

How did that owner obtain those slaves? Did he purchase or inherit them? Surprisingly, large number of owners living in 1860 inherited their slaves. Now, estate records become the focus of your research—they may list the names and ages of your slave ancestors; some even group slaves by families. You will have to search all kinds of probate records to find those documents!

When someone dies, his real estate and personal property must be disposed of according to laws governing matters of inheritance. Ancestors who left a will instructed the executor of that estate in how to distribute their property. Those who did not write a will died intestate, and the court directed the estate settlement by first appointing an administrator. In either case the court required the executor or administrator to inventory the estate, including slaves and debts owed by the deceased. In some cases, the deceased would direct the executor to sell some or all of the personal property. If there were more claims against the estate than cash to pay them, the court would order the sale of all or part of the assets. After all the claims against the estate were settled, the court divided the remainder of the estate among its legal heirs. Throughout the probate process, executors and administrators file documents with the court, including a:

  • Will—the document left by the deceased that tells its executors and the court exactly how to distribute the estate, including slaves. Sample Document: Page 1 | Page 2
  • Codicil—an amendment to a will that makes additions, changes, clarifications, or revocations which overrule the provisions in the original will, including changes involving the inheritance of slaves.
  • Appointment—documents that appoint persons to take part in the settlement of the estate, such as administrators, appraisers, those who will help inventory the estate, and guardians of minor children.
  • Inventory—a list of the real estate and personal property, including slaves, owned by the deceased. Sample Document
  • Bill of Sale—a list of the property sold, including slaves and the amount paid at a public sale.
  • Division of Property (also called Distribution of Property or Final Settlement) —a document that outlining who received the final assets of an estate, including slaves, after all of the claims against it have been settled. Sample Document:- Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3
  • Guardianship—the deceased or the court can appoint someone, usually a member of the family, but not always the mother, as the legal guardian of minor heirs. The children may remain with their mother, but the guardian would be responsible for the maintenance, education and management of the property inherited by the child, including slaves.

Other probate documents, such as bonds, petitions, support bills, and returns, also can be found in probate packets.

Estate records were filed in a civil court, such as a county, circuit or orphans court. If you visit the courthouse in the county where the your slave ancestors lived in 1866, ask the clerk to direct you to the estate records—they are public records and you can search them for free, but expect to pay a fee for photocopies, generally $1.00 per page.

The Family History Library of the LDS Church has microfilmed the estate records of most of the counties in slave states. You can view those films at the main library in Salt Lake City or at the Family History Center in your area. It will take approximately six weeks to receive the films and you can expect to pay a small shipping and handling fee.

If you don’t want to wait that long, you can hire one of our record searchers to scan and email the documents to you, generally in 7-10 days from the time of your order. The cost of this service varies, depending on the commonness of a surname and the number of scanned images. The quotes below are for one surname in one county. You must place a separate order for each surname (of the slave owner) and their county of residence. For example, let’s say that your ancestor lived in Talbot County, Georgia in 1870 and you know that your slave ancestor took Leonard as their surname, but you don’t know which of the men named Leonard in Talbot County, Georgia owned your ancestors. If a member of the Leonard family died, it’s possible that their estate records will name their slaves, including your ancestor and his relatives. It’s also possible that the estate records will not mention your ancestors! You’re purchasing the time it takes to copy, scan and deliver the documents to you. It’s up to you to analyze the content of those documents to identify your ancestors. You will be given a quote before the search begins for estates involving common surnames, such as Smith, Jones, Taylor, Johnson, Williams, etc.

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