The Stuff of History: Probate Records in 17th Century Maryland

Rose Gallenberger, Public History MA Candidate, UMass History

Stuff. We all have it. Some accumulate more than others. Some of us may be called “pack rats.” We are a consumer society. But our Anglo-American ancestors were just as concerned with material possessions. Enter the probate inventory, specifically those of Maryland’s first capital, St. Mary’s City. Probate inventories are records taken after the death of an individual to determine the value of his or her estate. During the summer of 2015, I spent hours examining these lists of stuff, a surprisingly fascinating undertaking. While it was interesting reading about five balls of chocolate worth the equivalent of sixty pounds of tobacco (John Deery’s 1678 probate inventory) and spying on William Calvert’s property, I had a greater reason for exploring these records. As a graduate intern at Historic St. Mary’s City, a seventeenth-century living history museum, it was my duty to begin sifting through hundreds of probate inventories to create a master list of the stuff seventeenth-century southern Marylanders owned. The museum staff will use this list to improve the interpretive collections, which consists of historical reproductions that interpreters use while bringing the seventeenth century to life.

Ceramics at the Godiah Spray Plantation at Historic St. Mary’s City

Ceramics at the Godiah Spray Plantation at Historic St. Mary’s City

These probate inventories constitute a way of looking at the stuff of history, or material culture. While examining surviving objects may seem ideal, it is not always possible, and those artifacts are extraordinary simply because they exist. Most objects are lost to history. Other sources, such as probate records, give historians an idea of what people, usually white men, owned. At a site such as Historic St. Mary’s City where nothing from the seventeenth century survives above ground, these records are just as valuable as artifacts archeologists excavate. This written record does not necessarily provide the researcher with information on how an object, such as a cup, looked (beyond the occasional descriptor like “new,” or “worn”), but it can relay other information, such as quantity and material.

In order to use the probate records effectively in researching the interpretive collections, I needed to begin making a master list of all items southern Marylanders owned during the seventeenth century according to the inventories. Fortunately for me, Historic St. Mary’s City’s beloved historian, Lois Green Carr, had a team of researchers transcribe the records, so I was reading typed lists rather than seventeenth-century script. For ease of future research, I divided the items into eight categories: cider making supplies, clothing and sewing, cooking and eating tools, dairy supplies, farming tools, furniture and accessories, woodworking tools, and miscellaneous. Within these categories, I organized the information into different columns containing modern and seventeenth-century terms for each object, color, material, additional descriptions, and in which inventories the objects appear. This list indicates which objects were most common in inventories and the number an individual owned. These statistics and descriptors can help determine which items are appropriate in different museum settings, such as an ordinary (a seventeenth-century inn and tavern) or plantation, and in what quantity.

Excerpt from Master Probate List

Excerpt from Master Probate List

While probate records tell historians what people in history owned, these inventories also indicate what they did not own. For example, there are no fiber processing tools in the fifty inventories I examined, with the exception of those documenting two wealthy men. Early Marylanders had an abundance of land and a shortage of labor, the opposite of seventeenth-century England. Therefore, all labor went toward farming, especially growing tobacco, which Marylanders used as currency. Expending labor on raising sheep or growing flax and processing the fiber into fabric did not make sense when planters could buy the material from England. These omissions not only indicate which items did not exist in seventeenth-century Maryland, but also which activities did not occur.

I studied these probate inventories two days a week, which gave me one day a week to research the archeological record, examining the stuff–primarily ceramics–which early Marylanders lost or discarded. These pottery fragments helped me determine what that generic ceramic plate in the inventories looked like. For example, the plantation has a beautiful plate with painted tulips. I found nearly identical plates in books detailing ceramics from the seventeenth century, verifying that the design existed by 1661, the date portrayed at the Godiah Spray Plantation. In order to determine that similar plates were at Historic St. Mary’s City, I found pottery pieces with a similar design and color to the reproduction. Therefore, this plate was historically accurate to a 1661 plantation.

In addition to examining stuff in probate records and stuff found in excavations, I handled the reproductions of seventeenth-century stuff as a costumed interpreter at the Godiah Spray plantation. Two times a week, I had the opportunity to go in the field and observe how the interpreters interact with the stuff at the plantation.   This also gave me the chance to have fun while completing seventeenth-century chores with other interpreters. We came in contact with the stuff of nature, specifically turtles, the disgusting tobacco-eating hornworm, weeds, and farm animals, including chickens, cows, and pigs. My favorite from this variety of “stuff” was my chicken friend, Josephine. As I learned, no internship is complete without a friendly chicken.

Rose Gallenberger and Josephine, the chicken. Photo courtesy of Beth Sanford.

Rose Gallenberger and Josephine, the chicken. Photo courtesy of Beth Sanford.

My experience at Historic St. Mary’s City taught me how to use probate records and the archeological collections to research and improve interpretive collections at living history museums. I had the opportunity to present my methods and research at the 2016 Mid-Atlantic regional Association for Living History, Farm, and Agriculture conference. As I learned from living history professionals who attended my session, my research and methods are new among living history museums. I will continue to refine my research skills as I begin the Mellon Foundation curatorial summer internship in textiles at Colonial Williamsburg and hopefully embark on a career through which I can continue researching material culture—the stuff of history.


This post is part of a series of blog posts written by Dr. Charles K. Hyde Public History Fellows about their internships in museums, historic sites, archives, and more. The Dr. Charles K. Hyde Public History Fellowship offers financial support for Public History students to complete their internships.Stay tuned for more posts from this year’s Hyde Fellows about their internships.

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