Inventory of Estate of Michael Johnson
As recorded October 1719, Henrico Co., VA.
Compiled and written by
First, let me began by saying that I hold no accredited degrees or titles, nor lay claim in any fashion, to being qualified as an undisputed authority in the subject matter of this paper! Far from it! My knowledge in this field comes entirely from a life time interest in the history of trades and crafts of Colonial America. Aside from collecting colonial tools, I have spent considerable time in the making of them while practicing the art of a colonial blacksmith. And then as a carpenter using these tools of the period, have come to understand the day to day ‘aches and paynes’, the ‘feasts and faymins’ and the ‘joyes and sorroys’ of our colonial forebears.
As a youngster, I remember our next door neighbor plowing his small plot with a team of oxen! I remember walking behind him listening to the sound of the plow as it cut through the fresh earth, hearing the labored breathing of what I thought to be very huge animals. And then there was the smell of the fresh earth, the odor of sweat of both the man and his oxen! And even as young as I was then, I remember the excruciating slowness of the plodding oxen and now, older of course, understand how this very slowness seemed to cast a spell over the scene, imbedding these memories forever. Later in life I learned to swing an ax, right or left hand, the cutting edge striking the same spot swing after swing. I know the effort it takes to fell a tree the size of a barrel with an ax. And, I learned the skill to lay open that same tree trunk, with the same ax, into sizes suitable for fence rails! I might add there are hazards to obtaining knowledge in this manner and I bare scars that remind me of this fact. And so it is with this knowledge obtained through my own senses and combined with the writings of others before me that I examine the items on this list in an attempt to add a bit more information to the history of a man we know so little.
The deputy clerk of the court, Henry Wood, posted this inventory list we find recorded in the Henrico County, VA. records. Henry’s handwriting and spelling improved as the years went by, however, here in 1719, his handwriting, along with an ink that time has faded, combined to leave us with a document that is difficult to decipher. Now, this is not to complain, for I have seen many other records of the County water damaged or the edges burned away! The British destroyed almost all of Henrico County’s early records and I’m most grateful this one survived.
The inventory list, as presented here, is the best that I could do in transcribing from the microfilm found in the Library of Virginia. At the end of the list, each item is listed, analyzed and commented upon then a summary marks the conclusion of this paper.
An Inventory of Michael Johnson’s Estate, dec’d taken this 22nd day August, Anno Deim 1719
to 15 head cattle young & old L 16-00-00
to 16 sheep 5-00-00
to 1 yearling horse colt 1-15-00
to 1 old mare I-10-00
to 1 large young horse 8-00-00
to 1 very old horse - 10-00
to 1 old gun & one old gun barrell I-10-00
to 1 Parcell of old Iron tools 2-00-00
to 4 old hoes - 02-06
to 4 iron pots, one small glass bottle, chafing dish
4 pr wool cards, 3 cow bells, I linon cloth, 1 fire
tongs, I pr fleth Forks, 1 iron frying pan 5-07-00
to parcel of old wooden lumber 2-16-00
to 4 old small chrocks, 1 large old table &
2 baskets 1-10-00
to 1 very old trunk and to small form(?) 0-05-00
to a very old cast, last, & shoemaker tools 0-15-00
to a parcell pewter 1-18-10
to a parcell earthware 0-12-00
to 1 large Bible, small parcell old books 0-15-00
to 1 feather bed, ----(?)---, 1 rug, 1 large blanket, &
1 pr sheep shies 7-10-00
to 1 old flocke(?) bed, 1 old chest, 1 old rug,
1 blanket 1-10-00
to a old cattail ba(sket?), a very old blanket, and two
old rugs 2-10-00
to 2 old tob’ hog’, two old barrells, and two iron
wedges, and a pr liliards, and weaver’s loom
with stays(?) and harness 4 pr ---(each)? 1-19-00
to 2 old canvas bags 0-05-00
to 4 old bed steads and cords 0-10-00
Appraised by Geo Payne
Robert “R” Adams
to 600 8d nails ommited 0-03-06
to I old coopers joyulos(?) 0-01-06
In a court held for Henrico County the fifth day of October 1719, John and James Johnson presented this Inventory upon oath which was thereupon written to record...Test..Henry Wood, Dep Clerk”. Miscellaneous records Vol. # 2 pg. 437.
The first item ‘ to 15 head cattle young & old L 16-00-00’ is an example of the value placed on animals and their role in the very existence of Colonial settlers. Cattle or horses are usually the first items found listed on other Estate inventories of the period, so the situation found here is of no surprise. The word ‘to’ found throughout this inventory list was commonly used in documents of the period where a list of items, for what ever reason, needed to be documented. Some researchers have concluded that the word ‘to’ was used only to indicate that a monetary value was forth coming. Not so! I have seen lists that had no connection to currency of any kind, yet the word ‘to’ was used. Apparently, it’s use was to separate and accent the items on the list to avoid confusion. Now, let’s talk about the cattle! Oxen were used as heavy beasts of burden and to plow and till the land. Yet the word ox or oxen is not found in this list, nor have I found it in other inventories of the period. The number of oxen Michael Johnson had is contained in the ’15 head of cattle young and old’ ! Other land records tend to support the possibility that Michael’s wife and several children were alive at the time of his death. Now, milk (or milch) cows were almost as important as oxen, especially if there were children involved. So, one has to conclude that at least two of the cattle were producing milk! To maintain two milk producers, a settler had to have two more cows that were ‘dry’ and at least two or three young heifers that in a year or two would have calves and start the process all over again. That’s a total of seven out of the 15 head! As for the oxen, well almost the same thing applies here! A settler most often had one reliable pair, with a second pair for those occasions when the load was just too much for a single pair. Then too, there was just too much at stake to count on one pair staying healthy for a whole growing season. Now, to effectively train a pair of oxen, a settler must start with a pair of very young calves. So, if Michael had a pair in training, that adds up to six oxen . Totaled this with the milk cows, that adds up to thirteen, two shy of the fifteen listed. Perhaps the other two are either young or very old and destined to become ‘meat’ for the family table. Now, one could ask why were oxen chosen as work animals over horses and the answer is simple! Oxen are easier to care for, requiring less food and range than horses, thus more suitable for the small homestead. Later in the history of our country, when more land was cleared and grazing land expanded, horses and mules did replace the oxen almost exclusively.
The next item is ‘to 16 sheep L 5-00-00’ Notice here the value placed on the sheep in relationship to the cattle! Obviously, the sheep’s value to the settler was in the wool that was spun and woven into cloth! There are other items listed in the inventory that are directly related to the wool these sheep produced and we’ll discuss them in turn. But for now, let’s talk about the care of sheep in the setting of Michael Johnson’s homestead. Unlike cattle, that could be turned loose with only a bell attached to a docile cow that would usually return home before nightfall on her own with the others in tow, sheep had to be tended almost constantly. This chore usually fell to the children as age would permit and continued year around. In the earliest days of a settler developing his homestead it was more practical to fence in his crops rather than to provide a fenced area for his animals. Outside of his favorite horse, all animals forged outside the fenced area and were penned most often only night or selected times such as breeding or foaling. Now, sheep being the meek animals they are, we must also consider that in 1719, there were plenty of wolves and bears around! All this leads me to believe that this flock of sixteen sheep was about the limit of the capacities of Michael’s homestead.
The next four items on the list are horses! ‘to 1 yearling horse colt L 1-15-00, to 1 old mare L I-10-00, to 1 large young horse L 8-00-00, to 1 very old horse L - 10-00.’ I see Michael as a lover of fine horses as were many of his Virginia neighbors. Horse racing was a favorite pastime of these early settlers and the value of eight pounds placed on the large young horse clearly raises the possibility this horse has this capacity. The young yearling horse colt is probably the son of the ‘old mare’. Now, horses eat a lot! And to take care of an old horse whose value is only ten shillings confirms the fact that Michael loved his horses. This love of fast horses could have been passed down to at least one of Michael’s sons for we find that in the will of Daniel Johnson the name Cannon is given to one of his horses and the name Shaver is given to another! One could surmise that Cannon and/or Shaver could be descendents of the above ‘large young horse’! Now, there is no mention of a cart or buggy in the inventory, so one has to surmise that these horses were used for riding! In fact, history tells us that is exactly the way our early ancestors got about the country side, on horseback! But, what about a saddle? There is not one listed in the inventory! I have seen this phenomenon before in other inventories of the period, where horses are listed but no listing of saddles. Perhaps, the takers of this inventory included the saddle, if there was one, in the value of the horse.
One of the more intriguing items in the list of the estate of Michael is the next one… ‘to 1 old gun & one old gun barrell L I-10-00’ ! I think it appropriate here to discuss another word found in estate inventories such as this one, and that is the word ‘old’ ! In my research reading of the period, I have found estate inventories where the word ‘old’ was attached to every item on the list, even a list several pages in length! Clearly every item in those cases could not be ‘old’, yet they were listed as such! It is my belief that, because the owner of the items was dead, a way of expressing the previous ownership to the new owners was to call the estate items ‘old’. Now, having said all that, I find that not to be the case here with Michael Johnson’s estate list! It’s clear to me that the takers of this list called the items ‘old’ when they were in fact ‘old’. When the whole list is reviewed, the ‘old gun’ is a case in point,. But wait! Could this ‘old gun’ be called ‘old ‘ because if belonged to his father, and Michael inherited it along with the other ‘old’ items? This is an intriguing thought, and one that I’m not sure we’ll ever find an answer! However he came into ownership of the ‘old gun’, the fact remains that this is an unusual situation, the listing of a gun in an estate inventory of this period! I have found that later, after the French and Indian War, it was more common to see arms listed in estate inventories. The value placed on the ‘old gun and barrel’ suggests that it was in working order. Now, some history books lead us to believe that each of these early settlers owned a gun and had them by their sides at all times even while they tended their crops. Well, that is not the case! Guns were expensive and gunpowder hard to come by. Whenever there was cause to call up the local militia, few of the men could show arms! This raises another question, could Michael have been active, even perhaps an officer, in the local militia? I have found no evidence elsewhere to support this notion. One other thing, the gun in question was most probably a smooth bore musket of British origin, capable of discharging a load of shot or a ball.
‘to 1 Parcell of old Iron tools 2-00-00’ Here the word ‘parcel’, also common in other inventories, is used to indicate a grouping of similar things, as in this case ‘iron tools’! If we knew the individual items of this ‘parcel’ we could determine with some degree of certainty if Michael was skilled at a particular trade! More on this subject later, but first lets examine a list of ‘iron tools’ that one would expect to find in this ‘parcel’. Now, in my research I have found that in inventories such as this ‘iron tools’ were generally separated into three categories, cooking utensils, farming and wood working. Looking here at the rest this list, clearly, cooking utensils are not part of this ‘parcel’. And, the very next item on the this list, ‘to 4 old hoes L - 02-06’, suggests that farming tools were thought of as being apart of the ‘parcel’. So, that leaves us with wood working tools! The basic tools would have included an ax, saw, hammers, chisels and bits for boring holes in timbers, a perhaps a froe for splitting boards from short logs. Any grouping of tools beyond these would indicate someone skilled in the ‘carpentry’ trades, such as a cooper, jointer, etc! One tantalizing clue is the very last item on the list, … ‘to I old coopers joyulos(?) 0-01-06’ ! This was one of the three items ‘omitted ‘ from the original list, the other items we’ll talk about later. Also we’ll discuss later why these items could have been omitted and how they were added back to the list as if an afterthought! Meanwhile, I think that, here, in the description of this item lies a clue that Michael, or his father, (notice the word ‘old’) practiced the trade of making barrels. The word ‘cooper’ means just that! The word ‘joyulos(?)’ is probably a jointer or plain, a device for cutting a precise angle on the edges of staves so when bound together in a circle a water tight barrel is formed. Further more, additional research has uncovered evidence that a grandson of Michael’s was indeed a cooper!
The next group of items, ‘to 4 iron pots, one small glass bottle, chafing dish, 4 pr wool cards, 3 cow bells, I linon cloth, 1 fire tongs, I pr fleth Forks, 1 iron frying pan L 5-07-00’ hold no great surprises. If anything, these items represent a well established household. The listing here of the ‘wool cards’ and the ‘cow bells’ seems to be out of place with the other items that are usually found connected with the preparation of food and near the fireplace. I have always been sort of perplexed with the apparent randomness the takers of estate inventories sometimes display, and this one is no different than many others that I have examined. However, finding the ‘4 pr wool cards’ near the fire place is not uncommon at all. Carding wool was a chore one could do while resting between tending to the cooking and other household chores. I am not aware of a practice of removing the bells from cows and hanging them near the fireplace, however, one has to consider this is the day of the inventory and the cattle would have been penned for the ‘takers’ to make their count! Therefore, it is reasonable to expect to find the ‘3 cow bells’ listed in this group. Now, at first glance the next item on the list does seem to be out of order! Why would the ‘takers’ list ‘to parcel of old wooden lumber L 2-16-00’ right after a group of items found near the fireplace and just before other household items? We first have to consider that lumber was expensive! Oh, trees, thus logs, were plentiful for sure, but it was the labor involved in converting the logs to lumber that was expensive. At the time of this inventory, there were only two ways that a settler could have obtained such lumber, make it by hand with a pit saw also know as a ‘whip saw’, or buy it from an owner of a water driven sawmill! Research indicates that such a mill did not appear in the neighborhood until a few years later, so one has to assume that Michael’ lumber was more that likely hand made. It could very well be left-overs from the construction of his house! Now, where Michael store his ‘expensive’ lumber? The answer is the attic of his house! More than likely his house was of log design, one story, with an attic floored with this lumber, perhaps two or more layers thick. This was the best place, considering, Michael had to store the lumber. I have found this to be a very common practice even to this day! All of this explains, I believe, why the item of ‘old wooden lumber’ appears listed in between other household items.
The next household item is ‘to 4 old small chrocks, 1 large old table & 2 baskets L 1-10-00’ ! These are items one would expect to find here. Notice again how the word ‘old’ is used here to describe the crocks and table. One could certainly envision the table before the fireplace and setting on it’s worn top, the two baskets and perhaps the four small crocks! Against the wall could be the next item, ‘to 1 very old trunk and to small form(?) L 0-05-00’! The word ‘form(?)’ is a complete mystery to me! I’m not sure of the spelling. This is one of several words that, hard as I tried, I could not decipher!
Almost every early settler had the tools to repair, and often to make, his own shoes. The next item, ..‘to a very old cast, last, & shoemaker tools L 0-15-00’, tells us Michael could also make or repair the footware of his family! The small value of 15 shillings placed on the trunk or ‘cast’ and it’s contents suggests that they were indeed ‘old’ and perhaps worn out! This indicates to me that these shoemaker tools served more than one generation of our ancestors!
The items, ‘to a parcell pewter L 1-18-10’ and ‘to a parcell earthware L 0-12-00’, are common and expected to be found here. However, notice the value placed on the ‘pewter’! Now, pewter was expensive but this large value indicates to me that this ‘ parcell’ contained a large number of pieces.
Perhaps the most interesting item on the list is …‘to 1 large Bible, small parcell old books L 0-15-00’! I have examined many estate inventories of the period and a Bible is one of the rarest things to find on an inventory list, especially that of a yeoman settler. It’s listing here is of extraordinary interest! The first question is, which of the two versions, the Geneva Bible or the newer King James Version, is this ‘large Bible’? The Geneva Bible was popular with the Puritans of New England and other sects opposed to the rigors of the establishment in the sixteenth century. Although never authorized by Parliament, the King James version was published in 1611 and was in use by the Anglican Church of Michael’s time. My feeling is that the ‘large Bible’ is a King James Version! How come? Well, notice that the takers of the inventory did not call the Bible ‘old’ as they did the ‘parcell old books’! That would indicate that perhaps Michael himself had purchased the Bible and that it was not one that had been handed down to him by his father! Now, the takers of the inventory only placed a value of fifteen shillings on the Bible and the ‘old’ books and I’m somewhat perplexed as to why! Certainly, one would expect the value to be more. Could it be that they just didn’t know the value? I doubt that! Simply put, I think the value was weighed against those things in the everyday life of these early pioneers that was important! Take for instance, the ..‘to a very old cast, last, & shoemaker tools L 0-15-00’, where the value is the same! This may seem a bit odd to us, but I think this is how they weighed the value of these items!
Now, notice the value of this next item, ..‘to 1 feather bed, ----(?)---, 1 rug, 1 large blanket, & 1 pr sheep shies L 7-10-00’ and how it relates to the discussion above! I find, in researching other inventories, that a high value is almost always placed on feather beds. However, the value of seven pounds, ten shillings is excessive in relation to other inventories that I have seem for the period! Notice the blank ‘----(?)---‘ item! I could not make this out at all, but I believe that it could be ‘and furniture’ ! In other inventories, the words ‘and furniture’ almost always follow a listing of a feather bed and usually refer to the actual bed frame, head and foot boards as we know them today. A typical feather bed frame was solid enough to hold in place ropes woven from side to side and from head to toe. This woven rope platform supported the feather filled bedtick, thus the term ‘feather bed’! Often in winter a second feather tick was added, allowing the occupants to sleep between the two, and thus provided a great deal of comfort! One can easily picture this bed there in the back of the one room cabin, with the (hooked?) rug spread before it, the large blanket covering the whole bed and the sheep skins folded to form pillows!
Not all beds were as elaborate as the above described feather bed. Most were simple, planked, bench like structures over which a straw or grass filled tick was thrown to complete the bed. I believe that is the case with the next item, ‘to 1 old flocke(?) bed, 1 old chest, 1 old rug, 1 blanket L 1-10-00’! Perhaps these items would have been found in the loft, using the ‘old lumber’ as a floor. It’s not clear at this point how many children were still at home, but the furnishings here in this list could indicate that there were other people living here! The next items on the list could also have been found in the loft,… ‘to a old cattail ba(sket?), a very old blanket, and two old rugs L 2-10-00’! I’m not sure of the first item in this group, ‘to a old cattail ba(sket?),! Although it certainly looks like a ‘cattail basket’, I believe I may have this wrong! Look at the value placed on this group and then go back and compare with the value placed on the group containing the ‘planked bed’. There’s a full ‘pound’ difference! Now, one would not expect to see a basket worth one pound! As to the rest of the group, again notice the word ‘old’! A comment about the rugs! Notice there are a total of four rugs and in two instances they are listed in a group containing beds! Could it be that the ‘takers’ were listing what we know today as quilts? There is record, in early years, of quilts being referred to as ‘bed rugs’! An interesting thought to add to the imaginary visual picture of what this homestead looked like!
The takers of the inventory may have moved outside to a covered shed where they found the next group of items, ‘to 2 old tob’ hog’, two old barrells, and two iron wedges, and a pr liliards(?), and weaver’s loom with stays(?) and harness 4 pr ---(each)? L 1-19-00’! Again, the ink here has faded to the extent that I can’t be absolutely sure that I have this group of items presented exactly as written by the takers. For example, in this time period tobacco was packed by hand into round barrels and rolled to market. These barrels were called hogsets, a derivative of hogs-head. The term hogset was also applied to a mechanical device used to aid in the packing of the tobacco into the barrels. Now, I am not aware of any device that used iron wedges to aid in the packing of tobacco into the hogsets, but that is a possibility! A more logical use for the iron wedges is in that of splitting logs, and as I have seen plenty of evidence supporting this type use, I believe this is the case here. Now, I am unsure of the next item, ‘a pr liliards(?)’. I think I have the spelling correct and if so, I must point out that I have never found this word in other inventories. More than likely the word as spelled today, is ‘lan-yard’. As mentioned before, our ancestors commonly rolled their tobacco to market in barrels called hogsets. In order to do this they used oxen yoked to a device shaped like a giant ‘u’, the ends of the hogset being attached between the legs of this ‘u’ device in such a manner as to allow it to roll freely. Thus, this ‘a pr liliards(?)’ could very well have been such a device! The description of the weaver’s loom indicates that it is complete and is still usable. I am some what perplexed as to why such a low value was placed on this group of items, but it does follow a trend that I have noticed, and that is, values are never high on items that a settler can make himself. Aside, from the wedges made of iron, all of the items in this group are made of wood, a plentiful commodity. Now, another observation of this group of items is that they all require storage under a roof of some kind. I believe that, in this case, a lean-to was built along side the house, or at the least a detached shed close by, under which these items were placed. Once tobacco is cured it must be stored in a dry place, and the family chore of removing the leaves from the stalks and packing it in the hogsets also must be done under the same conditions. Now, the question arises as to why the loom, with all it’s parts, is found outside under a shed? Well, consider the time of year the inventory was taken! During the hot summer months, it’s just too hot and stuffy to expect to find someone sitting inside a dark and gloomy house working at a loom. My research has found that most all household chores, including cooking, were done outside during the summer months. So, finding the loom outside is no great surprise!
Also, one could expect to find the next item, ‘to 2 old canvas bags L 0-05-00’, under the same shed. These canvas bags could very well have been used to store those things, including thread and yarn, associated with the loom.
At this point in studying this inventory record, one can see evidence that a very human error occurred! Henry Wood, the deputy clerk assigned the task of copying this document, thinking that he had all the items, with their values, copied in the like order from the original document, proceeded to copy the total of L63-09-06 from the original to the record book along with the signatures of the ‘takers’ and the typical recording statement showing the court date and his signature! In other words, he thought he had finished the job! Well someone, whether it was Henry or someone else we may never know, checked the copied list and found three items were omitted from the list, but the value of the three items was included in the total! Now, I have examined other documents recorded by Henry and have found, for the most part, his hand writing to be acceptable. But here again, I have also found ample evidence that Henry at times was prone to sloppy work. Anyway, Henry handled the omitted items this way! First he added one of the items, ‘to 4 old bed steads and cords L 0-10-00’ directly to the end of his list, but for lack of space had to place the value after the total he had already entered. Now, in order to bring down the correct total, he had to subtract the ten shillings from the previously recorded total! Poor Henry was not privy to a method allowing him to erase his mistake, so he simply wrote over the existing numbers! This is clearly visible, if one looks closely! This over-writing of the numbers is strong evidence that the omission of the items was clearly Henry’s doing! I don’t believe he was so meticulous as to record a write over such as this from the original! The other two omitted items, to 600 8d nails ommited L 0-03-06’ and ‘to I old coopers joyulos(?)L 0-01-06’ were added between the ‘takers’ signatures and Henry’s statement of recordation!
Now, of these last three ‘omitted’ items, we have already discussed ‘to I old coopers joyulos(?)L 0-01-06’! I think it wise to mention here that because these items were ‘omitted’ from their original place in the inventory list, we have little clue as to where the ‘takers’ found them. An example is the ‘to 4 old bed steads and cords L 0-10-00’ item! They could have been stored in the loft of the house or perhaps tied to the rafters of the shed where the loom was found! We can only guess! However one thing is apparent, these beds were not in use! They would have been described as beds if they were being used! And, take note of the value placed on these bedsteads! Ten shillings is a ridiculously low value! One has to conclude that these beds were handmade, old and worn out! We know from other research that at least four of Michael’s sons had already left home by the time this list was taken and so with some speculation, we could say that these had been their beds!
This brings us to the last of the omitted items, to 600 8d nails ommited L 0-03-06’ and a very interesting item it is! I have spent considerable time researching and practicing the art of the colonial blacksmith and one of the more interesting subjects in this field is that of nails! A lengthy discussion of the history of nails is not in order here, so I’ll try to be brief! First, notice there is an actual number of nails listed! Not a parcel, nor a box, or keg, but a number! Six hundred, to be exact! Next, notice the term ‘8d’! You may be astonished to learn this term is in use today to describe nails of a certain size! Now, if you were able to go back in time and ask Michael what the term meant, he might have said “Tis eight pence ye hundred count, jes’ ask ye merchant!” That’s exactly how sizes of nails were determined! The larger the nail, the more iron is contained in each nail! Thus, a 16d nail contained twice as much iron as an 8d. Now, iron being the cost factor, a 4d nail would cost one half as much as an 8d nail! I hope this is not too confusing! The value of six hundred nails at eight pence is four shillings! So the value placed on Michael’s 8d nails is six pence under the market price! Interesting! Another thing, in Michael’s time, the most common use for an 8d nail is in the application of roofing boards or shingles!
First, let’s try to understand why, in Michael’s time, an inventory of an estate was necessary. To begin with, we need to understand this was not an estate sale, but simply a listing of estate items with their value. The question is why then, this listing? Well, it was more related to custom than need, here in Colonial Virginia. The dower system, the widow being entitled to one third interest in her husband’s holdings, was firmly entrenched in Old England. Thus the need, by law, to place a value on the personal property of the estate, so that the dower could be established, prompted this practice to inventory estates. No where in Colonial America have I seen this dower system more rigidly enforced than in some of the early settlements of North Carolina, particularly in the Scottish settlements! There, the court system felt obliged to sort out every deceased person’s estate! I have seen records there of court appointed committees given complete control of large estates prior to the widows dower rights being sorted out! In early Colonial Virginia, there is some evidence of this same rigidity, but as the years went by the court’s part in this system seems to have declined. By no means do I want to imply that a widow’s rights by law also declined! It just seems to me that the courts of Colonial Virginia have far less dower related court cases than in Colonial North Carolina! Perhaps some of this difference could be attributed the practice in Virginia of a man leaving life rights to his wife in his will, thus appeasing the dower need, I just don’t know. Now, in the case of Michael’s estate, there is firm evidence that he left a will and some speculation that his wife was alive at his death. However, if this were the case, and Michael did leave his wife life rights to portions of his estate, the fact remains that his estate was inventoried and appraised! Sadly, if there were court records related to her dower entitlement or the probate of the will, they have been lost! While we’re discussing legal issues, let examine the court’s practice in handling estate inventories. This practice was so entrenched that, even if a man directly voiced his opposition in his will, most often the courts would force an inventory! On rare occasions, the administrator of the estate would perform the inventory, but more often than not, the court would appoint four men instructing any three to return the inventory! Most often, these four men would be neighbors and friends of the deceased, hardly ever relatives, as one could see why! Only three men placed their signatures on the inventory list of the estate of Michael Johnson, ‘Geo Payne, William Hodges, and Robert “R” Adams’! If there were four men named to do the job, we may never know the name of the fourth man due to the record situation. Another thing, the court usually orders the ‘takers’ to report directly back to the court but this didn’t happen here! In the recording statement by Deputy Clerk, Henry Wood, we find ‘John and James Johnson presented this Inventory upon oath which was thereupon written to record.’! John and James were undoubtedly named in Michael’s will as the executors of his estate, thus giving credit to their presents before the court in this matter!
Another very interesting observation here is in the signatures of the three ‘takers’ as recorded by Henry Wood! At first glance, one would think that the three men each signed the document in person, the three signatures are that distinct! However, a closer examination clearly shows the small traits of Henry’s handwriting! This talent of Henry’s was also passed down to his son Valentine Wood, who later became the Clerk of Court of Goochland County! Val Wood, as he most often signed his name, developed a very beautiful script and I, for one, am very grateful for his meticulous penmanship!
Let’s go back, for a moment, to the subject of estate inventories and discuss another thought as to why the practice was so common. Open Court sessions played a huge part in the closeness of a community! The whole neighborhood usually turned out, not unlike an open air market, trading and visiting! If a man had sold his plantation, the Court required him to stand before it and confirm the fact under oath, even describing the boundaries before the act was written to record. With a little imagination, we might envision John and James Johnson standing before the court, under oath, reading the list of items and it’s value to the crowd of faces before them! And from the back came a voice “What about Michael’s hogs! Why didn’t they get counted?” (Good question! We’ll take about this later). The point I’m trying to make is that, because most of these people of the period were illiterate, there was no better way to instill creditability in the law than an open system like this, where a man could see and hear what was going on in his neighborhood! Also, one should consider the values, as placed on the items of the inventory, as having a secondary importance in stabilizing the prices of the local trade.
Well, enough of that! Let’s talk about the list of items and how it relates to what we know about Michael! We know that Michael had at least six sons to reach adulthood, and that there was at least one child that died young! More than likely, but no evidence to support this, there could have been daughters that also reached adulthood! Now, the known six sons would have placed a huge burden on their mother just to provide food and clothing! Judging from the items in this list, I think she would have had help in some form or fashion! Could it have been her daughter/s, or servants, or perhaps even slaves? If it were slaves, why are none listed in the inventory? As far as servants, well, there is this record! We think Michael’s wife was Sarah Watson, and when her father died in 1702, he left her an Indian servant named Peter to be set free at the age of thirty-six! Could this servant, Peter, have been all the help she had throughout those trying years? Interesting questions!
On the subject of slaves and why there are none listed, the list suggests that Michael was a tobacco farmer with perhaps some talent in making barrels. Both are very labor intensive! Some of Michael’s neighbors also tobacco farmers, owned slaves. Could it be that the labor of Michael’s six sons was sufficient? It certainly looks that way! Now, we could surmise that Michael did own slaves and that the ownership had been transferred, by gift or by sale, to his children, prior to his death! But there is no record to support this theory and I, for one, don’t believe this to be the case. Now, there is another theory to be put forth, and that is Michael’s religious beliefs! The large Bible found in the list certainly suggests that Michael was attuned to the religious turmoil of his time. And, records tell us, the strongest anti-slavery movement of the time was that of the Quakers! Now, was Michael a Quaker? I don’t think so! Certainly, he was aware of the faith! Some records point to the possibility that perhaps his father could have been a Quaker, as well as other members of his ancestry! Research continues in this area.
On the subject of the large Bible, another custom of the period involved the Anglican Church! As settlements expanded, the State Church could not supply ministers on a regular bases to these remote people, so readers were employed. People would meet at the home of these ‘readers’, or the ‘reader’ would travel to houses to read selected scriptures. Could Michael have been one of these readers? I cannot find any evidence to support this theory! In fact, in the immediate years after Michael’s death, even his sons seemed to distance themselves from the church! There are records of their children being baptized, and possessioning their land, but little record of any activity in the vestry! In later years, some of Michael’s grandchildren were involved in establishing the first Baptist Church in Lunenburg County!
Back to the list of items! We have established that the household items were sufficient to support a large family. Well, almost! What about chairs, or something to sit on? Perhaps the value placed on the ‘old large table’ could have included chairs? We have no way of telling, but the omission does support the theory that anything as common as a wooden bench or stool, easily made by the settler has little value! There’s one thing missing that should have been there, a spinning wheel! I feel certain there was one, or perhaps two! I don’t think the ‘takers’ would have overlooked such an important item, so what could the answer be? Perhaps one of Michael’s sons or a daughter had already taken possession! We may never know! Another thing to note is the absents of flax growing items, although there is mention of a ‘linon cloth’. There is also no mention of geese, a source of feathers for the feather bed! The most striking omission, in my opinion, is that of hogs! Michael surely had them, as they were the primary source of meat during this period. Now, why were they not counted? The only answer I can think of is, it was just too much trouble! To explain, one has to remember that hogs ran loose! Everyone’s pigs mingled together, feeding on the wild mash (chestnuts, acorns, etc) until freezing weather. They were then rounded up, and sorted out according to the marks on their ears! Most were slaughtered for the winter’s meat supply! Young sows and the youngest pigs were penned for the winter, the beginnings of next year’s herd! So remember, it was August when the takers took this inventory! Now, August is the beginning of the heaviest part of the mast season and none of the neighbors would want to disturb their hogs at this time by spending several days rounding them up just so the ‘takers’ could count Michael’s hogs! Oh, I think Michael had hogs all right, it was simply too much trouble for the ‘takers’ to count them!
It’s been a pleasure writing this paper. I tried to keep it as uncluttered as I could from the usual references to sources and other hard facts! Instead, I tried to bring the reader closer to the reality of life during Michael’s time and not make a bore of it in the process! I hope I have succeeded on both counts! Harold Johnson
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