Read the Entire Probate File: Don’t Miss the Storytelling Gems

North Carolina Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina; Picture taken on 28 June 2013 while researching there.

When slave-owners died, their estates had to be probated in order to properly distribute their property to lawful heirs. The executor, who was named in the will or who was appointed by a judge, has to prove the validity of their will, if there’s one. He also has to present the court with inventories of their property, their debts, and who is to inherit their property. Consequently, since enslaved African Americans were considered “property,” like horses, cattle, furniture, etc., many of them were recorded and named in probate records. Wills, probate and estate records are deemed as the most valuable resources in tracing and documenting enslaved ancestors.

Some of these probate files can be thick as the Amazon rainforest. So thick, that many researchers, including myself, may often skim through the pages to quickly find the will and/or slave inventory to prove and document an enslaved ancestor. Once we lay our eyes on that infamous inventory, we encounter a mixture of emotions – joy, sadness, and anger. The joy comes from documenting an enslaved ancestor. We then may feel that a research goal has been fulfilled, and we may disregard the rest of a thick probate file – boring documentation of annual estate transactions, ledgers, accounts, other inventories, etc., often written in bad cursive writing. That’s a big mistake, and I have been guilty of this at times.

More historical details can certainly be garnered from reading the entire probate record of a slave-owner. Important informational gems and great genealogical clues can correct and enrich your family’s narrative. Here’s an example and one in which I was guilty.

In 1871, my father’s great-grandfather, John “Jack” Bass of Warren County, Mississippi, stated that his father’s name was Tom Bowdin – my great-great-great-grandfather. This was recorded on his Freedman’s Bank application. Grandpa Jack had been born in North Carolina circa 1845. Since he opted to not take his father’s surname, I speculated that Tom was left back in North Carolina when Grandpa Jack, four siblings, and their mother Beady Bass were brought to Hinds County (Jackson), Mississippi about 1849. Grandpa Jack was only about 4 years old. Their legal enslaver, Elizabeth (Bass) Bass, had petitioned the court to transfer her “legacy” to Mississippi, where she had been residing since the 1830s with her second husband, Jesse Bass, and her children.

John Bass’s Freedman’s Bank Application, 16 January 1871, Vicksburg, Mississippi Field Office, accessed from

On 2 September 1830, Elizabeth’s father Council Bass of Northampton County, North Carolina wrote in his will, “I convey all of my land on the south side of the road leading from Bryant Crossroad to Rich Square including my dwelling house with the following Negroes that is to say, Harry, BEADY, Hezekiah, Jackson, and Willie unto Bryant Randolph in trust for the benefit of my daughter Elizabeth Bass during her life . . .”  Because of this trust, Grandma Beady remained and labored in North Carolina for 19 more years, managed by Bryant Randolph and later William Britton, who both lived in the vicinity of Bryant Crossroad, just west of Rich Square. Grandpa Jack and his four siblings were born during that time. The financial fruits of their free labor were sent to Elizabeth.

In 2014, I had found the probate record of Lemuel Bowden of Northampton County on Luckily, had recently digitized many North Carolina probate and estate files. Lemuel had died in 1859. Per the 1830, 1840, and 1850 U.S. Federal Censuses, Lemuel, his wife and children were the only Bowdens in the county. He lived near Bryant Randolph. Also, the 1850 slave schedule shows that Lemuel was the owner of 37 enslaved people that year. Was one of them Grandpa Tom?

Lemuel Bowden’s probate record revealed that he died intestate – without a will – and his property, including slaves, were equally divided between his three children, Hiram L. Bowden, Hortense Bowden Hardy, the wife of the estate administrator Thomas E. Hardy, and Martha Bowden, who later married William Gatewood. The probate record contained 248 digitized pages!

Because of the enormity of this probate record, I decided to click through it quickly until I found a slave inventory or any document that had the enslaved people’s names and hopefully ages, too. I wanted to confirm if Lemuel had owned an enslaved male named Thomas/Tom, the same 50-year-old Thomas Bowden who lived in nearby Bertie County in 1870 and whom I had theorized as likely being Grandpa Jack Bass’s father. (Note: DNA technology has since provided genetic evidence that he was – future blog post.)

Fortunately, the division of 38 named slaves was soon found on image/page 12. To my joy and pain, Lemuel had indeed owned a male named Tom who was given to his only son Hiram. The division was as follows (transcribed below):

The Slave Division of Lemuel Bowden’s Estate, 23 December 1859, Northampton County, North Carolina. Source: “North Carolina Estate Files, 1663-1979,” database with images, FamilySearch, Northampton County, Bowden, Lemuel (1859), image 12 of 248; State Archives, Raleigh.

To wit, Lot No. 1 consisting of Negroes Bill, Joe, Augustus, Sam, John, Sarah and two children, Emma, Rhody, Margarett and Jane, valued at eleven thousand and fifty dollars ($11,050) less for keeping Old Gealy two hundred and twenty five dollars ($250), making ten thousand eight hundred & twenty five dollars ($10,825) and pays to Lot No. 3 sixteen 66/100 dollars ($16.67) and drawn by Thomas E. Hardy in right of his wife Hortense.

Lot No. 2 consisting of Negroes Turner, Lewis, Henry, Jordan, Jack-Kettle, Hasty & child, Matilda, Edy, Alice, TOM, Dicey valued at ten thousand and nine hundred dollars ($10,900) and pays to Lot. No 3 ninety one 66/100 dollars ($91.67) and drawn by Hyram L. Bowdin.

Lot No. 3 consisting of Negroes Shade, Jack-Randal, Jim, Isaac, Nelson, Eliza & two children, Randal, Julia, Morning & two children, and Narcis valued at ten thousand & seven hundred dollars ($10,700) and received from Lot. No. 1 sixteen (66/100) dollars ($16.67), also from Lot No. 2 ninety one 66/100 dollars ($91.67) and drawn by Martha J. Bowden. Given under our hands and seals this 23rd day of December 1859.

Recently, I recalled that I had not fully read much of this 248-page probate record. This turned out to be a huge oversight for five years. What an interesting tale some of those other documents told.

First, I learned that Grandpa Tom’s legal last enslaver, Hiram Bowden, was absent and away from North Carolina when his father died. He was also not present when his father’s estate was being settled. Official testimonies revealed that his family did not know of his whereabouts but felt that he was still alive. Newspaper notices were published in 1860 and 1861, to hopefully notify Hiram to appear at the Northampton County courthouse in Jackson to address his legal responsibilities from his inheritance. The latest notice I found was dated 13 March 1861, published in the Raleigh, N.C. newspaper.

Source: The Raleigh Register, 13 March 1861, page 2, obtained from

If Hiram Bowden was nowhere to be found when his father died, what happened to Grandpa Tom? That was the first question that entered my mind. Fortunately, the following complaint answered that question. In 1866, Lemuel’s children issued an official complaint to the court, expressing a dissatisfaction with Thomas Hardy’s handling of their father’s estate, especially since Hardy’s wife, Hortense Bowden, had died in 1861, two years after her father Lemuel’s death. Hardy’s official testimony addressed the complaint and also answered my question about Grandpa Tom’s whereabouts. His statement even mentioned Grandpa Tom. This is some of Thomas Hardy’s revealing testimony (transcribed below):

Court of Equity, Northampton County, Fall Term, 1866: The answer of Thomas E. Hardy, defendant, to the Bill of Complaint of William K. Gatewood and wife, Martha J., and Hiram L. Bowden, plaintiffs
Source: “North Carolina Estate Files, 1663-1979,” database with images, FamilySearch, Northampton County, Bowden, Lemuel (1859), image 203 of 248; State Archives, Raleigh.

. . . . At the December Term 1859 of the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions of said County, a petition was filed for a division of the slaves belonging to said estate and pursuant to an order made in said case, said slaves were, on or about the 24th day of December 1859, divided into three equal shares, and the slaves drawn by the plaintiff Martha J. were taken into possession by her then guardian, Edmund Jacobs. This defendant continued to manage and control the share of said slaves drawn by Hiram L. Bowden, who was at that time absent from the State, till the said Hiram returned to this State on a visit in the year 1861. During said visit, said Hiram made the defendant a power of attorney to manage his estate, and this defendant continued to manage the slaves of the said Hiram, to the best of his ability, till said slaves were emancipated or escaped by running away. Three of his negroes ran away in 1863 and never returned. This defendant has with files an account marked (1) showing his receipts and expenditures as agent and attorney of said Hiram, and prays the same may be taken as part of his answer. A part of the land belonging to the estate of the intestate has not been rented out or cultivated since the death of intestate. This defendant rented out the home place in 1860 and has given his intestate’s estate credit for the rent, as his account herewith filed marked (B) will show. This defendant also rented out the Bryant Crossroads place one year (in 1862) and has given his intestate’s estate credit for the same in said account marked (B). He rented out another small piece of land belonging to said estate to Thomas Bowden in considerations that the said Bowden would keep up the fences and pay one fourth of the crop, which amounted to five or six barrels of corns . . .

Thomas E. Hardy makes oath that the facts contained in this answer are true to the best of his knowledge and belief. Sworn and Subscribed October 16, 1866

Before closely reading the rest of the probate record, I had asserted that after Lemuel Bowden’s demise in 1859, Grandpa Tom had remained enslaved by Hiram on the same farm in Northampton County. I had also asserted that after gaining their freedom, he and his family had moved about ten miles away, to the Roxobel area of Bertie County, where he was recorded as living per the 1870 U.S. Federal Census. His household contained his confirmed wife, Hasty, and five children they had together after 1855. Another daughter, Alice, was born to Grandpa Tom about 1872.

1870 U.S. Federal Census, Bertie County, North Carolina: Thomas Bowden’s household containing his wife Hasty and children, Jane (15), who was actually his son Junius, Nicholas (11), Cherry (8), Thomas Jr. (6), and Collin Bowden (4), living near Roxobel

Well, my assertion was inaccurate, all because I had not read most of Lemuel Bowden’s probate file. Turns out, although Grandpa Tom was legally “owned” by Hiram Bowden, Thomas E. Hardy, who resided near Roxobel in Bertie County per the 1850 and 1860 U.S. Federal Censuses, was the “managing enslaver,” as the above complaint indicated. Hiram had given him power of attorney to continue managing his slaves awarded from his father’s estate. Hardy was only 28 years old in 1860. He was not reported in the 1850 slave schedule as being a slave-owner. However, the 1860 slave schedule of Bertie County shows that he had 17 slaves. Perhaps, one of them, particularly the 38-year-old Black male, was probably Grandpa Tom Bowden.

Nonetheless, these findings from the probate record helped me to paint a more accurate picture of Grandpa Tom’s life after Lemuel Bowden’s death. But more importantly, these ancestral discoveries were possible simply because Grandpa Jack Bass, who was back in Mississippi, knew his father’s name!

One thought on “Read the Entire Probate File: Don’t Miss the Storytelling Gems

  1. Tatanya Peterson

    Awesome story, I will have to read the entire probate file, like you I looked for my enslaved ancestor(s) found them among the inventory.Hopefully I will discover something new as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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