What You Can Learn from Old Documents

chamber potWhat can you say about a group of obscure backwoodsmen who left no letters, no diaries, and hardly any wills, who were not even important enough to be included in local county histories?  How can you make their lives and their world come to life?

The ancient records of county courts, registries of deeds, and probate proceedings provide a treasure trove of information.   In 18th-century  Virginia, for instance, estate inventories in a rural county provide a vivid picture of the lives of ordinary people.

In the first half of the 18th century, and well into the second half, most of those people were startlingly poor.  The home of an ordinary planter in Southampton County measured roughly 16′ and 20′, and consisted of one or two rooms, with a dirt floor and perhaps a loft.  The most valuable possessions were beds – not bedsteads, but mattresses stuffed with feathers that had taken years to accumulate.  Many families had only one bed, or none;  family members slept on piles of straw in the loft, or jostled for space on the dirt floor nearest the fireplace.  Half of them owned no chairs.  People sat on chests to eat, or stood, or squatted against the wall.

The first luxury they acquired, after the chairs, was a set of forks, always in a case so that they could take them along when they traveled.  Later on there might be a candlestick and a mirror.  Still later, a tea set – and, at the upper reaches of luxury, a chamber pot.  By the middle of the century you can identify a few genial hosts by the presence of a punch bowl.

If you look at enough of them, deeds and wills not only show you what people owned, but can help you trace their social networks.  You can see the way in which rural neighborhoods coalesced into kinship networks, whose members married each other’s siblings, witnessed each other’s wills and deeds, acted as guardians for each other’s orphaned children, and created tight social groups that persisted in some cases for several generations.  You come to understand the ways in which these groups supported their members when no other support was available, providing them with some degree of protection against the random catastrophes of life.

When you add in court records, you can also get a picture of the community’s social structure.  In Southampton County, all official power was in the hands of a small, intermarried group of the richest citizens – people who owned not only chamber pots but books, musical instruments, walnut furniture and even table linens.  But these community leaders maintained family connections with many of their poorer neighbors, reinforcing the stability of the social order.  The only people on the outside of this system of protection were the free people of color, and, of course, the slaves.




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