Beasts, Bees, and Indian Corn

Alicia Crane WilliamsProbate inventories can tell us a lot about the living conditions of our ancestors, but as they are usually difficult to read and interpret, more often than not the little details are skipped by family historians. Nearly everyone records the amount of land in the inventory, but that rarely tells us much about how good the land was, nor how good the farmer was.  Because I’m an old aggie student (University of Connecticut 1969), I like to look at the inventories of livestock and crops to learn more about the farms and their owners.

Judith Smith, widow of Henry Smith of Rehoboth, left her heirs a thriving farm she had inherited from her husband when she died in October 1650. In the dairy were butter and cheese, and the barn contained 40 bushels of Indian corn, 25 bushels of wheat, 9 bushels of rye, plus more [winter] rye in the ground, hay, two great oxen, a sow and seven pigs, a hog, eleven more pigs, four calves, two young cattle, 8 bushels of hogs corn, and 14 pounds of cotton wool. Of perhaps equal interest is an item in Henry Smith’s inventory: “one Moose leather suite”!

In July 1675, Nathaniel Morton of Plymouth left two oxen, three cows, a two-year old heifer, a yearling and a calf, a mare, a two-year old filly, a young colt, seventeen sheep, nine lambs, six swine, and two small pigs. There were still 20 bushels of Indian corn and a bushel and a half of wheat in the barn. Planted in the ground was more Indian corn, rye, wheat, barley, and oats.

Isaac Johnson of Roxbury was killed in December 1675, during King Philip’s War, leaving his widow with two horses, two oxen, eight cattle, and seven swine, as well as a cellar containing 7½ bushels of rye, 6 bushels of barley, 11 bushels of peas, 20 bushels of unthreshed Indian corn, some flax and wool, a barrel of beef and pork, and a stock of bees.

In each case, there is something to be learned here about the specific circumstances of the Smith, Morton, and Johnson families, so don’t let the old handwriting and archaic terminology keep you from checking out the real lives of your ancestors.

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

13 thoughts on “Beasts, Bees, and Indian Corn

  1. I’ve noticed in old wills that my ancestors always left each daughter a cow. Often the cows were named. It is quite charming to see that “Daisy” or “Bessie” were remembered by name in the wills (cows, not daughters).

    1. Most genealogists have little or no idea of the value of the different types of land their New England ancestors assiduously bought, cultivated and passed on — salt marsh for the hay, stony upland for the orchard, and so on. I’m sure as an Ag major this will come as no surprise to the author. The best study I’ve seen on the diversified land use of early New England planters is Brian Donahue’s “The Great Meadow. Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord” (Yale University Press, 2004). I’m prejudiced because one of the three families Donahue studies is my own, while the other two married into mine, but I recommend this to every person with New England ancestors. In my case it was like the opportunity to spend a couple of hours being tutored by an historical agronomist while at the same time charting my family’s land ownership and use at Concord for a century and a half.

  2. Thanks, Alicia, I enjoyed this so much. Made me realize how such inventories of farm animals help us to realize how our ancestors lives were reflected in the livestock they owned!

  3. Love “stock of bees”! I was reading the will of Nathaniel Dickinson of Hadely , Ma.( my 10th Great grandfather) and he freed up his son from paying him back the money he owed him for the pork he purchased at an earlier date. The person who posted the will pondered that Nathaniel Dickinson must have had pigs on his farm. An interesting detail I would now like to look into. Thank you for the interesting post.

  4. It would be interesting to have comparatives – how a particular family’s estate compared with a neighbor in the area at the time, and to know how much the various commodities were actually worth. Anything out there like that?

  5. Alicia, so cool to learn this about Henry and Judith Smith! They are my 9th great-grandparents. I descend from a long line of Rehoboth families so I always enjoy learning more about them.

  6. Alicia,
    Thank you so much for your advice. I am researching ancestors in Wiltshire, England. In southern England in the 17th and 18th centuries, commodities were in some cases much more valuable than the land that was passed down in probates. Hence, a fancy bed with linens was in some cases more valuable than both the house and land on which it resided. Possessions (household goods, grain, bakeware, tools, etc) were carefully enumerated in probates so they could be inherited by the designated individuals. It sounds as if this was a bit different in New England.

    Thanks for reminding me to think outside of my 21st century mindset.

    1. Hi Kathy,

      The main difference between old England and New England is the ownership of land. Most of the farmers in England did not own land, so their personal effects were their estates. But even in New England, the beds, utensils, etc., were all accounted for in detail. They were, essentially, the investment accounts of their day!

  7. My ancestor’s inventory contained (among other mostly agricultural items) one old still, wine glasses and a barrel of brandy. Cheers to Blagrave Taylor of Powhatan County, Virginia.

    1. Vanessa, I don’t think we had stills here in New England, but that brings to mind another interesting part of the probate accounts — how much beer and rum was bought for the funeral!

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