Friday, January 17, 2014

Sick of Body, but of Sound Mind: Probate Research for the OSC

When researching a room as well-known as the Old Senate Chamber, a historian would find that many of the more obvious sources have long since been combed. So, over the course of this project, our team has had to think creatively to find new information. This has meant digging up new, less obvious, resources. In this first of a series of blog posts, we will be taking a look at some of the research methods used to form restoration of this historic room.

Probate, referring to legal documents regarding the deceased including wills and inventories, may seem an unlikely source for information regarding the architecture and decor of an eighteenth-century room. Quite the contrary, probate records have been a key source to the Old Senate Chamber restoration since they not only tell us about the people who worked on and in the room, but they also provide a means of tracking specific objects over the course of centuries.

Example of an inventory. This particular one belonged to Sarah Joyce, the mistress of William Paca, in 1803. Sarah Joyce's inventory was among many searched as a part of OSC research for any evidence of chairs she may have had in her possession that had belonged to William Paca. A set of Paca's chairs have been rumored to have been present in the Old Senate Chamber while Congress was in session. Anne Arundel County Register of Wills (Inventories), 1803, MSA C88-8, vol. JG5 p.503.
Items with the most reliable provenance are often ideally traced through probate records. When an oral history alluded to the possibility of William Paca lending some of his personal chairs to the Old Senate Chamber for the use of Congress, one of the first places to look was through probate. Our team hoped to verify the oral history by locating a possible series of wills that would mention a similar set of armchairs. Using the available inventories of deceased members of the family, we were able to devise a possible probate trail all the way into the twentieth century. Though we have not yet reached firm conclusions regarding the chair’s provenance, the Paca probate will undoubtedly remain an important source.

A sketch of one of the chairs rumored to have been owned by William Paca and used by Congress while in Annapolis, now owned by the Maryland Historical Society. Iverson, Marion Day, The American Chair 1630-1890. New York: Hastings House, p. 112.
Another valuable aspect of probate is for the purpose of biographical research. In the eighteenth century, when birth and death records were often unrecorded or lost, a will or inventory frequently provided hints at not only familial relationships, but relationships in the community and the lifestyle of the deceased. When John Crisall, the Annapolis Commissionary, died in 1786, he made a will that left much of his possessions to his children, who were almost all living in Cambridgeshire, England at the time of his death.[1] Through this reference, researchers were able to determine that Crisall was likely from Cambridgeshire. From there, they could find a marriage record and estimate when he moved to Maryland. While many details of Crisall’s life may never be known, key events in his life would have never been found without the probate record.

The probate record of the Maryland State House’s blacksmith, Simon Retallick, also provides interesting information regarding eighteenth-century Annapolis. Retallick’s will left everything to his wife, Elizabeth, including his blacksmith shop and business partnership with Richard Goodwin.[2] Elizabeth’s tasks included furnishing the shop and tools, and caring for Simon’s apprentices. Goodwin returned the shop entirely into Elizabeth’s control at the end of two years, at which point she decided to give it to her son, Simon Retallick Jr., who was also a blacksmith.[3] While the governmental accounting records certainly provide valuable information regarding Simon Retallick’s work with the State House, only his will could have revealed his relationship with his wife and her role in his business.

The next time you visit a historical building, keep in mind all the historical sources that were used to create what you see today!

[1] Anne Arundel County Register of Wills (Wills) John Crissal, 1786, Volume JG 1 Page 322 (MSA C153-5, 1/3/12/15).
[2] Anne Arundel County Register of Wills (Wills) Simon Retallick, 1799, Volume JG 2 Page 89 (MSA C 153-6, 1/3/12/16).
[3] Maryland Indexes (Land Records, Annapolis, Index), 1799, MSA S1442. NH9: 639.

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