Please read all of the information on this page before beginning your search.

You can search the estate records for names of decedents, beneficiaries of decedents, spouses of decedents, parents of decedents, slaves, slave employers, slave new owners and plantations.

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The Lancaster County Estate Records 1835-1865 Database is the culmination of a 3-year project by the Mary Ball Washington Museum & Library to study, abstract, compile, and share information from the original Lancaster County Estate Books for use by a variety of genealogy and history researchers. One goal is to reveal these rarely-used and often-overlooked Estate Books for the valuable primary sources they are. Another aim is to help African-American researchers identify ancestors in a period of slavery just prior to the Civil War. This project was made possible by a three-phase matching grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

The database contains information abstracted from estate records, wills, and other court documents related to individuals who died (decedents) in Lancaster between 1835 and 1865. The 1343 documents referenced in the database include estate inventories, sales, accounts, distributions, divisions of property, wills, and occasional court orders, land causes, chancery suits, and guardianship records. The abstracted data comprises key information about 520 decedents and their 1755 beneficiaries, 318 spouses, and 3019 slaves. It also captures details about finances, real estate, household goods, and other property.

The core of information was abstracted from Lancaster County Estate Books #35, 36, 37, 38, 40, and 41 covering 1835 to 1865. Note: Estate Book #39 for 15 April 1850 to 14 December 1853 is missing from the courthouse records and no Estate Book is known to have existed for March 1862 to April 1863. The database also includes information from Will Books 28, 29, and 30 and other court records such as Order Books, Land Causes, Chancery Suits, and Guardianship Books.

For more information about this project and the original source materials, click here.

Several printed indexes and summary reports for the Estate Records can be found in the Library or downloaded here as pdf documents. Please note these publications contain only portions of the full database records and should be used in cooperation with the detailed database search results.

The Estate Record Database cites 3019 slaves who are identified in the documents for this project. Information recorded about each slave may include given name, surname (rarely given), gender, occupation or skill, value, age (rarely listed), and disposition (to whom the slave was bequeathed, sold, hired, or traded). Below are some statistics based on the database records:

  • 50% of decedents were slave-owners.
  • The number of slaves owned by any particular person ranged from 1 to 94. However, only 6 decedents owned more than 50 slaves. 75% of the slave-owners had 15 or fewer slaves. 25% owned only 1 or 2 slaves. The mean (average) number of slaves owned = 11.6, median = 6.5, mode = 2.
  • Only 62 slaves were listed with surnames.
  • Only 18 slaves were listed with an age.
  • 20 slaves were listed with a specific occupation or skill. These were a midwife, three cooks, two woodcutters, a tailor, a weaver, a carpenter, four millers, a house servant, a foreman, a hackney driver, two blacksmiths, and two sailors.
  • 10 slaves were recorded as having run away, 8 of these during the Civil War.
  • 54 slaves were emancipated by the will of the decedent. 44 of these were by the bachelor merchants of Kilmarnock, James and William Kelley, in 1856. 9 were by the wills of Rawleigh W. Downman (1838) and his widow Elizabeth (1840).
  • The sale of slaves out of the estate was uncommon. There are only about 90 recorded instances of outright sales in the database.

The Estate Records Database can help African-American genealogy researchers trace additional generations back into the pre-Civil War era and bridge the research gap between freedom and slavery. The key is to compare and connect the slave data with post-Civil War records such as the 1860 and 1870 censuses, freedmen records, and other documents.