Essex County Probate Inventories

Gravestone of Hannah Higgenson (died 1713),      Charter Street Burial Ground, Salem.

Probate inventories can be an amazing glimpse into daily life and material culture in early America. This page brings together transcriptions as well as links to several original probate inventories for early Essex County, Massachusetts. Most of the following have been transcribed by Erin Rydren and Emerson Baker from The Probate Records of Essex County, a published transcription which contains all surviving county probates from 1635 to 1681. This three volume set contains hundreds of wills and inventories for deceedants throughout Essex County. Over time we hope to add to this list, bringing in inventories from other towns, and later dates.

Hints on Reading Probate Inventories: Dates, Money, Spelling and Archaic Words

  • Dates
    Although Catholic Europe adopted the Gregorian Calendar on January 1, 1583, England remained on the Julian Calendar until January 1, 1752.  To further complicate matters, in the seventeenth century Englishmen used March 25 (Conception Day) as the start of the ecclesiasticial, civic, and legal year. This makes March the first month, and February 12. So, February 20, 1653 would be written as 20: 12: 1652  or sometimes 20: 12: 1652/3and April 20, 1653 would be written as 20: 2: 1653
  • Money
    British money, then as now is divided into £ (pounds) s (shillings) and d (pence). If you think the British were late to change their calendar, they did not decimalize their currency until 1971. So, in the 1600s, the following exchange rates were in effect: 20s = £1
  • Spelling
    Until Noah Webster published his dictionary in 1828, there was no "correct" way to spell words, alone punctuate and capitalize. You will  see that writers were often inconsistent in spelling the same word, in the same inventories.  If you are stumped by the meaning of a word, it may just be the spelling is really odd. You may want to try reading the word or phrase outloud. Actually, you can sometimes see traces of accents in spelling people chose to use.
  • Archaic Words
    At other times, reading outloud simply won't help, as you are dealing with an archaic bit of English, or an archaic meaning for a word. Your best bet here is the Oxford English Dictionary. It is available in our library, and also most public libraries. It is an amazing reference that give the meaing of all English words, during different historical times.