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The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Researching the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley


Probate records, generated by the courts as part of “settling an estate after someone's death,” are rich historical records. They date from the 1600s in Massachusetts, Wills and other probate records exist "for persons in America in periods and places when there are few other records." These resources divide property after an individual’s death, so they mostly document the lives of property owners. Researchers can study the records of enslavers to find evidence of enslaved people’s lives and history in the Early Connecticut River Valley.

Probate records are usually filed at the Registry of Probate in the county where the decedent lived at the time of their death. Probate files can contain a single record or a combination of records such as wills, inventories of assets, lists of heirs, appointments of executors or administrators, documentation of the distribution of assets, assignment of dower, indentures, claims, receipts, and guardianship petitions. Wills can clarify relationship information and may reveal how the decedent felt about certain family members and property. 

Of special interest to researchers interested in  African American history are the documentation of enslaved peoples, as probate records can show the lineage of an enslaved person’s path through the legal system. From materials and records, probate documents can show the economic status and values of a property owner and deduce how those values were reflected in the lives of enslaved people. In some cases, estate inventories refer to material culture relevant to enslavement, e.g. “negro cloths,” or “negro bed.”

In the Connecticut River Valley, since the whole Massachusetts section of the Valley was at one time a single county (Hampshire, created in 1662), which was later subdivided with creation of Hampden (1812) and Franklin (1811; Berkshire County to the west was split off in 1761), the early records are likewise separated.  Records in the current Hampshire County Registry include probate records from towns in the present Hampden County before its formation in 1812.