York County Estate Inventories
Lists of Household Possessions
Transcripts of a large selection of 17th- and 18th-century inventories from across York County are available online. In the colonial period, York County encompassed the northern half of the city of Williamsburg, Yorktown, and the surrounding areas.
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About the York County Estate Inventories
An estate inventory is a legal document listing the household possessions that a person owned at the time of his or her death. In early America, estate inventories were used to settle and divide an individual's estate among the heirs as well as to determine how to reconcile any outstanding debts.
The county court where the individual lived would appoint three local men, usually neighbors, to prepare each inventory. These men, known as appraisers, would visit the household, record the possessions there, and place an estimate on their value. Sometimes, usually for very wealthy households, appraisers recorded a room-by-room inventory by listing what objects were in each room of the household. The appraisers would then return the document to the court clerk, who would copy it into the official court records.
Estate inventories were not taken for every person who died. Often the court ordered them for individuals with questionable accounts, debts, or very wealthy estates. Therefore, estate inventories do not provide a fully representative record of all sections of society. They are, however, one of the best resources available to modern researchers to obtain a glimpse of the material world of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Many Virginia estate inventories were destroyed during the Civil War. The Virginia Confederate government requested that all county courts send their records to a central location in Richmond for safekeeping. When Richmond burned in 1865, these documents were destroyed. The records for James City County, which makes up a large portion of the city of Williamsburg, were lost in this fire. The York County records are an especially valuable survival for those researching the Williamsburg area, as officials did not comply with the request to send records to Richmond and instead hid the documents for the duration of the war. Thus, ironically, these hidden documents were the ones that survived.