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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill  2/1/2006

Fishing for Clues in John Lake's Estate

Estate records can provide us with more than a list of our ancestor's heirs. This week we look at a probate from Missouri in 1865 where the heirs are not even listed. Despite this apparent limitation we will see that the estate settlement of John Lake provides several insights into his family's life, both before and after his demise.

Note: Images discussed in this article can be viewed here.

More Than Just What He Has
Estate inventories can provide a clue as to your ancestor's likely occupation based upon his possessions, but they can potentially reveal even more information if one chooses to look beyond the surface. John Lake's estate record contains two inventories of his personal property, both an appraisal of every item and an accounting of those thing sold at auction. That the inventory revealed John was a farmer was no surprise. The agricultural equipment listed was fairly typical for the mid-nineteenth century, axes, augers, shovels, bridles, a handsaw, plow gear, etc. The only piece of equipment whose name was initially unfamiliar to me was a "frow." A quick search revealed that "frow" was a variant of "froe" which indicated was "a cleaving tool having a heavy blade set at right angles to the handle." A search of online images at Google quickly located modern pictures to give me a better point of reference. I knew what a frow was as soon as I saw it. It was just the name that did not "click"when I read it in the inventory.

The Lakes had the typical livestock of the time period and the locale, including sheep, hogs, horses, cattle, and a mule. Some of these animals were listed individually and some were grouped together by age or condition. (Here, a knowledge of various livestock terms is extremely helpful.) Also listed were four stands of bees, which I was not expecting.

The Widow Gets a Bargain
All the items were appraised shortly before they were sold. As I looked at the appraisal and the auction prices, a clear pattern emerged. John's widow, Charlotte, purchased approximately three-fourths of the items at prices significantly below the appraisal (as an example Charlotte paid $10 for two mares initially appraised at $95 and paid $.20 for the bees which appraised at $10). While appraisal prices can be off, the difference was significant. The items purchased by neighbors or other relatives were obtained at prices much closer to the appraised value. (For example, a mule appraised at $50 was sold for $52 and sheep appraised at $20 sold for $20.) Other items were consistent with this pattern. In most cases, Charlotte paid less than one-tenth of an item's appraised value. Items purchased by others were sold at prices generally between 75 and 100 percent of their appraised value. Taken out of context, it looks like Charlotte got a steal. I am not certain that is exactly what happened.

The estate records do not mention that when John Lake died in 1865, he left a widow in her mid-thirties with at least eight children under the age of fifteen still at home. Given the family situation, it is easy to picture what happened on July 22, 1865 when the personal property from John's estate was sold. It seems likely that the items and livestock Charlotte needed to maintain the farm were purchased by her at a nominal price. It is also not difficult to imagine neighbors shooting dirty glances (or worse) at anyone who might have been bidding against the Widow Lake. John's son, John Jr. also purchased a colt from the estate at a significantly lower price. And before we think Charlotte got an extra good deal, it is worth remember that she was a young widow with eight children to support; she likely needed all the bargains she can get.

But there is more to the estate of John Lake than his chattel property and his wife‘s purchase of the bulk of his estate.

Where They Lived
The inventory of John's real estate mentions parcels of property apparently totaling approximately 139 acres. If one reads the real estate listing too quickly it appears John owned property in two separate locations in Chariton County. However as one reads the descriptions of the real estate more closely, small tracts of land are actually mentioned in three locations: section 23 and 25 of one township and section 30 of another.

Using an online map of Chariton County, I was able to determine the townships in which the property was located, Clark and Bee Branch Townships. (The inventory provided the township and range numbers which were used on the map to determine the township names.)

Summarizing and simplifying, John owned tracts of land in the following sections:

1. Section 23 in Clark Township
2. Section 25 in Clark Township
3. Section 30 in Bee Branch Township

Clark Township is directly west of Bee Branch Township and the close proximity of the three sections is evident from the maps mentioned above. Actual location of residences or properties is always a good thing for the genealogist to know.

There is Even More Property Mentioned in the Inventory
According to the inventory, John also held a deed of trust, executed by John H. and Julia B. Stratton dated 1863. Based upon the description, this property is located in Yellow Creek Township. This deed of trust is valued at $200. Why does John own property nearly ten miles from his farm? He doesn't. The deed of trust is actually a mortgage and John Lake holds the note.

Who Are All These Other People?
There are a variety of individuals mentioned in the estate records of John Lake. Interestingly, nowhere in the records is Charlotte specifically listed as his widow or his surviving spouse. The appraisers of the estate are Joseph Sutton, John Sisson and William Whiteaker. 1870 census records indicate individuals with these names all lived in Bee Branch Township, the same township where Charlotte Lake is enumerated in 1870 (and where part of John‘s property is located). It is uncertain if the appraiser John Sisson is the John S. Sisson (aged 34 in 1870) or the John W. Sisson (aged 63 in 1870) who are enumerated in adjacent households. Interestingly enough, all three appraisers are Kentucky natives as were John and Charlotte Lake. Virtually everyone located in the 1870 census who was involved in the probate of John Lake (either as buying property, owing the estate money, or appraising the estate) was born in Kentucky or Tennessee.

Toting the Note
The inventory of John's estate lists several individuals who had borrowed money from John before his death. Most of these people could also be located in Bee Branch or nearby townships. The principals on the loans varied from $2.00 to $294. In this case, none of the names appeared to be relatives of John, although one should always consider this possibility when learning that your ancestor's estate was owed money.

The estate of John is less than ten pages long and yet it provided us with an interesting glimpse into the Lake family.

Worth Remembering

  • Estate settlements may tell you more than just what appears on the surface.
  • Inventories may provide clues as to occupation, financial status.
  • The individual buying property at a "steal" from an estate may be a surviving spouse, even if the records do not list the person in that capacity.
  • Individuals to whom your ancestor lent money may be relatives---or they may not. Use these names as clues.
  • When you do not know what a word or phrase means, look it up. This was helpful here with a "frow" and the "deed of trust” which could have been misinterpreted.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS). He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2006,

  Other Genealogy articles by Michael John Neill