Category Archives: Records

Land records: If your ancestor bought land from someone else

If you have an early Pennsylvania ancestor, he or she might have bought their land from William Penn or from someone else. If they bought from someone else, the record will not be found in the Old Rights Index, as discussed in If your ancestor got land from William Penn. Instead the record might be found in an early deed book. There is no guarantee of this. There was a fee for recording deeds, and some people did not bother. On the other hand, land was vitally important to people, and many deeds were recorded.

The earliest deeds for Chester County were recorded in Philadelphia, until 1714, when Chester set up its own recorder. For Bucks County deeds were recorded from the earliest years. Although some people may have chosen to record theirs in Philadelphia, most will be in Bucks county.

The early deed books for Philadelphia city and county are available on microfilm, at the Philadelphia City Archive and at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. To find the deed, you need to know the deed book and page. There is an online index for both grantors and grantees, unwieldy to use. James Duffin has prepared a detailed guide for using it. Once you find the deed book and page number, you can look for the text of the deed itself, either on the microfilm or online, by subscription only, at the Historical Land and Vital Records site of the Philadelphia Department of Records. Duffin’s guide covers how to use this as well.

When you find a deed, what will it tell you? Here is an early example. Deed book 10 image 20 cropped

In 1688 John Bowyer (in the deed as Bower) sold a piece of his land to Edward Lane. It was a tract of 50 acres, out of Bowyer’s tract of 200 acres; Lane paid £15 pounds for it; it lay next to Germantown; Bowyer signed it on the 5th day of the 4th month in 1688; it was acknowledged in county court the same day. You can’t tell from a deed whether the grantor or grantee lived on the land, although you can tell whether it had a house or other improvements (this tract did not) since those are described in the deed if they exist. You can often find the occupation of the grantor and grantee, although not in this example. If the land was a gift, sometimes given “for love and affection”, instead for money, it suggests a family relationship.

The deed by itself may not be informative, but you can put it together with other pieces to form a picture. If you look at Thomas Holme’s county map, to the east of Germantown, you will see John Bowyer and William Lane. William was Edward’s father, a grocer of Bristol, England and a First Purchaser in 1681. William did not emigrate, but Edward emigrated and took up the family land. When Edward married Ann Allen in 7th month 1688 he was described as of Philadelphia County, suggesting that he was living on the land (rather than on his city lot). 1 The land lay in Bristol township; often the townships were named for the place in England where people came from. Lane was not the only landholder in Bristol from Bristol, but his tract, along with John Barnes’, was one of the largest in the township, so it may have gotten its name from his home place.

For Chester County, most deeds  were recorded in Philadelphia until 1714, but there were some in Chester. There is an online index for deeds to 1850 at the Chesco site. The deeds themselves are at the Chester County Archives in West Chester. A published source by Carol Bryant, Abstracts of Chester County Land Records, in two volumes, has good abstracts of deeds, including price paid, size of the tract, and names of adjoining landowners.

For Bucks County, deeds were recorded starting in 1684. The originals are on microfilm at the Bucks County Courthouse in Doylestown. The index is available at the courthouse in bound volumes. There are two published sources for abstracts of early deeds: John Davis, Bucks County Pennsylvania deed Records 1684-1763, and Charlotte Meldrum, Abstracts of Bucks County Pennsylvania Land Records 1684-1723. They cover the same transactions; Meldrum provides more details. Davis did not understand the Quaker dating system; his months are incorrect. For example, on page 3, Davis gives: “Patrick Kelley husbandman of Phila bound to Philip Conway, war master of Bucks County. Witnessed by Silas Crispin, Tryall Holme and Edmond McVagh. March 29, 1686”. This was actually on 3rd month 1686, as Meldrum indicates. And of course Conway was not a war master, but a farmer who lived in Warminster! 2 Use these abstracts with care, and refer to the originals for transactions essential to your research. 3

  1. Marriages recorded by Bucks Quarterly Meeting.
  2. To be fair, Meldrum has errors too, for example on page 18 when she has Luke Brindley adjoining “Audry Elred”, for Anthony Ellard.
  3. This transaction, a loan from Conway to Kelley, is interesting, as all five of the men involved were Irish. Conway, later kicked out of the province for horse theft, was married to the daughter of Ann Milcom from Armagh. Crispin was married to Thomas Holme’s daughter; Edmond McVeagh was a servant of Holme’s who came over with him. Tryall was Thomas Holme’s son, later lost in a sea voyage.

Land Records: If your ancestor got land from William Penn

If your ancestor emigrated to Pennsylvania in the earliest year of the province and owned land there, he or she might have bought the land directly from Penn. To find the records, you need to look for warrants (orders to lay out the land), surveys (a map showing the land) or returns (a verbal description of the land). These were all created at the time, but many papers did not survive. They were kept in various offices around Philadelphia in bins or bundles or bushels by the Surveyor General and the Secretary of the Land Office, who in the earliest years did not keep organized offices.

At various times the records were organized and listed, in 1698, 1759 and again in 1833. These lists mostly survive and are most or less accessible, and they don’t completely overlap. The most accessible are the 1833 copies, recopied in 1909 and put online at the website of the PMHC, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. This trove of thousands of pages holds many treasures. The primary documents here are the Copied Survey Books. In spite of the name they are a mix of document types: warrants, returns, petitions, caveats, orders. They are not in an organized order (although the older ones mostly cluster around D61 through D89.) Fortunately there is an index for the transactions before 1733, called the Old Rights Index. It is roughly alphabetical, with multiple pages to search for each letter. You need to keep in mind as you use it that the dates are systematically wrong.

The clerks who copied the list in 1833 apparently did not understand the early date system, where the year started in March instead of January.  Since the Quakers numbered the months instead of using names, the clerks saw 1st month, 2nd month, etc, and mistook 1st month for January, when it should have been March. The 12th month is February, not December, and so forth. An example of the error: Thomas Ellis received a warrant in 11th mo 1687/88. 1 This would be February 1688 in our dates. The clerks wrote it November 1687/88 in the Old Rights Index. 2

To find a document in the Copied Survey Books, start with the Old Rights Index. Suppose your ancestor was James Boyden, an early settler in Bucks County. In the Bucks County Old Rights Index, following the link for the B names, you find two entries for Boyden.

Bowden in ORI

One is listed as a return (actually a warrant), the other as a survey. The dates on both are wrong, by the usual two months. To see these documents, follow the link on the PMHC overview page for Images of all surveys. Go to book D72, page 101 to see the warrant. Penn ordered Holme to lay out 500 acres for Boyden, also his land in the Liberties, to be settled within one year under the usual conditions. Holme must have been busy in the summer of 1684, since by his note at the bottom he didn’t order Israel Taylor to do the survey until four months later. Oddly enough Boyden already had his land, had probably been settled on it for two years when this warrant was issued. If you look at book B22, page 4, you see the 1682 survey, made by Richard Noble, a beautiful map with accompanying description. Boyden’s land lay on Neshaminy Creek, with marshland on two sides, the King’s Road running through it, an Indian path touching at one corner, and a horse-trading Dutchman as one of his neighbors. To find the order for this survey, you have to page through the B section of the Old Rights Index to the end, to find an unnumbered listing for James “Boyd”, 900 acres, D82, 106. This leads to an order from Thomas Holme to Richard Noble in 7th mo 1682. There are several morals here: be persistent and read all the pages that might include your ancestor; don’t expect all the documents to still exist and match up neatly; remember that the spelling of names was inconsistent.

For another take on the early documents, you can look at the list made by John Hughes in 1759, an earlier version of the Old Rights Index. The 1833 clerks used this as the basis for their list, adding the numbers for the Copied Survey Books. Hughes gathered the original documents, sitting in bundles in Philadelphia, some eaten by mice, and copied them  neatly into Warrant and Survey Books, and made the Old Rights Index as an index to them. Unfortunately the Warrant and Survey Books exist only in fragments, gathered and rebound. 3 The Old Rights Index that Hughes made was published in the Pennsylvania Archive in Series 3, volumes 2 and 3. Since this does not have the Copied Survey Book numbers (because they were not added until 1833), it is not particularly useful unless you need to check dates or have trouble deciphering a handwritten name. 4

Further guides to the land records:

  1. Copied survey book D77, 69.
  2. One complication is that some of the early officials were inconsistent, sometimes using Quaker numbered months and sometimes using pagan month names. To be confident of the exact date you must check the original document in the Copied Survey Books. Note that writers like Penn sometimes used 9br as shorthand for November and 10br for December.
  3. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has microfilm of what remains, with a published index made in 1975. The books themselves are at the Philadelphia City Archives and in Harrisburg.
  4. Similarly the 1698 list of warrants and returns, available in the Roach mss collection at the HSP, does not add any information to the Old Rights indexes and Copied Survey Books.

Land Records: converting rights into land

Someone who owned land in early Pennsylvania got it in one of three ways: buying it from William Penn, buying it from someone else, or inheriting it. A very few people also got land as a gift from Penn; it helped to be related to him or his wife. 1 This post will discuss the process of buying land from Penn.

Some people, mostly Friends, bought rights to land from Penn before he emigrated in 1683. These people are called First Purchasers. Most of them were entitled to a city lot and land in the Liberties by virtue of their purchase. They did not buy land in a specific place, but rather the right to have their acreage laid out for them. Many of them emigrated and settled on their land, but others sold their rights to others. In either case people held rights that they could bring to Pennsylvania and convert into land.

When someone arrived with rights to land and wanted to have the land laid out, they went to William Penn in Philadelphia (or his Commissioners after he went back to England in 1684), showed him their deed, and requested their land. On this request, Penn or the Commissioners would issue a warrant to Thomas Holme, the surveyor general, to lay out the land. A typical warrant would look like this:

“William Penn, Proprietor and Governor of the province of Pennsilvania and the territories thereunto belonging. At the request of Joseph Willard in right of his brother that I would grant him to take up his City Lotts where they fell to build upon it. These are to will and require thee forthwith to survey or cause to be survey’d unto him the Lotts proportionable to his Purchase; and make returns thereof into my secretary’s Office. Given at Philadelphia, the 8th 9br 1683. William Penn. For Thomas Holme, surveyor general.” 2

Note that Joseph’s brother George was the actual purchaser and that Joseph was requesting based on George’s right. (George was a First Purchaser of 1250 acres.) Also note that city lots were laid out in different sizes depending on the size of the purchase; 1250 acres was above the average. 3

Once the warrant was in Holme’s hand he could either survey it himself or pass the job on to one of his deputy surveyors. In either case, once the survey was done, a return was filed with the secretary. A return was a description of the land, where it was located and how many acres it contained. A typical return would look like this:

“By the Surveyor General’s order pursuant to two warrants from the Commissioners dated the 10th of the 12th mo 1684 and the 11th of the 6th mo 1685 I certify that I have surveyed unto Denis Roachford [Rochford] a certain Tract of Land scituate att Moose Lickamickon begining at a post in the line of the land of John Barnes thence northeast by the same and other lands 960 perches to a large oke [oak] marked for a corner thence northwest by vacant land 700 perches to a large hickrey marked for a corner then southwest by vacant land 960 perches to a white oke for another corner thence southeast againe by vacant land 700 perches to the place of begining qt [quantity] 4200 Acres the 15th 6th mo 1685. Tho Fairman surveyor.” 4

This description of the boundaries is called the metes and bounds. Note that they spell out exactly where the land is, if you can find the post on the line of John Barne’s land. (It would be somewhere near the boundary of modern-day Hatfield and Montgomery townships in Montgomery County.) A perch was a unit of both acreage and length. Seven hundred perches is just over two miles. This was a very large tract.

Along with the return the surveyor would make a survey, a map showing the land, adjoining landowners. Here is a sample survey, from the later copies available online. 5

Book D-79 pg 99 survey

Note that the copyist in the 1800s had the usual trouble with the name of Philip Theodore Lehnmann, creating a non-existent Thlamaine. This tract was typical of one fronting the navigable rivers, with a short strip along the river, extending backwards from there. There was no date on this survey; it may have been done in 1682. He mentioned it in his will in early 1686.

The survey was returned to the Surveyor General’s office, along with the return. The purchaser did not keep it; at this point he had no written proof that he owned the land. 6 The Surveyor General was supposed to check the survey to make sure it laid out the proper number of acres, and to keep it on file in his office.

The final step in the process was for the landowner to apply for a patent. This was the written proof that he owned the land. It included the description of the metes and bounds, and the legal text indicating ownership. Here is a sample of the patent for Mary Southworth’s city lot.

William Penn… Governor… to all to whom these presents shall come sendeth greeting: Whereas there is a certain lott of land in Philadelphia scituated in the third street from Delaware [river] containing in breadth forty nine foot and a half and in length two hundred fifty five feet bounded northward with Chestnut Street, eastward with Thomas Rouses land… granted by warrant from myself bearing date the 6th day of the 4th month 1684 and laid out by the Surveyor General order… unto Mary Southworth… Know ye that I have given granted and confirmed by these presents… Mary Southworth her heirs and assigns forever… paying one English silver shilling… 31st 5th mo 1684. Recorded 7th 6th mo 1684. 7

Note that Mary owned the land outright and could bequeath it to her heirs or sell it to someone else, but she had to pay a quitrent of one shilling per year to Penn. 8 9

The next post will show how to find the early land records: warrants, surveys and patents.

  1. Penn did make a few gifts of land to others, such as John Aubrey, who wrote in 1686 that William Penn gave him 600 acres in Pennsylvania “without his seeking or dreaming of it”. (Memoir of John Aubrey, by John Britton). Penn, a member of the Royal Society, though no scientist, admired Aubrey’s work.
  2. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Archives, online at http://www.phmc.pa.gov/, Land Records, Copied Survey Books, Book D-80, page 43 (image 85).
  3. The month name 9br referred to the ninth month—November—since prior to 1752 the year started in March.
  4. Copied Survey Books, D-86, page 191, image 96
  5. Copied Survey Books, D-79, page 99, image 50
  6. Donna Munger, History and Guide for Pennsylvania Land Records, p. 46.
  7. Exemplification Book 1, Philadelphia City Archive.
  8. Penn used these rents, widely resented and often not paid, to raise revenue in lieu of taxes. The Blackwell Rent Roll was an attempt to catalog the rents due, in hopes of collecting them more systematically.
  9. Mary’s brother John Southworth was an apothecary and clerk of the Philadelphia monthly meeting.

Quaker certificates of removal

The early Quakers used certificates as a way to introduce themselves to strangers. When they left their home meeting to emigrate and join a new meeting, they needed to show proof that they were members in good standing, of good behavior, and for the unmarried, clear of marriage promises or “entanglements”. The Quakers were fastidious about not allowing young people to marry if they had any prior promises or engagements to others.

The meetings in Pennsylvania sometimes had to remind the English or Welsh meetings to send the certificates. A certificate presented to Radnor meeting in 4th month 1684 for Sarah Hearn began with, “In as much as we have seen an order from you of Pensylvania in order to keep out all disorderly spirits of persons professing the same truth with us and you; that all which came from England to you or from you to us should bring some certificate or signification…”

Although the certificates were considered very important, the procedure for recording them was not standardized. The meeting that issued the certificate sometimes kept a record of them and sometimes did not. There might be a note in the minutes that someone had requested a certificate, and that one was written out for him or her, but there was not usually a copy kept on record. The certificate was written out for the traveller to keep.

What did people do with them? They were supposed to present them to their new meeting when they arrived, although some meetings were more diligent than others in requesting them. The men’s meeting at Concord realized in mid-1687, after they had been meeting for five years, that they had not asked for certificates from their members. They ordered members to bring in their certificate or “verble testimony of friends that live hear [here] of their good lives and conversations in old ingland”. 1 The minutes show that most members complied within a few months. Once in a while people were asked to send back to England for a certificate, either because they never got one or because it did not state clearly that they were free to marry. 2

What was in the certificates? There was no standard form. Some were brief notes, almost “To whom it may concern…”, while others were flowery, like short religious tracts. A typical one might read like the one David Brentnall presented to the monthly meeting in Philadelphia. “10th day of the 8th mo 1681. These are to certify to Friends at London or to whom it may concern that David Brentall of late belonging to our meeting in Derby-Shire called by the name of Breach meeting: We whose names are here subscribed doe give in our testimony according to our knowledge that since the time that he amongst Friends he hath behaved himself soberly as become the truth, and that he is gone away cleare from all Accounts; and as touching the young man Friends had more than an ordinary Respect for him by Reason of his honest Behavior amongst us: And for a particular Account from the Friends where he boarded while he continued with them he had by his Civil Behaviour gained so much upon them that they had a great Respect for him, and are desirous of his well doeing, whose names are here subscribed.” It was signed by 18 Friends, men and women, including some who later emigrated themselves, like John and Michael Blunston, Luke Hank, and Frances Cooke. 3

Why would you want to see them? Certificates show where someone lived before emigrating. They show the approximate date of emigration, since certificates were usually issued a month or so before departure. For a married man, the certificate might show the name of his wife and children, although not always. If you can find the full certificate, it is always worth looking at the names of the people who signed it, as they are sometimes family members. For example, the certificate of Ralph Fretwell from Barbados in 1683 was signed by Thomas Fretwell.

The early certificates are available in various forms (abstracts or full text) and in various places (on Ancestry’s Quaker Records collection, in published books of records, on microfilm at the Friends Historical Library, and in the church record volumes at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Here are some sources for the earliest monthly meetings:

MeetingAncestry (Quaker Collection)Published sourcesHistorical Society of Pennsylvania
Falls"Minutes 1682-1743", a list, not abstracts or full certificates. Early Church Records of Bucks County, volume 2, edited by Watring and Wright, has short abstracts.The best source for full certificates, call numbers Bu 1F:2 and Bu 1F:4.
Middletown“Minutes, marriages, certificates of removal…”. Also Philadelphia Arch Street meeting, “Record of certificates of removal 1682”Early Church Records of Bucks County, volume 2, has some listed. Not in the table of contents, they start at page 239.
Philadelphia“Removals 1681-1758”, a good source for full certificates, Watring’s Early Quaker Records of Philadelphia, volume 1, has a list, not the full certificates. Albert Cooke Myers, Quaker Arrivals at Philadelphia, is also a list. Gilbert Cope’s transcription, call number Ph 1F:5, probably from the same manuscript as “Removals 1681-1758”, a good source
AbingtonNo separate list known. Look for some of their members in the early arrivals at Philadelphia MeetingNone knownNone known
Radnor“Births, deaths, marriages, certificates of removal (received), 1683-1730”Early Church Records of Delaware County, volume 3, edited by Launey, has abstracts, in alphabetical order, to about 1730.Gilbert Cope’s copy at call number De 15F:1
Chester“Register Book 1681” is a mix of early subscriptions, marriages, births, burials, certificates, and payments. The certificates are on images 13 and 14.None in Early Church Records of Delaware County, volume 1.
ConcordNone knownNone in Early Church Records of Delaware County, volume 2.Included with other records, call number De 9F:2.
Darby“A few certificates… 1684-1763” has full certificates of some early arrivals.Early Church Records of Delaware County, volume 3, has a list showing date and originDe 13F:1 (in alphabetical order)

 

  1. Concord men’s minutes, 9th month 1687, available on Ancestry’s Quaker Records collection.
  2. Once in a while a certificate turns up in an odd place. When Jeffery Hawkins presented himself to William Penn in 8th month 1682 to claim his headright, he must have handed his certificate of clearness to Penn, who added a note at the bottom to Thomas Holme directing him to lay out the land. (Copied Survey Books, D-74, page 207, image 415)
  3. On Ancestry’s Quaker records collection, Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, Removals 1681-1758, image 26.

Emigration and shipping lists

It is not hard to find whether someone emigrated to early Pennsylvania. They turn up in various records—they bought land or went to court or served on a committee for their local Friends meeting. It is harder to tell exactly when they arrived or what ship they came on, at a time when there were no official ship’s passenger lists. There are three sets of records that help to fill this gap: shipping lists, arrival registrations, and certificates of arrival at Friends meetings.

The shipping lists are a rich source of information, unearthed in England by Marion Balderston, and published in two articles in Sheppard’s Passengers & Ships prior to 1684. When emigrants left England with personal goods they were not required to pay customs duty on them, but they were required to pay duty on goods for resale. Each port such as London or Liverpool kept a set of officials who examined goods before they were loaded, and listed any subject to duty. These lists are an amazing glimpse into the world of the emigrants. We learn how much cheese they brought, or how many nails or pairs of stockings, or tobacco pipes. As Balderson put it, “One thought occurred to many emigrants—the Indians smoked pipes, and the gift of a pipe might make a friend.” 1

Balderston listed the people who shipped goods on each of the ships that left England for Pennsylvania in 1682 and 1683. (Remember that these lists only included goods for sale, not for personal use, so they are not complete passenger lists.) For each ship she discussed whether the shippers were merchants or possible emigrants, using other evidence such as the civil arrival registries of Philadelphia and Bucks County, as well as Quaker arrival certificates. If someone applied for a warrant a few days after the ship landed she suspected that they came on that ship. Peter Coldham found additional shippers in other port books, published in a series called the Complete Book of Emigrants, although he did not attempt to identify them as Balderston did.  2

The civil arrival registrations are frustratingly incomplete. The province passed a law in 1684 requiring all residents to register their arrival. Phineas Pemberton, deputy registrar for Bucks County, kept a book of arrivals for his county, and Christopher Taylor, register general for Philadelphia County, probably kept the one for his. These were not complete lists of arrivals. Most people ignored the law, and it was not enforced. For the people who did register, the record shows which ship they came on, when they arrived, spouse’s name if there was one, names of children and servants—another rich set of information for family historians.

The existing arrival lists are held in manuscript form at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Bucks County Historical Society. Each one, for Bucks and Philadelphia Counties, has been published in two versions. They were originally published in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, volumes 8 and 9. Hannah Benner Roach revised and edited the lists and published a more careful version in Passengers and Ships prior to 1684. 3

The third source of information for arrivals is the practice of the Quaker meetings of recording certificates of arrival. (See the blog post on Quaker records.) The next post will show where to find these certificates for the earliest meetings.

  1. Balderston, “Goods to start a colony”, in Walter Lee Sheppard, Passengers and Ships prior to 1684, p. 128.
  2. The relevant Coldham volume for early Pennsylvania is Volume 2, 1661 to 1699.
  3. Her version is probably more accurate, but the PMHB articles include an informative introduction.

Early tax lists in Pennsylvania

The earliest tax list in Pennsylvania was made at Penn’s request so that he would know what quitrents he was entitled to. People who bought or rented land from him were obligated to pay a certain amount per year, depending on how many acres they had and the terms of their purchase. First Purchasers paid a shilling for every hundred acres; servants paid more (but got their 50 acres for free); people who got extra land for bringing servants paid even more. Before Penn’s arrival the Swedes had been accustomed to paying their rents in produce such as bushels of wheat, but Penn insisted on payment in currency. Currency was scarce in early times and this caused some resentment. 1 Penn complained in 1686 that he received none of his rents.

To remedy this, in 1689 he appointed John Blackwell, who had stepped down as deputy governor, as the receiver general. Blackwell was supposed to direct the sheriffs to collect the taxes in their counties, but soon found that there was no accounting system set up for this. He started by making a rent-roll, the first list of who lived in each county and how much land they owned. His list has survived for Chester County and Philadelphia County (and city), but not Bucks County. 2

Blackwell’s list is organized by block (in the city) and township (in the counties). Each entry includes the name, status (such as Old or Purchaser,), the quitrent, and the number of years the rent was due. Because Blackwell listed the people who were actually living on the land, as opposed to absentee owners, it is a good indication of who emigrated. However it does not include laborers, servants or others who were not responsible for the rent.

The earliest true tax was levied in 1693, controversial because it was partly intended to pay for the expenses of New York in defense against the French. For the Quakers of Pennsylvania paying for war in any form was against their pacifist principles, but the Assembly finally approved the tax under the bland rationale of “support for the government”.  3 The amount levied was one penny per pound of assessed value of real and personal estate, or six shillings for freemen (non-servants) who did not own real estate. People were not to be taxed if they had “a great charge of children” or were indigent.

The lists made by the Collectors and Assessors have survived and are available in various places. The list for Philadelphia city and county was published in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, volume 8. The list for Chester County was published in Futhey and Cope’s History of Chester County, while Bucks County was published in McNealy and Waite, Bucks County Tax Records 1693-1778. The original lists are in the manuscript holdings of the Pennsylvania Historical Society.

These lists are valuable for several reasons. They show who was living in a particular place in 1693. They show how much land they owned. And most important they give a picture of the wealth of time. You can look at the list and see the richest men in each county or the five richest men in the city. For the family historian or economic historian these are a valuable data source to be mined.

  1. Donna Munger, Pennsylvania Land Records, p. 34.
  2. Hannah Benner Roach published the list for the city; it is included in Colonial Philadelphians. Mary Maples Dunn and Richard Dunn published the full list in their Papers of William Penn, volume 3.
  3. William Rawle, Introduction to “The First Tax List for Philadelphia County”,  PA Mag of History & Biography, vol. 8.

Early probate records in Pennsylvania

When a man died in early Pennsylvania, most of the time his death set off a chain of legal events. Following procedures that were familiar from England, the survivors, whether Quaker or not, knew what they had to do. Within a few days of the death, an inventory was taken of his possessions: cash on hand, clothing, household goods and furniture, tools or farm equipment, livestock, grain growing in his fields. The men who took the inventory appraised the value of each item, and totaled up the worth of estate (not including the land).

In his will, if he left one, he named executors who were responsible for paying his debts and burial expenses, collecting debts owed to him, selling property if needed to cover the debts, making a distribution to the heirs, and making an account of the estate, starting with the assessed value of the inventory. They were supposed to file the account within a year after the death. In the case of a larger, more complex estate, it might take longer, and occasionally more than one account was necessarily filed.

If he did not leave a will, the administrators had the same responsibility as the executors. A surviving wife, if there was one, was usually the administrator, often assisted by a relative or friend. Sometimes in the will a Friend would specify that the monthly meeting should assist her.

Women did not usually make wills in the early years, and their estates did not go through this probate process. Her family would take care of her possessions and any debts, without any legal notice taken. There are some early exceptions. When the widow Agnes Crosdale died in 9th month of 1686, her sons William and John, along with Nicholas Waln and Robert Heaton, served as joint administrators, signing a bond to Phineas Pemberton the Deputy Register, and an inventory was taken of her estate.  1

The death of a husband could be devastating to a woman. By law she was entitled to one-third of the estate, both land and personal goods (one-half if there were no children). This was called the “widow’s third”. If he left a will that gave her less than a third, she could reject it and claim her portion. However, if he left debts, the creditors had a claim to the estate that took priority over her claim. If the estate had to be sold to satisfy the debts, she might be left with nothing. 2

In practice many poor people did not leave a will. When there is one, it is valuable for the genealogist, since it usually tells the names of spouses and children and the residence when the will was written. It is equally valuable to the historian, as it gives proof that someone emigrated, tells whether the wife was entrusted with the estate, and occasionally tells stories. For example Robert Jeffs in his will proved 2nd month 1688 asked William Penn to take note of unfair treatment by Thomas Fairman over a leased farm. John Tathum cut his disobedient daughter Dorothy out of his estate because he disapproved of her clandestine marriage.

The other estate papers are valuable too, especially the inventories. These give a window into the homes and life of the people, listing how many beds they had, how many pots, how many barrels of food. They allow a historian to look at the wealth of the community: how evenly it was spread around, how it changed over generations, what form it took. Because the inventories are so detailed, they are a source of data that can be mined to answer many questions. How valuable were people’s clothes? How much cash did they keep on hand? How many cows did it take to feed a family? 3

It is easy to access short abstracts of the early wills. For Philadelphia, Chester, and Bucks County they are available on the USGenWeb Archive. Note that Chester County did not register its own wills until 1714; until then they were handled by Philadelphia County. Bucks County registered some early ones until about 1693, then for twenty years they were handled in Philadelphia, then in 1713 they were again registered in Bucks County.

The Bucks County courthouse in Doylestown has the original estate packets, consisting of the administrative bond or will, inventory, and accounting of the estate. Many estates are missing one or more of these pieces, but the surviving papers are there. They will eventually be digitized, but for now if you want to see the full will or the other papers, this is the only source. Ancestry has an index: the Index of Bucks County wills and administrations to 1850.

The office of wills in City Hall in Philadelphia holds the original documents administered in Philadelphia County. There are three ways to see them, depending on how much detail you want to see. The wills were copied into will books, which are in the office. They were microfilmed and you can read them there. You can request the full estate packets, usually on a day’s notice, which are the only source for the inventory and account. 4

For Philadelphia County, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania has some valuable holdings. The photostats of the early wills and inventories are in a set of 25 volumes, to about 1725. (Call numbers Ph 1A:1, Ph 1A:2, etc.) They have some overlapping coverage in other volumes (Ph 3A, Ph 4A …) and an index at Ph 13A.

For Chester County estate documents, you will need to go to the Chester County Archive in West Chester. There is an online index, and a guide to the documents, available on their website. Remember that they do not have any estate documents before 1714.

  1. Original estate papers at Bucks County Courthouse, number 114.
  2. Lisa Wilson, Life after Death, Widows in Pennsylvania 1750-1850.
  3. There was only one thing that was not included in the inventory—the personal apparel of the wife.
  4. You will need to provide the estate number, which is the same as the one on the USGenWeb Archive list.

Finding the early Quaker vital records at the Pennsylvania Historical Society

If you are able to visit the library of the Pennsylvania Historical Society in Philadelphia, you will find a wealth of early Quaker records. The shelves of their Pennsylvania room hold rows of church records, bound years ago in green and brown. These are not the fragile original records, but copies or in some cases photostats of the originals.

HSP Quaker records

The online catalog of the Society, called Discover, allows you to search for particular records. For example, you could enter Philadelphia monthly meeting in the search box, then click on the Find button.  To narrow down the results, you could filter for Church records and registers. The results do not always pin down the contents precisely. Here are some of the more useful records for the earliest Quaker meetings, with their call numbers.

Note that the records are currently being digitized and will eventually appear on the FamilySearch website.

In the table below, older handwriting refers to the 1700s, while later handwriting refers to the late 1800s when many records were copied by William J. Buck, Gilbert Cope, and others. The later handwriting is easier to read, while the earlier handwriting gives you a feel for the original work.

MeetingBirthsDeathsMarriages
FallsAn old handwritten list in alphabetical order. Bu 7F:3.
A later copy. Bu 7F:2 and Bu 3F.
An old handwritten list, Bu 7F:3.
An old handwritten list, Bu 7F:3.
A later copy in alphabetical order, Bu 3F.
MiddletownA later copy in alphabetical order, Bu 3F.A later copy in alphabetical order, Bu 3F.An older handwritten list, along with Falls Meeting, Bu 1F:3.
A later copy in alphabetical order, Bu 3F.
PhiladelphiaA handwritten copy in alphabetical order, Ph 1F:4.
An 1877 copy, roughly chronological, Ph 1F:1
A handwritten copy in alphabetical order, Ph 1F:4.
An 1877 copy, roughly chronological, Ph 1F:1
Abstracts of marriage certificates, alphabetical order, Ph 15F.
Abstracts in chronological order, Ph 1F:3 (and Ph 1B:2).
Both of these sources have some witnesses listed, but not all. Get those on Ancestry.
AbingtonTyped copy, roughly chronological, Mo 1F:1.
Births of Byberry Meeting (part of Abington MM), Mo 1F:10.
Typed copy, roughly chronological, Mo 1F:1.
Byberry records, later copy, Mo 1F:10.
Typed copy, roughly chronological, with witnesses, Mo 1F:1
RadnorLater handwritten copy, chronological starting 1682, De 15F:2
Different late list, chronological order starting 1680, De 15F:1
Later handwritten copy starting 1686, De 15F:1Abstracts with witnesses, De 15F:1.
A bare list taken from the minutes, starting 1682, De 15F:2.
Later abstracts (by Gilbert Cope), with witnesses, closed stack, FC County De.
ChesterLater copy, alphabetical order, Ch 22F:2.
Chronological order starting 1677, De 2F:1
Later copy, roughly chronological starting 1682, De 2F:1Abstracts with witnesses, in roughly chronological order, De 2F:1
ConcordLater handwritten copy, roughly chronological, De 9F:2Later handwritten copy, De 9F:2Later handwritten copy, few witnesses, De 9F:2.
Certificates with witnesses, alphabetical order with index, De 9F:1
DarbyLater handwritten copy, alphabetical order, De 13F:1Later handwritten copy, alphabetical order, De 13F:1List of marriages from the minutes, no witnesses, De 13F:1.
Newark/KennettA chronological list, Ch 9F:1, plus a later copy at Ch 9F:2.A later copy at Ch 9F:2A later list, in alphabetical order, Ch 3F:2

Finding the early Quaker vital records: published sources

The Quakers, as is often said, kept wonderfully detailed records, especially for marriages, births, and burials. The published sources for these  early vital records are readily available in libraries, but lack details that you might want to see. For example, they do not include the full marriage certificates, with the list of witnesses (often providing names of close family members). They might change the list of births or deaths from chronological to alphabetical order, causing you to miss details such as clusters of deaths in the summer months.  If you use them as a starting point to find your ancestors in the records, consider browsing the images in Ancestry to find more context. See the Ancestry files for Bucks and Philadelphia Counties, and for Chester County (including meetings that are now in Delaware County). Note that there are no published sources for the vital records of Abington Monthly Meeting.

If you are wondering how a marriage could be recorded as early as 1670, before there were any Quakers in Pennsylvania, some Friends brought their certificates with them from England and had them recorded by their new meeting. Like later marriage certificates, these early ones provide clues about the family and friends of the newly-married couple.

Published sources for early vital records

MeetingSourcesNotes
FallsWatring & Wright, Bucks County Church Records of the 17th and 18th Centuries, vol. 2Includes births starting about 1700, in alphabetical order.
Abstracts of marriage certificates (not including witnesses), starting 1704.
Also lists kept by Bucks Quarterly Meeting: a list of births and burials starting 1680 and a list of marriages starting 1685.
Middletown (originally called Neshaminy)(same as Falls)Births and burials in alphabetical order, starting about 1680.
Abstracts of marriage certificates (no witnesses) starting about 1680.
Also the lists kept by Bucks Quarterly Meeting (described above).
PhiladelphiaWatring, Early Quaker Records of Philadelphia, vol. 1Births and burials in alphabetical order, starting about 1688.
A chronological list of deaths and burials starting 1687.
Marriages in chronological order, starting in 1672, abstracts with no witnesses listed.
RadnorLauney, Early Church Records of Delaware County, vol. 3Births and burials in alphabetical order, starting about 1682.
Abstracts of marriage certificates (no witnesses listed) in alphabetical order.
ChesterLauney & Wright, Early Church Records of Delaware County, vol. 1Births and burials in alphabetical order, starting about 1683.
Abstracts of marriage certificates (no witnesses listed), in alphabetical order.
ConcordPeden & Launey, Early Church Records of Delaware County, vol. 2Births and deaths in chronological order, starting about 1682.
Abstracts of marriage certificates (no witnesses), in alphabetical order.
DarbyLauney, Early Church Records of Delaware County, vol. 3Births and burials in alphabetical order, starting about 1682.
Abstracts of marriage certificates starting about 1684, (no witnesses), in alphabetical order.
Newark/KennettReamy, Early Church Records of Chester County, vol. 3Births, marriages and deaths.

Early court records

You can use vital records to find your ancestors, but it is in the court records that the past comes alive. That is where you find out who menaced their neighbors with a gun at midnight, who repeated slanderous gossip, who misbehaved sexually, who shot their neighbor’s pig and hid the bacon in the out house. 1 You hear the voices of the people speaking in their own words, calling the jury sworn rogues or telling exactly what Nicholas Randall did to the wife of his master John Swift. 2 You follow the coroner and his men as they track the footprints of a distinctive boot to the swamp where they found 14 stolen deer skins hidden in a hollow tree. When they measured the shoe-print and compared it to John Martin’s shoe, it was found to be the same. John Martin was startled when they took off his shoe to measure it, but could not deny his guilt. 3

The most famous case in early Pennsylvania was not tried in a court, but in the Council, acting as a court on 12th mo 1683. Before William Penn, the Council, and a grand jury, Margaret Mattson, a Swede and the wife of Neels Mattson, was accused of being a witch. Henry Drystreet testified that he had been told she was a witch and could bewitch cows. Charles Ashcom testified that Mattson’s daughter saw a vision or dream of an old woman and a great light. Annakey Coolin and her husband boiled the heart of a calf that they thought to have died of witchcraft; Margaret saw them and said “unseemly expressions”. None of this convinced the jury, who ruled that she was not guilty of being a witch, only of “having the common fame” of one. 4

The record of the courts of Chester County and Bucks County have been preserved. The records of Philadelphia County court are unfortunately lost, except for a few early cases. We also have the record of the Upland Court, the precursor to Chester County court, from 1676 to 1681, and of Burlington Court, across the river in West Jersey. These hundreds of pages tell many stories.

Where to find the early court records

CourtOn Ancestry?Other sources:
Bucks County 1684-1700"Record of the courts of Quarter Sessions and Common Pleas of Bucks County 1684-1700"A published version by Heritage Books in 2013
Burlington County 1680-1709"The Burlington Court Book: a record of Quaker jurisprudence in West New Jersey 1680-1709Snippet view only on Google Books
Chester County 1681-1699"Record of the courts of Chester County, volume 1"Available on Internet Archive, full view including pdf download
New CastleNot availableAvailable on Internet Archive as "Record of the court of New Castle on Delaware"; volume 1 is 1676-1681; volume 2 is 1681-1699
Upland"The Record of the court at Upland, in Pennsylvania : 1676 to 1681."Publications of the HSP, volume 4, 1860, full view on Google Books
The Provincial CouncilNot availableMinutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania, volume 1, full view on Google Books
  1.  Owen Magdaniel and two cronies fired a pistol late at night at John Calvert’s window “to his and his wifes great afrightment”. Chester County Court 7th month 1692. Find the case of the stolen pig in Chester County Court on March 1682. Presumably when Anderson hid the stolen bacon in an out house, the reference was to an out-building, not necessarily what we would call an outhouse.
  2. Nicholas Randall laid with his head on Frances Swift’s lap, then took her into the barn at midnight, where “his mustard pot would work”. He called John Swift a cuckoldy rogue. Bucks County Court record, 4th month 1688.
  3. Chester County Court record, 4th month 1690. On the same day the court heard the case of Susannah Willard, convicted of fornication and bastardy with her step-father Ralph Dracott. Coincidentally Susannah’s sister Elizabeth later married Nicholas Randall.
  4. Minutes of the Provincial Council, volume 1, pages 95-96. About this time Neels Mattson sold his farm and moved to Gloucester County, West Jersey, according to Peter S. Craig, The 1693 Census of the Swedes on the Delaware, pages 69-70.