An estate inventory can be an invaluable source of genealogical information, as well as a great insight into the day-to-day possessions of your ancestors. Here, I’ll take a brief look at what you can learn from these records.
Historically, a bouppteckning or estate inventory, was taken of the property of the deceased as it stood on the day of their death. In Sweden, a law came into force in 1734 that these should be prepared for every deceased person, however in practice this was not strictly observed until more modern times (i.e. over the last century or so), particularly for poorer households.
Estate inventories were officially requested by those that had legal rights to the estate, and then taken by at least two “good men” that went through the property of the deceased and valued each item. The output of this procedure was the official document, which was handed in at the local court – the häradsrätt (in cities, it would be the City Court [i.e. Rådhusrätt]). If you were a member of the aristocracy, then the estate inventory was provided to a higher instance of the court system, either Göta or Svea Hovrätt which generally functioned as courts of appeal.
Finding Estate Inventories
There are two principal on-line sources, other than the relevant county archives: Riksarkivet, and Arkiv Digital. How to locate estate inventories in both these systems is detailed in the posts How to Find Swedish Estate Inventories in Riksarkivet’s Digital Research Room and How to Find Swedish Estate Inventories in Arkiv Digital.
Structure of an Estate Inventory
There are a handful of sections to an estate inventory.
- The ingress – literally the “way in,” a fancy way of saying preamble or introduction, a.k.a. a “preamble”.
- The inventory itself.
- Any debts or money lent.
- Occasionally, the distribution of the inheritance, and/or copies of wills.
This section is doubtlessly the most important for the genealogist. It contains a formulaic statement about who the person was, when they died, and who survived them. The survivors would be the next of kin or heirs. On some occasions, if a child has died but left children of their own, then those children could be listed. Relationships are normally also defined, i.e. it would state what the relationship was between the deceased person and any others listed in this section. If children survived that were not yet of age, the appointed guardians would also be listed.
For more on how to read the ingress, see How to Read the Preamble (or Ingress) of a Swedish Estate Inventory
This is a fairly straight-forward part of the document to understand, even as a foreigner. Each line corresponds to an item or type of item found in the household, with its corresponding value in the currency of the day. Items were usually subdivided into categories, with the most precious first. Thus, the first section would be Fastigheter (lit. immovables, i.e. fixed property such as houses and land), followed by stock options, cash money, and ownership of companies or vessels. Items made of metal would follow, starting with gold down to tin and brass, items made of iron, wood, farming implements, household goods, clothing, book, and finally cattle and animals. All according to what was actually in the house at the time of death.
You can read about the likely contents of an estate inventory list in How to Understand the Inventory in Swedish Estate Inventories
Debts and Outstanding Loans
Where the inventory is great for working out what kind of life your ancestor may have led, the lists of money owed to them, and the loans they had yet to pay can greatly improve your understanding of the society they kept. Although there’s no real rhyme or reason why money would be borrowed from one person or the other, it frequently happens that more distant relatives can be found in this section, along with other local individuals. It can be both fun and challenging to work out specific relationships from the names you may find here.
An upcoming post will treat the debts and outstanding loans section in more detail.
Signatures, Estate Division, and Wills
Out of these, the signatures are the only thing you should always expect to find in all estate inventories. These will be those of the individuals that conducted the inventory, i.e. the two “good men” who are evaluating the estate. The statements before the signatures are guarantees that everything has been done according to the book, and that nothing underhanded has transpired during the process. Others that were present at the time the inventory was taken may also sign.
In the above example, we can also observe that the person “giving up” the estate, i.e. Anna Pehrsdotter, has signed, under oath, that she has mentioned everything in the estate, leaving out nothing. It may not be her own signature however, as writing was not a common skill at this time. Look out for the words “hand vid pennan” or similar, which means that someone else signed on her behalf, but that her hand was on the pen at the same time.
The Division of an estate into “arvslotter” – inheritance portions – would take place after the estate inventory was taken. The time between those events could vary, but sometimes you get lucky and the division is included in the paperwork with the inventory. Similarly, if the deceased had a will, it, too, may be attached.
What have you learned from digging into estate inventories? Share your experience in the comments!
The featured image shows the interior of a backstuga in 1904; from Digitalarkivet, via Kalmar County Museum, accessed 14 Oct 2018.