The Washerwoman’s Genes

April 30, 2007

Estate Defined

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 10:56 am

Reading these “Letters of Administration” is a small lesson in NYS estate law. In the absence of a will, someone must be appointed by the Surrogate’s Court to take charge of Jennet’s estate. That someone was Josiah, the oldest living child. He petitions; the two other brothers resident in NY “renounce” their claims; the two daughters, female, and Richard, non-resident, seem not required to do same. (Hence, I don’t find the signature of my direct ancestor Josephine.) Finally, Judge Edward Bergen signs off on the decree.

Leading up to my trip to Brooklyn to acquire this document, I eagerly anticipated learning more about the house in Port Ewen. After all, it was passed down through the E. James side of the family until it was taken for the construction of the “turnpike” across the Rondout Creek from Kingston—I learned this from a descendent in that line. But these documents make no mention of real estate at all.

Rather, Jennet’s holdings seem ridiculously meager to a twenty-first–century descendent:


In 1875, the mean annual earnings of a mason was about $524, according to a chart in Poverty and Progress, a 1964 book attempting to define and interpret the “occupational mobility” of workers in Newburyport MA on the basis, in part, of census data. An unskilled laborer there earned as little as $358 per annum at that time.

This “less than $150” was then way short of a half-year’s worth of income, even of the poorest worker’s income.

If I researched the estate law of the time, would I discover that estates larger than $150 required more involved legal proceedings? Perhaps there was some fudge factor in noting down this amount.

You can see I find it hard to accept that this paltry sum was the final residue of Jennet’s life. Did they split it six ways? Or was it, simply, the money they used to ship her body back to Port Ewen and bury her with a sturdy granite block in the center of Riverview Cemetery?

[Source note:Thernstrom, Stephan. Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a Nineteenth-Century City. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1964. Rprt NY: Atheneum, 1969.]


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