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STORIES FROM HISTORIC WILLS

by Karen Vorbeck Williams on 05/20/18


I Give to my Loving Wife Hepsibah the Bed whereon we commonly Lye with the Bedstead and  furniture thereunto belonging (viz.) the Curtains Bedcord a pair of Sheets a Coverlid and blanket bolster and pillows also all her wearing apparell to be enjoyed to herself and her heirs…

—Daniel Doane’s last will and testament, Oct. 9, 1712

 

Once again my research for a second historical novel has taken me back to seventeenth century New England. Conveniently it has also produced some new evidence for the family tree I am building on Ancestry.com. 

 

Recently I came across new ancestors at Cape Cod—Eastham, Barnstable, Massachusetts Bay Colony—the first of this line is John Doane who emigrated from England to Plymouth in about 1629. 

 

I am especially attracted to the stories found in the wills and inventories left by these early modern people. Because of his will we know that even in their old age Daniel and Hephzibah Doane slept together on a tester bed with curtains, under sheets and a coverlet while resting their heads on a bolster and pillows. We also know that in the late seventeenth century fashions did not change enough to make Hephzibah’s wearing apparel unsuitable to pass on to her daughters.

 

I John Doane aged eighty and eight years or thereabout in consideration of my many Infirmitees that daily attend me and may in a moment close up my Life and therfore do think it meet to make this my last will and testament; and first I give my soul to god that gave it and my body to a decent burial in the earth from whence it was taken. 

He died in 1685

 

John Doane did not know for sure how old he was. It wasn’t because he had a poor memory. No, early modern people did not consider one’s age important. They did not celebrate birthdays.

 

In Ephriam Doane’s will (1699) he gives half his house, barn, and land to his wife Mary. I assume the other half had already been given or purchased by a son. He goes on to say that at the time of his wife’s demise, after all debts are paid, the children will share equally: That is to say ye children which I had by my former wife, and ye children which my now beloved wife had by her former husband John Snow deceased, I say to be divided among said children by Equall proportions.

From this we may surmise that Ephraim Doane was a kind man who cared equally for his children and step-children. By the way, Ephraim could not write and signed his will with his mark: E

 

In this family line, one father left his daughter three schillings. Unlike ours, their economy did not rise or fall on the retail sales report, one of our leading economic indicators. Average people didn’t have anything more than they needed and most of that they or their neighbors made themselves. What they had they hung on to for at least a generation and everyone had work—no unemployment. No I don't want to go back to the seventeenth century.

 

The inventories included absolutely every bit of moveable property a man owned: furniture, tools, livestock, linens, pots, dishes, etc. Surprises for me were mentions of half a bull valued at £1 and new cloth and yarn and feathers valued at £03.10.00 

 

I wish I had time to take just one man’s will and inventory and write a short story complete with all the family characters in relationship to one another. 

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