Teaching Probate Records: Lesson Plans

What People’s Stuff Can Tell You:
Looking at a Colonial Probate Record

print the lesson plan (.pdf)

Brief Overview

Students will work in partners to examine and discuss the primary source probate record inventory of goods belonging to Sarah Green (d. 1757) to improve comprehension of life in Colonial Virginia.   After sharing with others, students will answer questions predicting what they think Sarah Green’s life was like.  Students will listen to (or read a transcript from) an interview with a colonial historian and compare their predictions with the historian’s conclusions. 

Brief Historical Background

By the eighteenth century, the colony of Virginia had grown into a society with distinctions between race, class, and gender.  Like most southern colonies, Virginia had a slave-based, planter-dominated society.  Even though only a relative few, about five percent, of southern white landowners were planters (with 20-plus slaves), they were the role models for other aspiring white men. Influenced by English law, men were the sole possessors of the family’s wealth, but women could be the beneficiaries of shared wealth upon the death of their husbands. Legal documents, such as tax records or probate inventories, often provide our only information about the status of a woman and the lifestyles of ordinary people during the colonial and early national periods. Such listings of household possessions, from a time when household goods were not widely mass produced, can illuminate a fair amount about a person’s or a family's routines, rituals, and social relations, as well as about a region's economy and its connections to larger markets.


The students will:

  1. Review a primary source document (Sarah Green, York County Wills and Inventories #20, 1745-1759, pp. 512-513) and discuss, predict, and infer information about the listed items.
  2. Make conclusions based on their findings about Sarah Green and about life in colonial Virginia.
  3. Compare their predictions and conclusions with those of a colonial historian.

Standards of Learning


VS.1 The student will develop skills for historical and geographical analysis including the ability to

  1. identify and interpret artifacts and primary and secondary source documents to understand events in history;
  2. determine cause and effect relationships;
  3. draw conclusions and make generalizations;
  4. evaluate and discuss issues orally and in writing.


VS.4 The student will demonstrate knowledge of life in the Virginia colony by

  1. explaining the importance of agriculture and its influence on the institution of slavery;
  2. describing how money, barter, and credit were used.


(Downloads are in .pdf format)

  1. Scratch paper and pencils.
  2. Lesson objective or sign.
  3. Original copy and transcript of Sarah Green’s probate inventory or view the handwritten original (one each for each student)
  4. Vocabulary words written on board, chart paper, or projected on SmartBoard.
  5. Partner activity questions written on board, chart paper, or projected on SmartBoard.
  6. Worksheet with columns for “What You Noticed”, “Questions You Have”, “Historical Background” (one per student).
  7. Video version and selected transcript sections of Rosemarie Zagarri interview. (one per student)
  8. Venn Diagram for all for final assessment
  9. (Optional/extension) Map of Gunston Hall or projection of Gunston Hall Plantation On-Line Tour: http://www.gunstonhall.org/mansion/virtual_tour.html


Day One

Hook (8-10 minutes)

(Option 1): Explain to students that today the lesson involves the things we can learn about people based on their possessions—the things they own—“What People’s Stuff Can Tell You” (this can be made into a sign or written as the day’s objective).  Ask students to “brainstorm.”  Give students two minutes to write down everything they own—their stuff.  At the end of two minutes ask them to partner with someone (Clock Buddies, elbow partners, across the table, etc.) and share their lists.  As they look at the other person’s list they should think about what the list tells them about the person; what questions they would have based on the list; and how the knowledge they have about the person already helps them understand the list.  Give students two-three minutes to study their partner’s list.  At the end of the time, discuss what they learned, questions, and background.

(Option 2)If available, bring in several items on the inventory list that would not be familiar to all students:  pestle and mortar, Dutch Oven, Damask napkins, dog irons (andirons), etc.  Pass them around, asking students to think about what the objects might have been used for 250 years ago.  Share ideas in an open discussion. Explain to students that today the lesson involves the things we can learn about people based on their possessions—the things they own—“What People’s Stuff Can Tell You” (this can be made into a sign or written as the day’s objective).  Ask  what the items you passed around might tell them about the person who owned the them.

1. Inventory Analysis (10-12 minutes)

2. Group Discussion (12-15 minutes)

Draw three columns on the board (or chart packs or SmartBoard): Headings: Notice, Questions, Historical Background. Ask students to share, and write on board:

(Break here for block classes)

3. Extended Activity (15-25 minutes: complete as homework for regular period class)

Explain that students are now going to “do history” (working on their own). Historians take primary source information like this and make conclusions about people or a time in history.

Day Two

Hook (3-5 minutes)

(Option 1): Remind students that the lesson the day before, “What People’s Stuff Can Tell You,” started with students making lists of “stuff” they own and then sharing with partners.  Review some of the things partners learned by looking at another student’s list.  (Call on some who did not share on Day One)

(Option 2): Display a written list of “Stuff I Own.”  It can be your stuff, your spouse’s stuff, or a list from someone in the class.  Brainstorm what the list tells you about the person.  Refer to Day One Activity Questions; explain students can use the information to make conclusions or inferences.

Give the day’s objective: to compare their conclusions about Sarah Green with that of a professional historian.

1. Student Discussion: Student conclusions about Sarah Green (8-12 minutes)

2. Historian's Conclusions (35-40 minutes)

Summarize the interview with Dr. Rosemarie Zagarri of George Mason University on Sarah Green's probate record. Explain that she is a historian focusing on the colonial period of American history.

(Break here for block classes)

3. Compare and Contrast (10-15 minutes)

3. Extension (10-15 minutes)

(Option 1): Distribute the floor plan of Gunston Hall and explain, reviewing the importance of George Mason.  Use the large entry as the “hall.”  Students label where they would find some items from Sarah Green'’ inventory if she lived there.

(Option 2): Project the Virtual Tour of the Gunston Hall Plantation from the Gunston Hall Plantation website: http://www.gunstonhall.org/mansion/virtual_tour.html

4. Closing (3-5 minutes

Either in small groups or as a class, have each student share, based on the lessons, “What People’s Stuff Can Tell You.”

Homework and/or Assessment

Depending on time, work on “Conclusions” column of the chart can be finished at home after Day One.  The “floor plan” extension option can be completed at home, also.

Assessment should be ongoing based on participation and progress on worksheet.  Venn Diagram with “compare/contrast” activity is the culminating assessment.


Special needs students should work with supportive partners; given assistance as needed with worksheet; allowed to draw items in final Venn Diagram assessment.

G&T students should be directed to the Gunston Hall website for exploration.  They could complete a second worksheet using another of the Virginia probate inventories on the website.

Options can be given for the Venn Diagram assessment, possibly including:


Barbara Clark Smith, "Analyzing an 1804 Inventory," History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/sia/inventory.htm, February 2002.  This is an excellent example of how to use an inventory as a teaching tool.

Gunston Hall Plantation Probate Inventory Databases, Green59, http://chnm.gmu.edu/probateinventory/pdfs/green59.pdf.  This is the actual copy of the inventory.

Gunston Hall Plantation House Tour, http://www.gunstonhall.org/mansion/virtual_tour.html.  This on-line tour of George Mason’s home is an excellent extension for the lesson or can be incorporated by showing the names of rooms.

Rosemarie Zagarri, Sarah Green Probate TranscriptThis discussion with George Mason University's expert on the colonial period answers questions and provides insight into the Green inventory.