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A story… from one record

The best thing we can do to get to the truth of an historical event or to understand an ancestor’s life is to look at all the information available. All the documentation we can get our hands on. All the background we can learn about the family, social, political, economic, even meteorological events that were happening at the same time.

But sometimes an individual record can present a compelling story all on its own—one that makes us pause—a story that leads to speculation and maybe asks more questions that it answers.

Let me introduce you to Elijah Peet. Before you ask, we’re not related, but doesn’t he have a wonderful name?

I met Elijah through his estate file in the Surrogate Court of the District of Johnstown[1] in Upper Canada.[2]

Elijah died in 1803. I know this because letters of administration were issued on January 5, 1804. By law, since Elijah had not written a valid will, the administrators had to wait at least two weeks to apply to the court.

An estate file, in Ontario, is a collection of documents that were either presented to the court or issued by the court, relating to the distribution of an individual’s worldly goods—whether or not the person had a will.

In Elijah’s file, I found the following documents:

  • Administration bond of £100 from administrator Peet Selee, with Samuel and Levius Sherwood, issued January 5, 1804
  • A “true and perfect inventory”
  • Wording for an ad for the “vendue” of Elijah’s possessions
  • An accounting of the vendue (who bought what items)
  • An account of expenses incurred by the administrator

What can we glean from each of these documents?

The bond—although we don’t have his application, the fact that Peet Selee was appointed administrator means that the court felt it was a suitable choice. He may have been a relative, or relatives stepped aside and did not challenge his appointment.[3] Peet could write, and fairly confidently. Peet Selee [Seelye] is called “yeoman” of Elizabethtown. The other names on the bond, Samuel and Levius Sherwood, were both prominent citizens, and court officials. They were probably chosen because they were good for the £100 rather than for a relationship with the deceased.

The inventory—one of the responsibilities of administrator Peet Selee, was appraised on March 28 by David Alexander and Isaac Booth and filed with the court on March 29, 1804. It included:

  • 1 mare and colt
  • 1 bridle
  • 1 pair saddle bags
  • 1 great coat, pair of boots, pair of shoes
  • 1 shaving box, 1 razor and case
  • Set of shoemaker’s tools, bag and leather apron
  • 3 lasts, 2 coats, 2 vests, 2 pr of pantaloons
  • 1 pair of trousers, 3 shirts, 4 pairs of stockings
  • 4 muslin handkerchiefs, 1 silk handkerchief
  • 1 cotton handkerchief, 1 snuff box, 1 knife
  • 1 pocket book, 1 pinchbeck watch[4]
  • 1 pair of galoshes, 1 hat and cover

The belongings added up to £25, 18 shillings. I find it curious that Elijah seems to have had no household goods—not a stick of furniture or a cooking utensil. It looks like he could pack just about everything into his saddlebags. Was he an itinerant shoemaker or an elderly boarder, perhaps? What did galoshes (spelled gallows’s) look like in 1804?[5] What’s the difference between pantaloons and trousers?

The next document, reproduced below, is an example of early Canadian copy writing—an advertisement for a “vendue” of the property of Elijah Peet, deceased. The vendue (a period word for a public sale) was to be held on April 7, 1804, at James Curtis’ inn in Elizabethtown. Was the advertisement to be published in a newspaper, printed up as a broadside, or just tacked up on the door of the inn?

Advertisment for the sale of Elijah Peet’s belongings (Archives of Ontario, Leeds and Grenville United Counties Surrogate Court estate files, RG 22-179, MS 638, reel 28)

The vendue, under the auspices of Vendue Master Jonathan Mills Church, seems to have been moderately successful. Everything was sold and the amount earned was less than £1 under the appraised amount. The list of buyers, though, is short: William Jones, Justice Seely, Reuben Mott, Elias Peck, Phillip Masterson and Jehisda Boice. Jonathan Mills Church, himself, bought two pair of stockings, and Peet Selee acquired 11 items, including the mare and colt and the pinchbeck watch. (Elias Peck became the proud owner of the galoshes for six shillings.)

The final document is an account of the expenses incurred by Peet Selee on behalf of the estate, and perhaps also during Elijah’s last months. It is difficult to read, but it seems to go back to October 1802, when Elijah owed Peet Selee for a quantity of pork and three quarts of salt, a three point blanket, a large powder horn, shoeing a horse, and “working and mending”. Selee seems also to have made traps and carried them to the river for Elijah.

The next expense is 15 shillings for “The Search of him Before he was found”, followed by charges for letters of administration, keeping Elijah’s horses, setting up the vendue, and other incidentals up to at least the day of the auction. The expenses total £25 and 17 shillings—unfortunately a shilling less than the inventory evaluation, but a little more than what was raised by the auction.

Does Elijah Peet’s estate file (a single record) paint a complete picture of his life—or death? No, but it does add valuable colour and clues. I’ll leave it to his family to follow those clues.


[1] Johnstown was one of seven districts into which Upper Canada was divided at this time. Each district had its own surrogate court that handled most estates. For more information about Districts, see the Archives of Ontario online exhibit.

[2] Elijah Peet’s estate file can be found in Leeds and Grenville United Counties Surrogate Court estate files, RG 22-179, MS 638, reel 28, Archives of Ontario. Your local library can get the film for you on inter-loan from the Archives of Ontario, or you can have it brought from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City to your local FamilySearch centre. The FamilySearch film number is 1312274.

[3] There’s a Peet Selee in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography whose wife’s surname was Peet. I have not verified that this is the same person.

[4] Pinchbeck could refer to either the 18th-century London clockmaker, Christopher Pinchbeck, or a copper-zinc alloy he invented that looked like gold.

[5] Read more about galoshes from the University of Washington.

3 comments to A story… from one record

  • Jack Sherwood

    Thanks for a great story! Both Samuel and Levius Sherwood were lawyers in Brockville so probably why they are mentioned. Both were sons of Capt. Justus Sherwood.

  • Colin Kidd

    Great story, thank you. (FYI, I am a descendent of Reuben Mott).

    • Jane E. MacNamara

      I’m glad that you liked the story, Colin. Your ancestor Reuben Mott purchased the greatcoat from Elijah’s estate for £1, 17 shillings and sixpence. It was the most expensive item, other than a mare and colt for £9, 8 shillings.

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