Samuel Billings’ Mystifying Probate

Okay, so in last week’s post I mentioned something about my research into my 8x great grandfather Maj. Samuel Billings* and his probate record. I guess this week I have to tell you the end of that story.

Samuel is an ancestor found on my grandmother Lois Shaw’s side of the family tree:

Found him.

Now, I am not really going to give you a thorough biography on Sam, just a few nuggets because, well, it would take me a lot longer to get this post out, and I really just want to talk about his probate.

The story so far.

One of the to-do items on my list for my recent trip to Salt Lake City, was to find Sam’s probate in Vermont records. I was hoping that it would help me find out who Franklin Robinson’s father was. You see, Sam’s daughter Beulah Billings, had a son named Franklin Robinson. But I have been unable to find any record of her marrying anyone named Robinson. Maybe her father’s probate would answer that question.

For the record–it didn’t.

Well that resource was a bust. But, I still had Sam’s probate, and he is still one of my ancestors, so it’s not like the record was a waste of digital space. I decided to start transcribing the documents. So that’s what I have been doing these last few weeks. And when I say ‘these last few weeks’ I mean, these last few weeks. (By the way I’m still not done.) The reason it is taking me so long, is because the probate record is composed of a very long list of inventory items, and a very long list of debts owed by his estate. Here are examples of what I am looking at:

This is part of the inventory which is actually 6 pages long, I think, and there are usually several items per line (the amounts are in pounds, shillings and pence). And this is the main list, I saw several other shorter lists like these further on in the documents.
There are about 10 page of names in columns like these, apparently the lists are of people who have a claim on the estate.

As you can see this is a bit of a project. You even might ask, ‘why are you spending so much time doing all this transcribing of the items and names in these records?’ Well, the inventory is fascinating in and of itself, because these are the items Samuel and his wife, Beulah (not to be confused with their daughter Beulah), used in their daily lives. For example, it looks like Samuel was a bit of a clothes horse–here’s a sample:

2 waistcoats 0 7 0
1 black breaches 0 10 0
1 pair velvet breaches 0 5 0
3 pair cotton breaches 0 14 0
3 cotton waistcoats 0 14 0
1 pair linnen stocking 0 5 0
1 red coat 1 8 0
1 leather breaches 0 8 0
1 new hat 0 15 0
1 old hat 0 1 0
1 wig 0 5 0
1 pair silver spurs 1 2 0
1 pair silver shoe buckles 0 8 0
1 pair silver knee buckles 0 7 0
1 silver stock buckle 0 6 0
1 pair silver sleeve buttons 0 2 0
1 silver watch 4 10 0
1 pair shoes 0 7 6
1 pair boots 0 5 0

The large inventory of items suggest to me that Samuel either had money, or spent a lot of money. And I have read over the information before and after the lists of names several times, and it reads like these are people with an interest in getting money from the estate. I have seen plenty of ancestor’s probate records, but none of them contained anything like this. Here is a transcribed sample:

Last Name, First Name Pounds Shillings Pence
Preats Hezekiah 0 10 6
Watson Titus 0 6 6
Hills John 1 4 0
Fuller John 0 4 0
Holbert Abel 42 0 0
Harris John 0 12 4
Schohue Honuel 3 11 9
How Moses 0 15 9
Hambleton Joshua 8 18 9
Honwell Ladach 5 4 1
Hynds Joseph 6 9 3
Schohue Honwell 8 5 0
Hanley Peter 23 9 0
Hayford Samuel 0 19 10

Why were all these people owed money? The amounts ranged from a few shillings, to, so far, as much as about 50 pounds. So I decided to see if I could find out more about Samuel that would answer this question.

Here is a bit of his background that I have learned so far.

Samuel Billings was born in 1736 in Hardwick, Worcester County, Massachusetts to Samuel and Hannah (Warner) Billings. He married Beulah Fay in Hardwick on the 28th of June 1764, and over the course of their marriage they had 9 known children together.

Their early married life was spent in Hardwick. But in 1771(1) he moved his family to Bennington, Bennington County, Vermont. And when Samuel brought his family to Bennington, he supported them as an inn-holder.

Ah-ha!

1798 view of Bennington, from Bennington Historical Society website.

Several inns stood between Bennington Centre and Pownal Centre before the Revolution. Billings Tavern was built by Maj. Samuel Billings on the Old Road south of The Poplars, later known as Lon Wagner’s Inn and the “Old Yellow House” until it was burned a few years ago.(2)

Samuel Fay remembered all the inns and taverns that were in the area where he grew up:

Mr. Samuel Fay, five years of age the day of the Bennington Battle, and who distinctly recollected occurrences of that day with other reminiscences, stated to G. W. Robinson the following, of public houses, all in apparent successful operation: the Catamount Tavern, kept by his grandfather Stephen Fay; …the Billings Tavern, in whose stables he has seen one hundred horses at one time,–a not uncommon occurrence,–belonging to people emigrating from Connecticut and Massachusetts to the different parts of Vermont and New Hampshire; it now stands on the side hill west of the residence of Mr. Nichols, near the Bennington and Pownal line.(3)

Now all those names in the list make sense. Except, I would think the names would be of people who owed to the estate, not the other way around.

This is the newspaper notice regarding the probate, is clearly states that the estate was insolvent.

But, I guess that means a bit more research needs to be done to see who these people were in relation to Samuel, and the Billings family. Were they merchants, grocers, employees, neighbors?

If you do a search online using the term “Billings Tavern” and bennington, or vermont you will get several hits with a John in Connecticut, or a Moses in Massachusetts, all being tavern owners, which makes me think that this is a bit of a tradition in the Billings’ line. And, Samuel’s father-in-law, Stephen Fay, is the same man who owned the ‘Catamount Tavern’ of which I have discussed before.

To give a sense of what a tavern/inn would have been like in the 1700s, and a bit of tavern and inn history in America, here is an interesting article to read. Or, if you want to know what folks were drinking in these taverns here is a great article all about colonial era cocktails. I want to try some of these myself. And last, but not least, a short video on YouTube regarding the Catamount Tavern.

I am imagining the whole family working at the inn, with Beulah cooking, cleaning or, just managing all the work. They possibly had slaves, as there is evidence that slaves were owned by the Billings and related families’. The boys might have helped in the stables, the girls in the house. Or, they could have had enough money that none of them did any such thing, and hired out all the help needed to run the inn.

Still, the constant hustle and bustle of people stopping for a short while, before moving on to their final destinations must have been exciting for the kids. So many interesting conversations, fascinating stories, politics, gossip, philosophical discussions, and other goings on.

Imagined supper at an inn. The Billings Inn burned down, so I don’t know what it looked like. I guess this image showing an interior of a typical Vermont inn in the 1700s will have to suffice.

Samuel died in 1789, he was only 49 years old, although the Vermont records say he was 51. I don’t know much about Beulah, his wife, but I don’t think she married again before she died. I believe that one or more of his sons, of which there were three–Samuel, Stephen, and Jonas–took over the business. Because the estate was in debt the executors were directed to sell enough property make 400 pounds to help pay those debts. Considering Sam owned just over 900 acres they could probably spare a few.

During this quest I have found out quite a bit about the Billings, and I am sure there is much yet to learn. In the meantime, I am still working on transcribing his probate. So–mystified no more!

I am afraid the mystery of Franklin Robinson’s father still remains. Maybe DNA will settle that question.

——————————–
* But was he really a Major? I haven’t found any source regarding his military service saying he was anything other than a Captain. Maybe someone will have that information and share it. The following entry was found at Jonas Fay Wikipedia page: “Beulah was the wife of Samuel Billings, a Revolutionary War veteran and militia officer who attained the rank of major before dying in 1789.” No actual source showing his promotion was provided though. Even his probate says Maj. Samuel Billings, but that could just be local tradition.

Source:

  1. Early Vermont Settlers Index Cards, 1750-1784. (Online database: American Ancestors.org, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2019). From source materials for Legacy of Dissent: Religion and Politics in Revolutionary Vermont, 1749-1784. Worcester, Mass.: D.A. Smith, 1980. https://www.americanancestors.org/DB2767/i/56488/252/1425779972. Page 252-253 of 99999, General Western Vermonters.
  2. The Hoosac Valley: its legends and its history, by Niles, Grace Greylock. Published 1912, New York : G.P. Putnam’s Sons. p224 [Archive.org]
  3. Memorials of a Century: Embracing a Record of Individuals and Events Chiefly in the history of Bennington, VT and its first church, by Isaac Jennings, pastor of the church; Boston:Gould and Lincoln, 59 Washington St., 1869. p66 [Google Books]
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