Poor Ancestors are not Invisible: Part 3, Debtor Records

People become indebted to others for a variety of reasons. Business ventures fail. People become ill or injured preventing them from working and paying bills. It can be difficult to manage expenses when crops fail, or unexpected events damage the family home or businesses. Regardless of the reason, much can be learned from the misfortunes of our ancestors adding context and understanding to their plights.

As with Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I provide examples from my own research to illustrate how to use these records to provide a richer description of our ancestors’ lives.

Insolvent Debtor’s Petitions
Individuals unable to pay their debts, petitioned the Court of Common Pleas to discharge them from further liabilities if they surrendered property or other assets.[1] Records often include a description of the debt, names of the involved parties, occupation and residence of the debtor, and personal statements. 

Gardner Pettit (d. 1833)
Gardner Pettit lived in Chester County, Pennsylvania in the early 1800s and was poor. He received discounted taxes,[2] at least two of his children’s education was paid for by the County, [3] and he and a couple of his children received poorhouse outdoor allowances on several occasions.[4] Gardner died in 1833 in the Poorhouse in East Bradford.[5] Because he only appeared in the 1820 census,[6] his family composition is incomplete, and the cause of his poverty unknown – until he filed for insolvency in 1824.

On 24 June 1824, at the suit of Jonathan H. Schofield for a debt of $16.75, Gardner Pettit provided the following information in his petition permitting greater insight into the circumstances contributing to his poverty:[7]

Petitioner states that he has a wife and seven children, that he is day laborer and never had any other way of maintaining his family, and that he is frequently unable to work from sickness and lameness.

Gardner Pettit’s insolvency in 1824 begins to explain why in the same year, his father-in-law, Samuel Doughton, stated in his will that Gardner is to receive $1 while his other heirs received far greater:[8]

…that my daughter Hannah Pettit shall not be paid to her husband Gardner Pettit nor to his use, but it is my will that my executor keep my said daughter Hannah share in his hand and pay it to herself as he finds she has need for it, but in case my said daughter Hannah should die before her share is all used by her it is my will that such remainder shall be kept by my executor for the use of her children and paid to them as they severally come to the age of twenty one.

It is my interpretation that Gardner’s father-in-law had affection for him, hence the $1 bequeath. I don’t believe the small amount was meant to be an insult, which some may have interpreted based on the incomplete picture provided by the will. Rather, Samuel Doughton appears to have been forward thinking by providing legal and financial separation of his bequeaths to ensure a portion of his wealth was passed on to his grandchildren rather than be immediately confiscated by Gardner’s creditors. Indeed, should Gardiner enter the poorhouse, administrators frequently confiscate assets such as inheritances and pensions to pay for received support.[9]

Civil Court Cases
Matters of debt are tried in the Courts of Common Pleas, and court documents can provide additional insight into the lives of our ancestors. Like the insolvent debtor records discussed previously, early case documents often include the names of involved parties, their occupations and places of residences, and other related facts to the case. 

Thomas McMasters (b. early 1700s)
Readers of my blog will certainly recognize the surname McMasters. Mary McMasters (1755-1832) married my 5x great-grandfather William Boyd (1753-1836) in 1778.[10] I’ve struggled to discover Mary’s parents suspecting the McMasters were poor just like the Boyds. Thomas McMasters is the frontrunner candidate for Mary’s father. The debtor cases against Thomas provides insight into his life and additional clues that someday may help to connect him to Mary (McMasters) Boyd and other McMasters families in the area.

For reasons unknown, Thomas McMasters was frequently unable to pay his debts. Two court cases in the 1750s were found in Bucks County, Pennsylvania where he lived. 

  • 1753, June 14 – William Montgomerie v. Thomas McMasters, yeoman [farmer] for £20 debt,[11] and
  • 1756, June 17 – Lawrence Growden and Langhorne Biles, executors of Jeremiah Langhorne v. Thomas McMasters, yeoman of Wrightstown, Bucks County for £14 debt.[12]

His financial difficulties appear to have persisted throughout his life as he was marked as “poor” in Warwick Township on Bucks County taxes in 1775. [13]

While it is still early in my research, the 1753 case may offer some clues about family connections for Thomas McMasters across the Delaware River from Bucks County in Hunterdon County, New Jersey (See the court document below). The plaintiff in the 1753 case, William Montgomerie, lived in Amwell Township, Hunterdon County, New Jersey.[14] William Montgomerie’s attorney, Benjamin Price practiced throughout the state of New Jersey and appears to have principally litigated matters of debt.[15] Also of note in the excerpt below is that Thomas McMasters also appears to have used the name “Thomas Masters” a potential clue to interpreting future documentary evidence.

The hint toward Amwell Township also begins to explain other research previously gathered. More specifically, a John McMasters (d. 1768) and a Mary (McMasters) Search (b. 1735 and presumably John McMasters’ daughter) resided in Amwell during this time.[16] Multiple autosomal DNA matches to descendants of Mary (McMasters) Search are shared across those who descend from Mary (McMasters) Boyd, including myself. Preliminarily, it is quite possible that this Thomas McMasters is somehow related to John McMasters and Mary (McMasters) Search. Indeed, I suspect that Thomas may be the son of John McMasters, the brother to Mary (McMasters) Search, and the father to Mary (McMasters) Boyd. Only time and additional research will help build the case.

Summary
Like the other records discussed in the “Poor Ancestor” blog series, debtor records can help us better understand our ancestors beyond knowing birth, marriage, and death dates. I find we often don’t turn to court records because they are frequently unfamiliar to most of us and not all court details are indexed and easily available. Yet, when all other records leave you short of breaking through that brick wall, debtor records can provide new clues to research and new insights into your ancestors’ lives. 

Locating Court of Common Pleas records can be challenging, and the best advice is to consult county historical or genealogical societies for guidance. Some courthouses may be helpful, too. Accessing these records differ by county. For example, Chester County has online indexes[17] while Bucks County has some years indexed and available only in the research library at the Bucks County Archives.[18] I’ve found some records on FamilySearch.org but be advised that these are often not the complete set of records and case details are often found elsewhere. 


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[1] Chester County, Pennsylvania, “Insolvent Debtor’s Petition, 1724-1850”, Chester County Archives, West Chester (www.chesco.org, accessed 24 April 2022).

[2] Chester County, Pennsylvania, Tax Discounts 1785-1823, Gardner Pettit (1810), New London, Book 1810-1815, p. 21; citing Chester County Archives, West Chester. And Chester County, Pennsylvania, Tax Discounts 1785-1823, Gardner Pettit (1815), Sadsbury, Book 1816-1823, p. 232; citing Chester County Archives, West Chester.

[3] Chester County, Pennsylvania, Poor School Children Records, 1810-1842, Evelina and Samuel Pettit (1819), West Caln, p. 197; database with index, Chester County Archives (www.chesco.org, accessed 10 April 2022). And Chester County, Pennsylvania, Poor School Children Records, 1810-1842, Evelina and Samuel Pettit (1820), West Caln, p. 285; database with index, Chester County Archives (www.chesco.org, accessed 10 April 2022).

[4] Chester County, Pennsylvania, U.S., Book of Monthly Report of the Steward, 1825-1827, February Report 1824: Gardner Pettit, Warwick Pettit, and Enoch Pettit of West Caln (1825, January 25), p. 3. And Chester County, Pennsylvania, U.S., Directors of the Poor Outdoor Allowance Books, 1810-1827, Hannah Pettit, Enoch S. Pettit, and Warwick Pettit (1825-1826), Volume 1, p. 95.

[5] Chester County, Pennsylvania, U.S., Poor House Admissions Index, 1800-1910, Gardner Pettit (1833), Book RQS, Item 20080; database, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 10 April 2022); citing Chester County Archives.

[6] 1820 U.S. census, Chester County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Sadsbury, p. 248, image 1 of 4, Gardner Petito [Pettit]; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 10 April 2022); citing NARA microfilm M33, roll 96.

[7] Chester County, Pennsylvania, Insolvent Debtor’s Petitions, 1724-1850, Gardner Pettit (14 June 1824), filed 13 September 1824; Chester County Archives, West Chester.

[8] Pennsylvania, U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1683-1993, Samuel Doughton (1825), West Caln, image 436 of 537; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 10 April 2022); citing Chester County Register of Wills, p. 163, Will Book O, Volume 14.

[9] Bourque, Monique (2003), “Populating the Poorhouse: A Reassessment of Poor Relief in the Antebellum Delaware Valley,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of the Mid-Atlantic Studies, 70(4), pp. 397-432.

[10] U.S. Presbyterian Church Records, 1701-1970, Willm Boyd and McMasters (1778), Newtown Presbyterian Church, Baptisms, Births, Marriages, 1769-1812, p. 20, image 22 of 148; database with image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com, accessed 14 March 2022); Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[11] Court of Common Pleas, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Montgomerie v. McMasters (1753, June quarter sessions), Newtown.

[12] Court of Common Pleas, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Langhorne v. McMasters (1756, June quarter sessions), Newtown.

[13] McNealy, T.A. and F.W. Waite (1982), Bucks County Tax Records, 1693-1778. Doylestown, PA: Bucks County Genealogical Society, p. 63.

[14] New Jersey State Archives, Early Land Records 1650-1900s, Richard Heath from unknown (1739, April 21), Amwell, Hunterdon County (William Montgomrie, owner of adjoining land), Book M, Part 2, (WJ Surveys, Folio 197, PWESJ0004); New Jersey Department of State, https://wwwnet-dos.state.nj.us/DOS_ArchivesDBPortal/index.aspx, accessed 29 April 2022.

[15] See for example: New Jersey State Archives, Supreme Court Case Files 1704-1844, George Okill v. Justus Gans (otherwise Justus Gantz of Amwell), attorney, Benjamin Price for Okill (1754), Hunterdon County, Case 28516; New Jersey Department of State, https://wwwnet-dos.state.nj.us/DOS_ArchivesDBPortal/index.aspx, accessed 29 April 2022.

[16] New Jersey State Archives, Supreme Court Case Files 1704-1844, Benjamin Howell v. John McMasters, tenant in possession (1761), Amwell, Hunterdon County, Case 17018; New Jersey Department of State, https://wwwnet-dos.state.nj.us/DOS_ArchivesDBPortal/index.aspx, accessed 29 April 2022. And “Public Member Trees,” database, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com, accessed 29 April 2022), “Wilson120411” family tree by rwilson7135, profile for Mary McMasters (b. 1735).

[17] Chester County Archives, West Chester, Pennsylvania: https://www.chesco.org/192/Archives-Records.

[18] Bucks County Archives, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, https://www.mercermuseum.org/collections/research-library/bucks-county-archives/. And McNealy, T.A. (2008), Bucks County Criminal Papers 1697-1786, Court of Common Pleas, Doylestown, PA: Bucks County Historical Society.

Published by Rick T Wilson, PhD

As the Family Pattern Genealogist™, I detect and analyze patterns in genealogically relevant data using DNA and other traditional records.

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