Probate Inventories and the Material World of Wayne
Updated: Feb 26
By: Tessa Payer, Museum Specialist at the Wayne Museum and Staff Member of the Passaic County Department of Cultural & Historic Affairs
On this day in 1807, Richard Van Riper died. While, in life, we have him to thank for granting his son Uriah the property on which the Van Riper-Hopper House would be built, we can also thank him for the legal documents left behind after his death, which can help illuminate life in Wayne during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. One of these documents is a probate inventory, a list of Richard’s property compiled only a few weeks after his death, likely for tax-related purposes. Though the inventory mainly focuses on property of value, reviewing it can still help us to visualize the material world of the Van Ripers, and other farming families living in Wayne ca. 1800.
The first, and most striking part of the inventory are the seven enslaved African Americans owned by Richard Van Riper: Harry, Prince, Mary, Annich, Hannah, and “one Negro girl dini”. Their labor supported the Van Riper’s farm and lifestyle and can be read throughout the will; they tended the livestock that would be listed in the rows after them, they washed clothes in the washtubs noted on the second page, and they planted and harvested the bushels of corn, oats, and wheat valued later on. Richard Van Riper’s death brought a particular brand of unease to the lives of the enslaved community, as they faced the prospect of separation through inheritance or sale. We do not know what happened to these seven individuals: only two, Annich and Harry, appear in Richard Van Riper’s will. Annich was later purchased by Uriah Van Riper. She lived and labored at the Van Riper-Hopper House for the rest of her life.
The presence of enslaved people on Richard Van Riper’s probate inventory serves as an example of the broader enslavement of African Americans in what would become Wayne. According to tax ratables, which compile the heads of household for a town, the average enslaver in Passaic County had one or two enslaved people during the late 18th to early 19th centuries. However, the Van Riper’s home of Saddle River Township, portions of which would become Wayne, would later report “the highest percentage of enslaved people to property owners of any future Passaic County township,” suggesting that the high population of enslaved people at the Van Riper’s farm was not completely out of the norm.
Large portions of the inventory also deal with the goods and livestock produced at Richard Van Riper’s farm, which can provide an example of the area’s agricultural output in the early 19th century. The inventory lists five horses, over 20 cows, ten pigs, 22 sheep, and 18 chickens. These can be paired with material items on the
inventory to elaborate on the Van Ripers’ productivity. The horses and “yoke of steers” were likely used for farm labor, pulling one of the two ploughs or wagons to prepare fields for planting or transport goods to market. The “tub of smokd beef and meat”, “1 churn”, and “2 raw hides 1 calves skin” suggest multiple uses for cows: meat, milk, and leather. Richard Van Riper owned “2 wool wheels”, “4 spinning wheels” and “one loom”, likely for processing wool from his “14 sheep and eight lambs”. Crops listed on the inventory include bushels of corn, oats, and wheat, as well as hay, grain, potatoes, and likely honey, as per the “one bee hive” noted on the first page. A variety of farm tools were used in day-to-day labor, among them dung forks, pitchforks, crow bars, scythes, draw knives, shovels, a crosscut saw, hatchets, and barrels. Tools listed on inventories not only show the items that defined material life on the Van Ripers’ farm, but can suggest the types of agricultural work that occurred onsite; planting, harvesting, tree-cutting, woodworking, and more.
Figure 3-5- Richard Van Riper owned a variety of farm tools, including draw knives (top, from Colonial Williamsburg), spinning wheels (bottom right, from the Wayne Museum), and a butter churn (bottom left, a later example from the Wayne Museum).
These tools were most often seen in the hands of enslaved people like Harry and Annich, forced to labor on the Van Riper’s farm and complete the work listed above. Peter Hasenclever, traveling along the Passaic River in 1764, commented on the state of agriculture and enslavement in the region; “the Dutch are settled throughout this fertile river valley. The roads are lined with fields of prosperous-looking farms, in some cases of hundreds of acres; they are able to maintain such large properties by the use of slaves. I saw dozens of them hoeing in the furrows, men, women, and children, often singing in a deep mournful-sounding way.” This was likely a common sight on Richard Van Riper’s property, as the prosperity of his 145-acre farm relied on the forced labor of enslaved African Americans.
The remaining items in the inventory can help us visualize the interior of Richard Van Riper’s home and speak to his material wealth. He owned two beds with their own sets of bedding and curtains, valued at $35 each; these would have provided sleeping space for Richard, his wife, Elizabeth Mead, and possibly their children or guests. A rocking cradle
listed in the inventory helps to illustrate Elizabeth’s successive pregnancies, as the Van Ripers had seven surviving children. (Figure 6) Clothing and extra bedding were likely stored in “1 cubbord with linen” and “3 chests”. “One bed stead and cord” valued at $0.75 and “1 bed with beding” valued at $1 may have served as secondary bedding, potentially for the Van Ripers’ children or the people they enslaved.
The Van Ripers were also prepared for polite company. For dining and socializing, any one of Richard’s three tables and 15 chairs could have been utilized. The family had seven pewter platters and twelve plates, which could be arranged on one of the tables when in use, then
returned to the kitchen dresser. (Figure 7) Though the Van Ripers lived in a relatively rural area, the inventory shows their access to imports and fashionable goods, and thus their involvement in the fashionable rituals of the day, including tea drinking. Elizabeth Mead likely oversaw social gatherings featuring the “2 brass tea kittles,” earthen and pewter tea pots, “one tea cannister”, “six [silver] tea spoons”, and “5 china cups & six saucers” that are listed in the inventory. (Figure 8)
Though the Van Ripers obviously didn’t have access to the variety of electric appliances we have today, their kitchen was still fully stocked with numerous cooking accouterment. Inventoried items include various kinds of kettles and pots, ladles, skimmers, a colander, a trivet, pans for fish, frying, and pie, pails and tubs for washing, a coffee mill, a toaster (Figure 9), a gridiron, a flesh fork, and a spit. As she managed the Van Riper household, Elizabeth Mead would have been familiar with these tools, and likely oversaw work in the kitchen. However, it was enslaved African Americans who would have handled these objects the most, as they prepared meals and completed household tasks for the Van Riper family.
Remaining items of note in the inventory include “1 lott of books”, an umbrella, “one side saddle”- likely utilized by Elizabeth Mead or her daughters- as well as a musket.
Richard Van Riper’s house and farm do not survive today, but Richard’s inventory remains an incredibly useful source for understanding not only the Van Riper property, but other Wayne properties in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Though they mainly list items of value, they can provide a glimpse into the material world of Wayne’s early farming families.
The Wayne Museum operates under a shared services agreement between the Township of Wayne and the County of Passaic. The County manages and operates the Wayne Museum on the Township’s behalf through the County’s Department of Cultural & Historic Affairs.
A true and perfect inventory taken on the twelfth day of May one thousand eight hundred and seven of all the goods and chattles rights and credits of Richard Van Riper decd of Preakness Township of Saddle River County of Bergin and State of New Jersey. Manuscript. A copy of this document was accessed at the Wayne Museum.
Bedell, John. “Archaeology and Probate Inventories in the Study of Eighteenth-Century Life.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 31, no. 2 (Autumn 2000): 223-245.
Alemy, Alexis; Boyce, Eryn; Craft, Rachel; Harshbarger, Patrick; Lee, James. "Slavery at Dey Mansion Washington's Headquarters and Its Passaic County Environs: A Research Report on Archival Sources, Material Culture and Interpretive Themes." Hunter Research Inc, March 2021.
Matthews, Christopher N. "The Black Freedom Struggle in Northern New Jersey, 1613-1860: A Review of the Literature." Montclair State University. Prepared for the Passaic County Department of Cultural & Historic Affairs. July 2019. https://www.montclair.edu/anthropology/research/slavery-in-nj/.
You can learn more about Annich's experience at the Van Riper-Hopper House here!