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The structure of property ownership in the Danish West Indies was in principle very similar to that which existed in Denmark at the same time. Most of the land and anything else of value was owned by a small upper class, which in the West Indies mainly consisted of plantation owners and merchants.

The rest of the population did not own very much and the enslaved laborers even less. The greatest difference from Danish conditions was that during slavery one also could own people and thus bequeath them to one’s heirs or take out a loan against their value in the same way as with other property.

Property in land, houses and enslaved laborers was registered for tax purposes in tax records and land registers. That way you can follow the successive owners of a particular property. It was recorded in mortgage books and records if an owner took out loans in his or her property, whether it was a plantation, a ship or an enslaved laborer. Thus you can get an insight into not only the land (with plantations and houses) a person owned, but also other types of property. Finally, information about the property and possessions of deceased individuals was registered in the probate documents, where you often get an even more detailed insight into personal belongings, such as teaspoons, shirts and books.

An example of how to use archives containing information on property matters in relation to genealogical research could be the story of the free colored businesswoman Maria Elizabeth Yard (c. 1789-1851 ). You find the story of Maria Elizabeth Yard described here. The tax records for St. Croix 1805-1806 show that Maria lived at Fiskergade nos. 1 & 2 in Christiansted and owned five enslaved individuals: a woman, a boy and three girls under the age of 12. Similarly, it appears from the mortgage records of the town bailiff of Christiansted for the years 1838-1841 that in 1839 Maria inherited the properties nos. 1, 2 and 3 in Fiskergade and a considerable annual pension of 1,100 rix-dollars. Other information about Mary’s life is found in censuses and the like (cf. the article on the sources of personal history).

The most important groups of sources

Land lists and land registers, 1688-1915

  • You will find the following in land lists and land registers
    Land lists (called land registers from 1755) were the annual tax returns from the islands’ property owners for calculating personal and land tax. They can help you investigate the ownership of property in the city or in the country in a given year. They also state the number of people who lived on the property: men, women, children, employees and enslaved laborers. Free persons are usually listed by name and perhaps with other personal data. The names of the enslaved are not stated (these can be found in the land tax register forms/slave lists). The location, size and type of crops and production of the plantations are also stated.
  • This is how land lists and land registers are structured and organized
    The land lists and land registers are archived separately. Both are organized geographically by island and then chronologically. The following volumes have been preserved:

    • Land lists:
      • St. Thomas: 1688-1694, 1697-1749, 1751-1752, 1754.
      • St. Jan: 1728-1739.
      • St. Croix: 1742-1754.
    • Land registers:
      • St. Thomas: 1755-1915.
      • St. Jan: 1755-1915.
      • St. Croix: 1758-1775, 1780-1783, 1786-1806, 1814-1915.

Land lists and land registers are divided geographically by quarters, (rural areas) and towns, respectively, under each year. The sequence is different under every geographical area, e.g. from east to west or from west to east, but the order is usually the same for long periods. From about 1718, the land lists have an alphabetical index arranged by the owner’s first name – in the land registers after the owner’s surname. From about 1800, the plantations in each district are listed under their owner’s name. After this, the name of the plantation also appears with the owner’s name. Please note that some plantations change name, new ones are established and some disappear through mergers and parceling out. The land lists are written in Dutch (Latin) or Danish (Gothic), while the land registers are written in Danish (Gothic). A detailed list of plantations on St. Croix is available here.

  • What you should know when using land lists and land registers
    • When: You should know the period you are interested in
    • Where: You should know the location of the property you want to find, i.e. on which island and in which quarter or town
    • Owner: It will make your search easier if you know the name of the property owner

Probate documents, 1671-1903

  • You will find the following in the probate documents
    The probate documents were the legal documents that were drawn up when a free person on the islands died. You will find information in these documents about the deceased person’s property and heirs. The information about property can be very detailed and can include everything from whole plantations with enslaved laborers and buildings down to pots and pans.
  • This is how the probate documents are structured and organized
    It is not easy to work with the West Indian probate documents. They consist of different types of probate records that were written at different points during the processing of a probate case, and they also change over time. The following guideline is divided into two periods:

    1. Probate documents before 1755
    2. Probate documents after 1755

Probate documents before 1755 are not subdivided by type of document but only according to whether the deceased was employed in the West India and Guinea Company or was a private citizen, respectively, and then chronologically. In the following, probate documents after 1755 are subdivided into the three most important groups of probate documents in prioritized order, as well as a fourth group that could also be usable. These four groups are first subdivided geographically by island and then chronologically.

Subdivision into types of records after 1755:

  1. Registers of inventories and appraisals
    You should start by examining these records, which register the beginning of a probate case, i.e. the death and the assets in the estate of the deceased. In addition to the sequence of cases, some records contain an alphabetical index by the name of the deceased. Each probate case was assigned a number that is repeated in the types of documents described below.
  2. Probate Court records of proceedings
    These records register the court sessions in the probate proceedings in chronological order. The court sessions dealt with paying off debts in the estate and the recovery of outstanding debts.
  3. Registers of probate letters
    The probate letter was the final document in the administration of the estate. It documents the winding up of the estate and distribution among the heirs.
  4. Case papers of the Probate Court, individuals
    This group contains documents that were presented or used when the probate case was processed, e.g. bills, loan certificates and deeds. Unlike the three records above, the case papers concerning individuals are organized in four sub-groups, sub-groups I, III and IV of which are alphabetical by the name of the deceased. Sub-group II is not organized
  • What you should know when using the probate documents
    • When: You should know the date of death of the person whose property you want to investigate
    • Who: You should know the name of the person whose property you want to investigate

Registers of mortgages, 1736-1907

  • You will find the following in the registers of mortgages
    You will find information about mortgaging of property on the islands in the registers of mortgages. They give you an insight into what a person owned during his or her lifetime. The mortgaged property can be anything from whole plantations and ships to individual enslaved individuals. Enslaved laborers were regarded as property and could thus be used as collateral.
  • This is how the registers of mortgages are structured and organized
    There are two types of mortgage records:

    • Registers of mortgages
    • Documents recorded in court.

Both are chronological. Alphabetical indices are preserved for some of them, organized by name of person and/or place name.

  • What you should know when using the registers of mortgages
    • Who: You should know the name of the mortgaged property (plantation) or the person whose property you want to investigate
    • When: You should know the year(s) you are interested in