Needham History Center & Museum

Winding Down the Affairs of Jeremiah Daniell

Death and taxes may be inevitable, but when Jeremiah Daniell lay dying, he could rest easy that his estate would be protected for his young family.  The whole town would make sure of that.

I spend a lot of time reading wills and probate inventories.  Wills show all sorts of things about how people lived and what they valued, and about their personal relationships (Hmmm – he disinherited all of his sons…)  Some people were doing fine – others were just getting by.  As is still true today, land was the most valuable possession, followed by the house and the livestock (farmers, right?).  Every item, however small, was listed and appraised – down to the pile of scrap iron that everyone seemed to have in a corner of the barn.  Wills, because they have to be so exact and specific, create an intimate personal portrait of what and who the person valued most.  They are one of the few opportunities we have to encounter people as individuals.

Take, for example, the Will of Jeremiah Daniell of Needham.  Jeremiah Daniell was born in the Lower Falls section of West Needham in 1744, the son of Joseph Daniell and Experience Newell (also of Needham).  In 1772 he married Abigail Fisher, daughter of John Fisher and Mary Fuller, whose families lived in Charles River Village.  He lived in the house built in 1720 by his grandfather, Joseph – a small clapboarded saltbox that still stands at the corner of Washington and Oakland Streets in Wellesley.  Daniell was a Corporal in Capt. Aaron Smith’s Needham West Militia Company on April 19, 1775.  In 1779 he was part of a committee appointed by the Selectmen to determine the compensation paid to militiamen who served in the War.  He was elected Selectman himself in 1783.  He was apparently a “glass-setter” as well as a farmer, and according to Clarke’s History of Needham, probably made a decent living replacing the school windows that were systematically broken by Needham’s unruly schoolchildren.

Detail from the Last Will and Testament of Jeremiah Daniell, yeoman of Needham, deceased 21 April 1784
Detail from the Last Will and Testament of Jeremiah Daniell, yeoman of Needham, deceased 21 April 1784.

Jeremiah Daniell made his will on 22 March 1784, “being attended with Bodyly Infirmities, and the many Examples of Mortality set before me putting me in mind of my latter End to prepare therefor.”  He was 39 years old.  He had a wife, Abigail; three sons – Jeremiah Jr (11), Josiah (7), and Timothy (4); and a daughter, Betsy (2).  Abigail was seven months pregnant with their fifth child.  Daniell died a scant month later, on 21 April 1784 and was buried in the Needham Cemetery. One month after his death, on May 22, his wife bore a second daughter, called “Nabby” (Abigail). 

Daniell named his widow Abigail as Executrix of his will, and as manager of his estate until his sons’ majority.  She was entitled to the profits from the land until that time, or until she remarried, and had the authority to sell personal property and even (as a last resort) some of the land, “in case she my said Wife or any of my Children should be visited with sickness and thereby put to Extraordinary Charge and Expense.”  For herself, Abigail was given outright the Chaise, one-third of Jeremiah’s personal property, and a share in the income of the estate. This was unusually generous – usually the widow was given a maintenance share that terminated when she remarried.  Eldest son Jeremiah was given two shares of the estate upon reaching twenty-one; Josiah would receive one share, plus two oxen to be taken out of young Jeremiah’s share.  Timothy was given one share, and Betsy was given a half-share.  The new baby would receive one share if a boy, and a half-share if a girl.  “Shares” were a percentage of the estate’s value.  The land itself (it went without saying) would remain in the hands of the eldest surviving son (here, Jeremiah Jr) and his heirs, but each other child was owed a part of the value of that property.

Daniell’s estate was evaluated at about L 665. The probate inventory was made by Michael Metcalf, Robert Fuller Jr, and Enoch Fisk.  The Inventory was necessary because of the complexity of the division.  An impartial valuation guaranteed that each “share” had a documented value when the time came for division, especially since the children were all quite young. 

Daniell was not the richest man in town, but the probate inventory of his possessions shows that he was rather comfortable. He owned his homestead (land plus the house and barns) and two other valuable pieces of land nearby.  A large wardrobe and a silver watch.  There was a lot of furniture – six beds; dresser chests; 5 tables and 15 chairs; and an array china, pewter, brass furnishings.  Not to mention the livestock, farm tools, food put by, cheese-making equipment, and other materials.  The estate was profitable enough for the income to be partitioned between three sons and provide dowries and/or income for two daughters.  He gave his wife a life income even in the event of remarriage, as well as the chaise – a costly vehicle used for comfortable conveyance.

Abigail remarried in 1788 to John Wilson of Dedham. She retained her guardianship of the children, and of the estate on their behalf. She also retained the property that she was given outright.

Jeremiah Jr turned twenty-one in 1795, at which time the responsibility for managing the property fell to him, on behalf of his minor siblings. The Probate Court directed Jonathan Kingsbury, Enoch Fisk, and Edward Jackson to oversee the division of the property, so that each child had their apportioned share. A year later, Jeremiah bought out his siblings – that is, he paid them the fair market value of their shares in cash, enabling him to keep the house and acreage intact.  The terms of this sale were overseen by William Fuller and Isaac Shepherd, acting as guardians of the interests of Josiah, Timothy, Betty, and Nabby, who were still minors.

It is said that it takes a village to raise a child.  In the 18th century, it certainly took a village to oversee a child’s interests. The men who assessed the value of the Daniell estate, partitioned it, and oversaw the distribution were not random bystanders. They either were at the time, or had recently been, town officials.  Michael Metcalf was the town’s Assessor in 1784 when he took part in the probate inventory; Robert Fuller was the Town Clerk. Jonathan Kingsbury was both town Treasurer and Selectman in 1795, and William Fuller was Justice of the Peace. Moreover, several were neighbors with their own land not far from the Daniell’s farm, so they had a good idea of its value.  The degree of oversight does not imply that the widow Abigail was unable to manage the property. Setting aside the issue of women’s legal agency, the involvement of third-party overseers was assurance to the Daniell family that the children had fair play, and to the rest of the town that their own assets were safe, here and hereafter.

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum