Dobbs v. Prothro

Yet again, I have solved another family history mystery and as usually happens upon solving one mystery, another mystery makes its ghostly presence known. Allow me to present The Case of Dobbs v. Prothro. The Dobbs in this case is David Judson Dobbs (1835-1877), my great, great-grandfather. The Prothro(s) being his brothers-in-law, Wilson and Gustavus Prothro – the brothers of my great, great-grandmother, Martha J. Prothro (1835-1928). The evidence that I found researching this provided me with a clearer understanding of the particulars of a lawsuit to which my great, great-grandparents were a party. In addition, it helps to answer a question that I raised in a previous post regarding the whereabouts of my Civil War-era ancestor in the final days of said war.

In March 1875, the Prothro brothers sued D.J. Dobbs in Cobb County Georgia for the sum of $370. In 2021 dollars that would be about $7500. Although Dobbs recognized the debt, he claimed that his wife, Martha was owed a much larger portion of her legacy under her father’s will. She was the daughter of Evan Prothro. Evan died in the winter of 1864 in South Carolina. He was a plantation owner and slaveholder in the Barnwell district of South Carolina near present-day Aiken. He left a standard will that called for dividing his estate among his nearly dozen children to “share and share alike.” His sons Wilson and Gustavus were made executors of his will. Ten years later, we see that the brothers sued Dobbs for the $370 amount.

According to the records of the Georgia State Supreme Court (Atlanta, July term, 1875), Dobbs admitted the indebtedness as claimed by the brothers, but argued that as a “set off”, the brothers, as executors of Evan Prothro, were indebted to Dobbs a much larger amount than the plaintiffs demanded, in the right of his wife, who was the daughter and legatee of Evan Prothro, under his will. As to what that amount was, it was not alleged in his plea.

In the first trial, the jury found for the brothers and the amount sued for. Dobbs then asked for a new trial on the grounds that “the verdict was contrary to the evidence, contrary to the law, and for alleged error in the charge of the court to the jury.”

A new trial was denied, and Dobbs then appealed the ruling to the Georgia State Supreme Court. The higher court ruled that there was no error in the judge’s instructions to the jury or in denying a new trial. The court “charged the jury, in substance that to entitle the defendant to set off the legacy claimed under the will of Evan Prothro against the plaintiffs demand, he must plead and prove that the estate of Prothro was solvent.” In other words, if there were no debts to be paid, then there was no reason why the executors should recover money sued for but rather to pay it over to the defendant as part of his distributive share.

According to the record, Dobbs did not present evidence regarding his claim of his wife’s share as a legatee under the will of Evan Prothro. Apparently, his side did present a witness who stated that they did not know of any debts owed by the estate. Since it is difficult to prove a negative, the testimony of this witness did not convince the jury to rule in favor of Dobbs.

The ruling by the Supreme Court stated that the general rule is “that a legatee under the will of a testator is not entitled to be paid his or her legacy without the assent of the executor, or unless the estate in his hands is in such a condition as that a court of equity will compel his ascent there to.” In layman’s terms, my great, great-grandfather lost his case.

I am neither a lawyer nor an accountant, yet I get the feeling that he thought that he had been cheated but he could not prove it.

Now you might be asking at this point why my great, great-grandmother did not sue her brothers. Why is the action on the part of her husband? Two words – “women’s rights.” As a woman, Martha Prothro Dobbs’ rights in the 19th century were much different than compared to what women enjoy today. As her husband, it was his right to sue on her behalf. Another question that begs to be answered is “why after ten years does the estate still have outstanding debts?” It is not clear from the record why that is. My guess is it is because of the old bug-a-boo that plagued many Reconstruction-era Southerners, unpaid taxes.

That aside, I think I may have found the answer as to why my ancestors may have thought they were cheated. I recently located the will and the probate records for the estate of Evan Prothro (1790-1864) located in the South Carolina, U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1670-1980.

There is a History Between The Two…

Before looking at the details of the probate record for the estate of Evan Prothro, it is important to put things into context. The Dobbs and Prothro families had an association going back to at least to the time immediately following the American Revolution, with both families then living on both sides of the Savannah River, the border between Georgia and South Carolina. David Dobbs, father of D.J. Dobbs, was one of the men responsible for inventorying the estate of Evan Prothro’s grandfather who is known as Old Evan Prothro, and who died in Elbert County Georgia in 1822. David Judson Dobbs was born in Marietta Georgia and Martha Josephine Prothro was born in the Barnwell district in South Carolina. She was the eighth out of 12 children of Evan Prothro and Sally Hickson. D. J. and Martha were married in South Carolina in 1857 and after the birth of their first child they moved to the Dobbs plantation near Marietta Georgia in 1858. At the start of the Civil War, Martha’s siblings were scattered from South Carolina, all the way to Louisiana.

In May of 1864, Sherman’s Army invaded Georgia from Eastern Tennessee. By 4th of July, the town of Marietta had fallen to the Yankees. According to the First Hundred Years, a Short History of Cobb County, in Georgia by Sarah Blackwell Gober Temple (1935), families in Cobb County who had the means to leave and refuge elsewhere, did so; some going to other counties in Georgia, and some to South Carolina. Evan Prothro died 6 December 1864 in what is now Aiken County South Carolina. According to evidence found in the probate records for Evan’s estate, we can place D.J. Dobbs and family in South Carolina in January 1865. Odds are that they went there earlier as refugees from Sherman’s Army before the fall of Atlanta and the infamous March to the Sea. In January of 1865, the Carolinas campaign had started, and Sherman’s was advancing on Columbia, the South Carolina capital. Folks in the Aiken area thought that they, like Augusta, Georgia, were being spared the devastation that was happening in other parts of the state. Unfortunately, they were wrong as by early February, Sherman Army was in their area. While resting his troops in Savannah back in December, Sherman reportedly declared, “When I go through South Carolina, it will be one of the most horrible things in the history of the world. The devil himself could not restrain my men in that state.”

Where There is a Will…

There are 145 images that make up the probate record for the estate of Evan Prothro. Within there lies some answers to some family history mysteries; specifically, where D.J. Dobbs and family went as Sherman’s forces wreaking havoc through Georgia and South Carolina and why D.J. Dobbs might have felt he was cheated. And there is also an item in the records that adds another mystery to the mix. There are also some items the seem deplorable and almost lacking an excuse.

The will itself consists of only a couple of pages. There are a dozen pages of inventory followed by a list of payments made to legatees. This is then followed by ledgers showing cash received in & cash paid out. It appears that things kind of came to a halt in the immediate aftermath of Sherman’s decimation of South Carolina in 1865 because the ledger entries do not begin until early 1866 and they end in 1872. As such, there is nothing in the probate record as far as I can tell regarding the 1875 lawsuit.

The inventory, listed as an appraisement of the perishable property of the estate of Evan Prothro, is dated January 9, 1865 and the very first item is a section is entitled List of Negroes. There 22 individuals listed with name, physical status, age and then a price for example “Prince slightly ruptured 38 $4000”, “Fuller sound 21 years old $4500”, and “Jim rheumatic 60 years old $400”

Despite this list that places a price on human lives, there is no indication that there was an auction or a sale for the slaves in the January action. However, later in the records there is a receipt showing that one of the individuals listed in inventory, the 21-year-old man named Fuller, listed as Negro Boy Fuller, was sold at auction on March 1 1865 for a price shown as $3544.59 taxes included. Remarkably, at this late hour, they are still selling people and they still paying taxes to the Confederate States of America. That is absolutely insane considering that the surrender at Appomattox was less than six weeks away. This auction probably took place in either Barnwell or Aiken.

Missing from the will is any mention of giving of slaves as property to the heirs of Evan’s estate. In other times this was a common practice. Also, there is nothing in Evan’s will granting freedom to his slaves; another common practice.

In the auction of Evan’s property, the bulk of items on sale were bought by Wilson Prothro, one of the executors. D.J. Dobbs bought a few items also, and this is what squarely puts him and his family as refugees in South Carolina.

It was when I focused on the items that my ancestor bought at auction of his father-in-law’s estate, that I saw something that did not look right. D. J. purchased a padlock for $11, one lot of upper leather (15 lbs. @ $20 per lb.) for $420, one lot of sole leather (20 lbs. @ $27.50 per lb.) for $540, a mule named Bully for $475, a centre lamp for $23, 1 doz. plated forks for $85, and a knife box for $1.

It was the $11 padlock that caught my eye. When I asked Google, “how much was 1 dollar worth in 1865”, I was told that is $15.98. Therefore, the price paid for that padlock was equivalent to $175 in today’s money. That is one expensive padlock.

When we get to the accounting pages, it becomes clear exactly what is going on. All the receipts for payments to the legatees shows that they were paid in Confederate currency. In early 1865, one Confederate dollar was worth 3 cents USD.

The ledger shows that on February 1, 1865 D.J. Dobbs and wife were paid $1542 in Confederate currency. That is the equivalent of $740 is 2021 dollars. Within only few weeks those Confederate dollars would be totally worthless.

Given that the total amount that D.J. paid at the estate sale was $1555, it appears that he converted the nearly worthless cash into 35lbs of leather, an old mule, a padlock, and some items for the home.

Then on February 5 there is a very strange entry showing that DJ Dobbs, Prothro, & Prothro were paid $775. On the receipt it shows the word “my” struck out and replaced with “our” as in “our distributive share of said estate.

It shows the payment being made to D.J. Dobbs and the two men who would sue him ten years later. Neither the ledger entry nor the receipt gives any indication of why this amount was paid to the three men or how they divided it amongst themselves.

We do not know exactly what happened next. The Battle of Aiken (also known as the Action at Aiken) occurred on February 11, 1865, as General William Tecumseh Sherman made his way across South Carolina. Despite the Confederate claim of a minor victory, the Union army caused a terrible amount of destruction in the area.

On May 23rd, six weeks after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, D. J. Dobbs was taken prisoner of war at Greenville, South Carolina. A few days later, he was paroled in Georgia after being made to swear allegiance to the USA.

Eventually the family made it back to Marietta, however, we do not know the fate of the old mule named Bully, the padlock, or the 35lbs of shoe leather. Given the circumstances it might be easy to see why my great, great-grandparents might have thought that they were cheated. The moral of the story is… Do not rebel against the United States of America unless you are willing to pay the consequences.

Piece by piece, our improvident grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers exchanged the land for their epic fornications…

Tennessee Williams, Street Car Named Desire

4 thoughts on “Dobbs v. Prothro

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