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Volume 7, Number 4 Mountain Press, P.O. Box 400, Signal Mountain, Tennessee 37377, 1-423-886-6369 February 25, 2015
In this article we discuss the after death records. It is amazing how many records are generated after someone's death. We will start with the wills in this article. Always try to obtain a copy of the original will. You never know when an abstractor left out an interesting tidbit about your ancestor.
James L. Douthat
AFTER DEATH RECORDS
As researchers, we are always trying to find new records for our ancestors. Many focus on the finding records about their ancestors while they were alive, but don’t overlook the records that follow their death. The first and foremost record that follows their death is the will, if they had one written. The format is generally about the same as they wish all their just debts paid out of the proceeds of their estate, which hopefully will supply enough. Then the wife is generally taken care of with the household goods and some means of support, or she is commended to one of the children for care and keeping. If there is anything left, then it is divided among the children. In some cases the children may have already gotten their portion and that is mentioned at this time. This is usual for the sons that marry earlier. The father gives then a “grub stake” to get started with some land for a home. The oldest son is sometimes left to the end as he will inherit the bulk of what is left.
The will is a very real source of information as it normally includes the names of the children and the wife. Hidden in the corners of the will you can sometimes find little tidbits of information that are not found anywhere else in your research. There might be mention of a child that is crippled or mentally challenged and needs the care of another sibling. Perhaps a portion of the farm has been given to a religious body for a church building. Even in some cases, you can find that a graveyard has been established on the property. My advice is to always look for a copy of the original will, rather than an abstraction. I know many writers take the short cut of abstracting the will when they transcribe them. I have done the same thing. Use the abstractions as a valid index to the original, but then obtain a copy of the original regardless. Someone who is abstracting the material does not include all of those little tidbits that you will find most interesting.
Reading wills is a task that many don’t enjoy as there is a sameness about them. However, I transcribed the first will book of Hamilton County, Tennessee a number of years ago and found one that could provide the basis for a unique novel. The man had two daughters and he left one of them the “country” place and the other received the “city” place. Nothing unusual there, but what followed was the interesting part. Each of the girls were married and he left the property to the girls, but each of their husbands was in charge of the property. I know that in the mid to late 19th century women were not thought of as capable of owning property. In hundreds of other wills I have read, the woman were given full rights to hold the property and manage it fully. Made me wonder what the girls had done that the father did not see them fit for this? The real topper of this will was his disposition to the wife. He left her only the “outhouse”! Why the outhouse? You can read all manner of thoughts into this one. I’ll leave it at that.
Another source of “After Death Records” is found in the court records of the county via the probate office. This is the office in the county that takes these wills and finalizes them. It is here that the final distribution of the wishes of the deceased are taken into consideration. There may or may not be some changes in the final settlement. Along with the will, the court most of the time appoints a committee to draw up a document giving details of each item the deceased left behind, i.e. “One silver spoon - a short length of chain - 4 bedsteads and furnishings, etc.” These are then frequently put up for public auction. One of the most surprising things about this situation is that the members of the family will have to purchase them back if they want them. The wife was always given first chance, but she still had to buy her “stuff” back. It is said that when the auction took place, if the widow started to bid, all others just backed off and let her have it at whatever price she was willing to pay.
These court records constitute “official records” and they are usually considered the most valid. However, they are sometimes steeped in legal jargon, so be careful in your reading. Make sure that you spend a little time with the dictionary to discover the meaning of these words. First, it will increase your word power, and second, it will give you a sense of understanding of what was happening.
There are other records generated after a person's death that we will explore later. For now, concentrate on the reading the wills and finding a copy of the original.
Jefferson County, TN
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