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Volume 5, Number 20 Mountain Press, P.O. Box 400, Signal Mountain, Tennessee 37377, 1-423-886-6369 October 3, 2013
In this article we discuss probate records. It is so interesting the things you can learn about your family from this records. The information in a probate record can vary greatly, but they can give you a great window in your family history if they list heirs, inventory of estates, codicils, etc.
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James L. Douthat
At one time or another, we have all used the probate records looking for our ancestors. This is one of the primary sources in genealogy research. Frequently, we find a gold mine and sometimes just a deep hole. There is no real consensus on the manner and format of these records. Everyone is their own lawyer, at least in their own mind, when it comes to writing their last will and testament. During the early ages the “will” and the “testament” were two different documents, but by the time settlers were coming to America these two merged into one document and have remained so until today.
The will is a way of giving your property of good, chattels, credits and even the debts to someone that you wish to have them. Many of these wills are classic in their simplicity, “I leave to my wife [no name] all that I own.” Notice that she is not named and if there were no children, this was a safe way to dispose of all the worldly possessions. To find the wife’s name you will have to search further in to County Court Minutes that often mention the will and approve the Administrator or Administratrix. In some cases, she will have to give an inventory of his estate, especially if there is a lot of land attached or if her husband was a shopkeeper. There are probably other county records that can be examined. Make sure that you check the deed records, because if there was land then she will eventually have to dispose of it somehow. You can find where he purchased the land and then when she sold it or gave it away.
The real advantages to probate records is a listing of children. When a man disposes of his goods, chattel, etc., he should mention his children by name, but not always. He might say something like “to my two sons, etc.” or even “I leave to my grandson John, the son of my deceased daughter...” These are the holes that are left in the Probate records. It is ALWAYS best to check the original source and not just a transcription. If at all possible get a photocopy of that original to keep in your files. There may be something there that you might miss and in time this will be very important. Make sure that you check out the witnesses and any other names attached to the Probate.
Take extra care with any codicils that are attached. In one of my ancestors’ will it stated that he leaves each of his twelve children $10,000 in Confederate money and four slaves. The will was probated in May 1865, so it was worthless by the time they would have received the gifts. However, in a third codicil he mentions, as if he had forgotten it, that one grandson was to have the plantation which was well over 6,000 acres. This record tells a lot of history of the family which by their standards were wealthy at one time but left penniless in the long run, except the one grandson whose heirs still own a large portion of the plantation down to today.
Some wills are very simple and some are extremely complicated. There is one on my families’ side where the final will and settlement is contained in one whole book in the court house due to the size of the estate. When you own thousands of acres of land, iron mills, distilleries and a multitude of stores, blacksmith shops and factories you know it is complicated.
There is another side to these wills, however. I transcribed one will for a Tennessee man who had two daughters. Both of the girls were married and when the distribution was made he gave each girl property, but their husbands were to have control of this property. One girl received the town house and property while the other received the country house and property. Knowing that he needed to mention his wife, he willed to her the outhouse on the city property. Wouldn’t you love to know more about this family?
Most all of the estates in America can be found in the county were they are probated or recorded into the county records. These become part of the official records of the county at that time. When there is no will, then the courts have to take a different direction. A fairly large portion of the assets will go to the county and/or the state. Many times when there is no will, the family is left without much of anything from the deceased. In the early days, an inventory of the assets was presented at open auction and the family could purchase some of their goods and chattel back from the estate. Any proceeds from the sale would go to the county treasury.
Like all court records, examine the wills and testaments along with the inventories and settlements. Be sure to read the original source very carefully to discover all the tidbits.
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