Do you get ALL the information our of an ancestor’s will that you could?
You’ve read the will. You have identified what your ancestor owned. You have an idea of what type of wealth he had (or did not have.) You have identified a few family relationships.
What pieces of useful information have you possibly overlooked?
Important Information Found in Your Ancestor’s Will
Death Date of the Deceased
You can determine a range of time for your ancestor’s death by using the date the will was written and the date the will was presented to the court for probate. Your ancestor died after the date the will was written and before the date the will was presented in court for probate. On the outside of the will, the document usually has the person’s name and then the date it was presented into court.
James Harward wrote his will 6 January 1837. His will was recorded in Wake County during the November term 1840. This places James’s death between 6 Jan 1837 and Nov 1840. [James Harward died in Sep 1840.]
The standard language of the will typically states “I, [Your Ancestor’s name] of the State of North Carolina and the County of Wake…..”. The deceased was living in Wake County, North Carolina at the time the will was written.
An indication of what your ancestor owned and the type of wealth he had can be found in his will. A will was written to dispose of real and personal property according to his wishes. Hopefully, for you as the researcher, your ancestor spelled out the lands he owned or specific possessions. His possessions may be fairly standard household items, but the items can give you a glimpse into the household and the deceased’s occupation(s). The Surry County,North Carolina will of John Seagraves lists among his possessions left to his nephew John White hat maker tools. Among his trades, John was a hat maker.
Family Relationships (This is where things get fun…..and sometimes confusing!)
Ancestors commonly named family members in their will. When James Harward refers to his “wife Rachel Belvin”, that’s pretty straight forward. When George Harward refers “my son Caswell”, again that’s pretty clear.
A will where your ancestor lists out his/her children can be an indication of the children’s birth order beginning with the eldest and ending with the youngest. Caution: This does not always hold true! Use this type of information as a guideline for further research.
If a deceased described one of his heirs as a “minor” or an “infant”, this means the heir is under 21 years of age. This does not indicate the heir is a young child or baby, though that could certainly be true. The description of the heir as such gives you clues to a birth year range for that heir. For example, if John is described as a minor in his father’s will written in 1840, he was under 21 in 1840. Therefore, John was born after 1819 and before 1840. [Tip: If you find minor heirs listed in a will, look for guardianship bonds and accounts for that heir.]
What if a known child of an ancestor is missing from a parent’s will? Was he a black sheep in the family? No, not at all. If a child is not mentioned in the will, he/she may have left the area for parts unknown. A father may have already bestowed a child’s inheritance on them prior to his death. In this case, wording as found in George Harward’s will may be found: “having made previous advances to my other childern I decline giving them any more of any estate that shal be left at my death…”. While frustrating not to have those children named, at least you know to begin looking for other children of the deceased.
But sometimes, family relationships are not quite so clear or hold clues to find other documents concerning your ancestor.
James Harward states in his will:
“It is my wish that Catharine Belvin daughter of my wife Rachel have and I hereby bequeath her one Feather bed and Furniture.”
From the wording of this bequest, Catharine is James’s step daughter. That would indicate that this is at least a second marriage for Rachel.
Did your ancestor sign the will or did he make his mark? Even if your ancestor was unable to write his name, his mark can be very helpful for comparison to other documents attributed to him.
Your Ancestor’s Associates
Who was mentioned in your ancestor’s will? Who was named the executor? Who were the witnesses? Are they known family members? Are they close friends? Are they neighbors? As you analyze your ancestor’s will, answer all of these questions. These are the people who were close to your ancestor. They interacted together. Their lives crossed and where they crossed will give you clues to relationships and individuals for further research. Know the identity and relationship to your ancestor of everyone mentioned in the will.
Whew! Beyond the basics there is a lot of information to be found in an ancestor’s will.
What did you find in YOUR ancestor’s will?