It is relatively easy to find ancestors in the United States from 1850 on because of the availability of Census Records on multiple genealogy websites. However, before 1850, only the heads of households were listed on the census, making it hard to find all the members of a family and very difficult to trace your family back for multiple generations through census records. That’s where wills and other probate records can be very helpful. I am about to share with you two examples of how I uncovered my ancestor’s families through probate records.
Henry T. Andrew
Henry T. Andrew married Sarah Ditto in Allen County, Indiana in 1842. When I started researching him, I found a lot of different Henry Andrews in this part of Indiana on different family trees online. Many of them were different from each other with dates, places, and names of family members, and most of them did not have any original documents to prove the information. So I dug into microfilms to find a Richard Andrew in Allen County that could have been Henry’s father (most of the online trees did agree that his father’s name was Richard), and I found the will of Richard Andrew, which lists the names of all of his children:
(I have uploaded the entire will here)
Richard listed all of his children in the will. First he listed his four daughters, to whom he left all of his personal property, then his five sons, to whom he left all of his real estate, “to be equally divided amongst them.” On the previous page he also stated that his oldest son, Henry Andrew, was to inherit the colt that his grey mare was currently pregnant with, and that his second son, Ely Andrew, was to inherit the offspring she would have in the following year.
Finding this will was really exciting because now I know the names of Henry Andrew’s parents, as well as his siblings, and when I see these names together, I know that is his family. For example, I found some of them in the same household in the 1850 census:
Asbury, Sally (Richard’s widow), Wesley, Sarah, and Thomas living in the same household in 1850, listed next to Enoch Turner, who also signed Richard’s will as a witness, and who I found through other records is most likely Sally (Turner) Andrew’s brother.
Richard Andrew’s will is the only record I have that lists all of the family members together. It is very unlikely I will find another record that defines this family so clearly.
Martha Ann Green
I did not know who Martha’s parents were, and for a long time I did not even know her maiden name, but eventually I was able to uncover the license for her first marriage. It stated that her maiden name was Martha Ann Green, and she and William Badley were married in the house of a William Green. It didn’t say how William Green was related, but I decided there was a good chance he was her father, since weddings often occur at the bride’s home or hometown.
I looked in the 1850 census, and there was a William Green living in Des Moines County then, but he and his oldest children were born in Vermont. That didn’t fit because Martha was born in Virginia. So I looked through Des Moines County probate records for William Green.
In legal terms, Richard Andrew died “testate.” This means that he left a will. In Martha Ann Green’s case, her father died “intestate,” meaning he had no will. But he still had property, known legally as an “estate,” left after he died that needed to be divided among his family and creditors. The record of this is known as an “estate file.” What I found was a microfilmed copy of a manila folder full of official-looking legal documents and small handwritten receipts and other papers. Here are two of the most useful receipts I found:
Sand Ridge May 4th 1853
Received of Isaac Jefferson Ad[ministrato]r nineteen dollars and eighty six cents. For two of the minor heirs Children of William Green Deceased Aaron and James Green Guardian Bryant Jefferson.
Sand Ridge May 3rd 1853
Received of Isaac Jefferson Ad[ministrato]r nineteen dollars and eighty six cents, for two of the minor heirs Children of Wm Green Deceased George and Lucinda Green Guardian Cooper Harris
These two papers give me the names of four of William Green’s children: Aaron, James, George, and Lucinda. It also tells me that these four were “minor heirs,” meaning they were under age 21, and not old enough to inherit their father’s estate, so they needed guardians. I later discovered that one of the guardians, Bryant Jefferson, was William Green’s wife’s brother, and uncovered William Green’s wife’s family through him.
Other receipts in the file indicated payment received for doctor bills and coffins for three people: William Green, his wife, and his daughter, including when the doctor visits occurred, and when the coffins were supplied. I had not been able to find burial records for anyone in this family, so this estate file is the only record I have of these deaths.
After discovering all of this, I looked back at the 1850 census record I had dismissed because the oldest family members were born in Vermont and not Virginia:
It was the same family! Aaron, James, George, Lucinda, and Mary, the daughter who died. Although it does say that the oldest family members were born in Vermont, I believe that was an error on the part of the census taker or transcriber, because I later found more evidence to confirm that William and Mary did indeed come from West Virginia (which was part of Virginia at the time).
Although Martha Ann Green was not mentioned in the estate file, her husband, William Badley, was paid money for an unspecified debt. Martha was not a minor heir like her siblings and was dependent on her husband, so there was no need for her to be mentioned in the estate file.
Where to Find Probate Records
I found a lot of information in both of these probate records that I would never have been able to find elsewhere. I highly recommend searching probate records for your ancestors. Probate records are not always easy to find like census records are. The names of all the individuals listed in the record are generally not indexed, only the name of the deceased. If you don’t know the name of the deceased or when he or she died, it can be difficult to find the record. What I do is first find the probate file index for the county I think the individual may have lived. There is often an index for wills and a separate index for estate files. I search both indexes for the surname in question (old-fashioned, page-by-page searching is sometimes required for this). I look in a broad timespan, about ten years before and ten years after I think the person would have died. I gather all of the people with the surname. Even if I think I know the person’s first name, others with that surname could be relatives. Then I use the indexed reference to look up the individual probate record. I look through the record to see if the information matches anything I know about the individual in question. I usually make a digital copy of the record and save it to my computer in case I want to look at it later.
I found these records on microfilm, but more and more probate records are becoming available online. FamilySearch has them available for many US states in “image-only” format. That means if you run a database search for your ancestor’s name on FamilySearch, you will find no probate records in the results. However, if you click through the menu to find records for Illinois, for example, you will find complete digitized microfilms for all of the counties in Illinois from 1819-1988. Other genealogy databases and state archive websites have similar image-only probate databases.
While I was writing this, I learned to my delight that this fall, Ancestry.com plans to add to its database “more than 170 million name-searchable images” of Will and Probate Records from the mid-1800s to 2000. That will be very exciting to see.