What if I told you there was a record that could walk you through your ancestor’s house and tell you what he (or she) owned, room by room? What kind of tools he used in his business? How much livestock he owned? Would you be interested?
Or what if there was a record that told you who your ancestor trusted to look after his or her family’s welfare after his death? Or that not only spelled out relationships, but gave you unique insights into the family dynamics?
And if you were researching your African American slave roots, would you like to see a record that actually named your ancestor, rather than listing them as a tally on a slave schedule?
This week Ancestry launched a collection that holds the potential to do just that for you. With probates (and more) from 50 U.S. states, here is a sampling of some of the types of things you might find for your ancestors.
Was Your Ancestor a Member of the $1 Club?
Sometimes our ancestors expressed their displeasure with the behavior of their descendants through their wills. Paul Revere’s last will and testament states, “It is my will that my Grandson Frank who now writes his name Francis Lincoln, eldest son of my late daughter Deborah, shall have no part of my estate except one dollar which is here bequeathed to him.”
To add insult to injury, he gave Frank’s $500 share to his brother Frederick. Ouch.
George Pullman, the famous industrialist who revolutionized rail travel with his Pullman sleeper cars, was a little more generous with his twin sons, although he was clear in his will that he didn’t approve of their behavior. “In as much as neither of my sons has developed such a sence [sic] of responsibility as in my judgment is requisite for the wise use of large properties and considerable sums of money, I am painfully compelled as I have explicitly stated to them to limit my testamentary provisions for their benefit to trust producing only such income as I deem reasonable for their support.”
He ended up giving them $3,000 per year, although the snub didn’t curb their behavior. Their dissipated and philandering lifestyles landed them in the newspapers on a number of occasions, and, sadly, they both died within a decade of their father when they were only in their 20s.
Pullman also tipped his hand when it came to what was important to him. He left his daughter Florence “the island in the river St. Lawrence, now owned by me and known as one of ‘The Thousand Islands,’ on which I have constructed an edifice known as Castle Rest, intended for the summer home of my mother and used by her as such to the time of her death, together with all the structures on said Island … and the furniture and pictures and other articles in said Castle Rest including the portrait of my mother painted by Eastman Johnson. It is my special wish that my said daughter shall each year keep open said island and Castle Rest from not later than the twenty-sixth day of July, which was my father’s birthday, until after the fourteenth day of August, which was my mother’s birthday for the accomodation [sic] and enjoyment of all the descendants of my parents who may wish to visit and remain at said Castle Rest for the period during which it is so open or for any shorter time within said period.”
A Tour of the Household in Inventories
Inventories can give us a revealing look at our ancestor’s lifestyles. This 1850 inventory from the estate of William Dezendorf of Kings County, New York, lists his possessions room by room. The description of the front parlor offer a cozy look into his home.
Enslaved African Americans
Because slaves were viewed as personal property, you may find your enslaved African American ancestors named in someone’s will or estate inventory. This inventory for the estate of Timothy Hopkins of Camden County, Georgia, that was submitted on 11 September 1833 lists the slaves and appears to have them broken down by family group. You can see that most groupings on the page are headed by a male and the values are consistent with values placed on slaves, with young men the highest, then women and children.
Search for Your Ancestor’s FAN Club
While only the testator is indexed in this collection, there is much more to be found. Your ancestor may be mentioned in the estates of his or her FAN Club (friends, associates, neighbors) in accountings, in records of estate sales, as witnesses, or even as administrators or executors.
- While estate files can include names of witnesses, heirs, and other associates, only the name of the testator has been indexed.
- While there is a field to include a death date and place in the search form, keep in mind that some of the records may not list a date or place of death. And for some of the records, Ancestry has inferred the death date and place based on the probate location. For the death location it is only inferred to the state level, so specifying a particular county, and then choosing Exact (or Exact/Adjacent) will turn up no results. In addition, the date of a court record (for example, an accounting) may be years after the original probate.
- Use the Any Event field to enter a more precise probate location and date. That said, keep in mind that there may be probates in any location where the testator had property, so don’t skip hits because the location doesn’t match exactly, particularly if the person was wealthy and may have had property in other jurisdictions.
- Once you’re through examining a probate packet, you can return to the main search form for that state by clicking on the title in the gray bar above the image.
- The probate process can go on for many years, depending on the estate and provisions in the will, so be flexible with dates.
- In jurisdictions where records were parsed out into different record groups, as opposed to bundled into one probate packet, there may be more than one record for your ancestor, so be sure to look at all the possible references to your ancestor in the search results.
You never know what you’ll find in this rich collection, so dive right in and start digging in these records that are pure gold in terms of genealogical details and insights. Find out what mattered to your ancestors—and who mattered to your ancestors.
To learn more about Probates, check out The Legal Genealogist, Judy Russell’s new Ancestry Academy class on The Records of Death: Using Probates in Family History (premium class, requires Ancestry Academy subscription or an Ancestry All Access membership).