In genealogy, it’s always a good idea to review what records are available for the specific locations we are researching. Probate records are no exception.
Probate records vary not only from state to state, but also from county to county. How one county arranged its records might not be exactly the same as a neighboring county. There are also surprising record collections that may be included – as well as some records that are missing.
Let’s take a look at how you can find exactly what’s available for a specific county in the Ancestry collection of U.S. Wills and Probate collection.
1. Go to That State’s Probate Collection
Use the Card Catalog to find the Wills and Probate collection for the state you’re interested in. (You can get to the Card Catalog by clicking on Search, then clicking on Card Catalog in the menu that appears.)
When you’re in the Card Catalog, enter the name of the state and “probate” in the title field. (If you’re looking for the Indiana probate collection, type Indiana probate.) If there’s more than one result, click on the one that’s titled “<state>, Wills and Probate Records, <years>”.
2. Choose Your County
On the right-hand side of the page, you’ll see a section “Browse this collection.” Use the drop-down menu to select the county you’re interested in.
3. Scroll Through the List
After you choose a county, you’ll see a list of the different types of records that are included for that county. Use it to familiarize yourself with what’s available. You can also click on a specific record group and browse the images. (I sometimes go into things like “Estate Index” or “Probate Index” and look for names that I’m not finding when I do a search.)
Learning the Dates for That County
The years listed for a state’s probate collection are the earliest year for any of the counties and the most recent year for any of the counties. It doesn’t mean that all counties are covered for all of those years. For example, Indiana, Wills and Probate Records, 1798-1999 means that there’s at least one county with records in the collection as early as 1798 and at least one county with records as recent as 1999. It doesn’t mean that each of Indiana’s 92 counties have records in the collection that span those years.
Gaps in the Records
Unfortunately, not all records have survived the test of time. Some have been lost due to mishandling or natural disasters.
If you look at the probate records available for Licking County, Ohio, you’ll notice that many of the records don’t start until 1875. Other records have a large gap between the 1840s and 1875. That’s due to a courthouse fire. Knowing that those records (1) no longer exist and (2) aren’t included in Ohio, Wills and Probate Records, 1786-1998, we realize that we’re going to have to take a different research approach for our ancestors who lived there. Not finding our ancestors in the collection doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t in the county; they could have been in the records that no longer exist.
Sometimes you’ll come across record types that you might not expect. In the records for Cass County, Indiana, you’ll find Coroners Inquests, Vol. 2, 1930-1934. Coles County, Illinois has numerous volumes of deeds, along with grantee and grantor indexes. Calhoun County, Arkansas includes soldiers and sailors discharge records, 1918-1945.
Exploring what is included in the Wills and Probate collections for your specific county will help you better understand what records are available and what records are missing, and may lead you to uncover some surprising record types.