What do you do when the paper trail for your ancestor ends? Jean Smart discovered the answer was to not give up. Jean went on a road of discovery and found that her 8x great-grandmother, Dorcas Galley, was accused as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts. Shortly after her trial in 1692, Dorcas appeared to vanish from historical records. Did this mean there was nothing more to be learned about the woman tried for witchcraft, or were there more secrets to discover?
As Jean Smart learned, sometimes the most insightful documents for an ancestor were created long after they were deceased. In the early 1700s, about ten years after Dorcas’ trial, the families of the victims started petitioning the government to restore their legal rights and receive restitution for their confiscated property. These petitions were valuable because they included a wealth of information about the accused witch, their family, and their losses. Dorcas’s daughter, Annis, applied for compensation on her mother’s behalf because Dorcas herself had passed away by that point. After enduring the trauma of the Salem Witch Trials, Dorcas’s family was finally offered compensation. Hopefully this restitution gave Dorcas’ children some solace for what she experienced in Salem.
Dorcas’s husband, William Hoar, also left a paper trail decades later. He died around 1691— which seemed to mark the end of records for him— but his probate was filed in five years later in 1696. It often takes years for probates to be filed and for estates to be settled. When the land was simply going to a son, the son may not have filed the will until his ownership of the land was questioned decades later. Oftentimes heirs were required to sign over their rights to the deceased’s property, so no one could come back years later to claim the property for themselves. In 1726, more than 30 years after William Hoar’s death, his family finally sold the last of his property. The deed was incredibly valuable because it named many of William Hoar’s children and grandchildren, including Jean Smart’s 6x great-grandmother, Annis King.
By looking at later records, we learned new details about Dorcas, her husband, and their children. They revealed compensation given to Dorcas’s family for the Salem Witch Trials, and the names of her children and grandchildren. Jump into your family history today and find out if your ancestors have later records —and more stories— just waiting to be discovered.
Tips from AncestryProGenealogists:
- Familiarize yourself with the history of the area around the time of your ancestor, and get to know the laws of the land. Remember, the laws are what generate the documents and those documents shed light on the lives of your ancestors.
- If you can’t find a traditional will or probate, check deeds. Especially if you know your ancestors owned property.
- Don’t be afraid to check index references for entries long after the ancestor’s date of death. Even if it turns out to be your ancestors’ grandson, it may state who originally bought the property and the person who was selling it. This could be valuable since it could give evidence of familial relationships.
- Remember that vital records and other important documents in New England were recorded by the town/city level of government. Therefore, those records are held in the town or city, instead of the county like most other areas of the United States.
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