When looking for probate records, we know to go looking at the courthouse to find the wills of our ancestors. More frequently we use microfilm of these records at the archives or through the Family History Library. Care must be taken when using these records, for there will often be multiple copies. To understand why, we need to take a look at the process.
People who are ready to arrange for the disposition of their property after their death prepare their will and testament. Originally, these were two different documents. The will was used to handle real property (land, buildings, etc). The testament dealt with personal property, sometimes called “moveables” (clothing, furniture, tools, etc.). Over time these merged into a single document.
Since so many people were illiterate, they would often employ a scribe to write their wishes down. In addition to people who earned their living as scribes, attorneys and members of the clergy often served in this roll for the last will and testament. Once it was written, it would be signed by the testator in the presence of witnesses.
Once the testator died, it was the responsibility of the executor appointed by the probate court to present the will to the court, and to execute the wishes of the testator. The witnesses would appear in court to testify to the signing.
The court clerk would then record the will into ledger books kept as an official record. The original will would be kept in a docket folder along with all of the other original paperwork as the estate continued its way through the probate process. These papers are sometimes referred to as estate files.
When records were microfilmed, quite often it was the books that were filmed instead of the papers. Books were easy to manipulate. The docket folders/estate papers required a lot of manual labor. Each file needed to be opened, and all of the papers inside unfolded and flattened for filming. This was very labor intensive. Books could be placed on the stand and pages easily turned. In some localities, both were filmed; in others, only one. Be aware that if only one was filmed, the other may still exist in the original and be able to substitute illegible or damaged pages.
Another thing to remember is that people might prepare more than one will and testament over time. This is why the one filed with the court is called the “last will and testament.” The one prepared last (i.e., closest to the date of death) supersedes all previous ones. But what happens to the earlier wills? Sometimes they survive, in an individual’s papers or in the papers of an attorney. These may have made their way into archives and libraries, so look for them in manuscript collections.
In addition to these earlier wills, sometimes multiple copies of a will might be prepared for one reason or another. These duplicates also appear in manuscript collections. In addition, for one reason or another wills sometimes went unrecorded. Some courthouses have collections of these documents and sometimes you can find them in libraries and archives.
1. Consulate Records
Many of us have ancestors who spent at least some time abroad. Perhaps they were seamen, sailing from port to port to deliver goods to foreign ports and bring others back to America. Perhaps they were serving as missionaries in far-off lands. Whatever the reason, you may find information about them, including records of birth, marriage, and death, in the records of the State Department. These records are housed at the National Archives. In order to find this information, you will need to know the date and place where your ancestor was. With that, you can discover the consulate or embassy that served that location.
2. Local Censuses
We often use federal and state censuses as part of our research. But how about local censuses? In Massachusetts, for example, the cities and towns (except for Boston) are required to “annually in January or February visit or communicate with the residents of each building in their respective cities and towns and, after diligent inquiry, shall make true lists containing, as nearly as they can ascertain, the name, date of birth, occupation, veteran status, nationality, if not a citizen of the United States, and residence on January 1 of the preceding year and the current year, of each person three years of age or older residing in their respective cities and towns.” Accessing those records at town hall could provide a gold mine of information.
3. Fraternal/Benefit Organizations
These can be a rich source of information, even more so when dealing with immigrants. In the days prior to the widespread availability of insurance, many organizations were founded as mutual aid/mutual benefit societies to provide assistance in time of need. Many of these were founded by immigrant groups (such as the Irish and the Catholic Order for Foresters), and their records may provide information on the immigrant’s origins. The same can be true of other groups, such as the masons, who recorded the lodge where incoming members first joined, and other lodges he had been a member of. This valuable information can help you track the movements of your ancestors.
4. Ear or Cattle Marks
In many times and places, livestock was allowed to wander in communal areas. This mandated that people be able to identify their own livestock from that of others. Marks were made in different ways. Sometimes a pattern of cuts would be made in the ear. Other times, brands were used in the animal’s hide. This allowed owners to cull their livestock from a communal herd. The marks were proprietary, and were often passed from father to son. They could also be sold as part of a person’s estate.
5. Dog Licenses
Dogs have been the pets of humans for centuries. By the nineteenth century, licensing was often required in populated areas. How can dog licenses help you genealogically? Think of them as a specialized form of tax list. Dog licenses can provide evidence of where a person lived. They might even provide you with an exact address, which is especially helpful in areas where city directories were sparse. And, of course, you can learn more about the family pet as well.
The H.L. Hunley was a submarine built by Horace L. Hunely for the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Although it was only a small piece of the war, the Hunley changed the history of naval warfare. She was the first submarine to sink an enemy ship.
Built in Mobile, Alabama, the Fish Boat was shipped to Charleston, South Carolina on August 12, 1863. She sank for the first time on August 29, killing five crew members. She was raised and repaired. Six weeks later she sank again, killing all eight of her crew (including her builder). She was raised again, rechristened the H.L. Hunley and relaunched. On February 17, 1864, she made her first, and only attack.
The U.S.S. Housatonic was stationed at the entrance to the Charleston harbor as part of the Union blockade of the city. Hunley was outfitted with a spar torpedo, a a copper cylinder filled with 90 pounds of powder. This was attached a 22-foot wooden spar mounted on her bow. The barbed point of the torpedo stuck into the side of Housatonic when she was rammed by Hunley, and detonated when she retreated. Housatonic sank within five minutes.
After the battle, Hunley failed to return to base. She was never heard from again. Sailors from the Housatonic indicated that Hunley was only about 100 feet from their ship at the point of detonation, even though the armament was designed to be detonated from 150 feet away. Various theories were put forth as to her fate.
It would be a century before anything was seen of the Hunley again. An underwater archaeologist identified her location in 1970. An underwater diver physically found her in 1995. She was found only one hundred yards from Housatonic, under several feet of silt. She was raised in 2000, her crew still in their seats, and conservation began. In June 2011 she was rotated upright for the first time since she went down.
Yesterday, researchers announced that they have the final clues to solve the mystery of the Hunley. It appears that she was less than 20 feet from Housatonic when the torpedo detonated, and that the torpedo was still attached to the spar at detonation. This indicates that the crew may have been knocked unconscious by the blast and may have run out of air before awakening. Scientists are now removing the material encrusted on the spar and the hull that should provide the remaining evidence. (The Huffington Post has an interesting story on this)
The work of the scientists and historians is much like that of genealogists. Taking evidence and advancing theories based on current knowledge. The important thing to note, is that with each piece of new evidence, a new theory has been put forth. Being willing to drop preconceived notions in the face of changing evidence is critical for scientists, and just as critical for genealogists.
All too often, I have seen researchers who are more attached to family stories or their previous theories than they are to facts. When new evidence arises, they just don’t want to let go. Flexibility is one of the most important assets of a genealogist. Be willing to let go, and you will be far more successful in your research, and will be far more likely to find people who actually are your ancestors!
There has been a tremendous amount of discussion on the genealogy blogs lately about copyright. Part of this has been precipitated by greater awareness of the issue, as well as an ongoing legal action regarding a potential copyright violation appropriating information from a well-used genealogy website.
Copyright is a very serious issue, and one that all genealogists should be aware of. As researchers, it is critically important to cite your sources for information. This is even more important when you use text that someone else has already created. Quotation marks and references to the source are essential if you don’t want a lawsuit on your hands.
In addition to copyright, however, there are also ethical considerations. Appropriating someone else’s ideas may not be illegal, but it can certainly be unethical. At the very least, it can say a great deal about your character.
If someone tells you they are working on something, don’t pick it up and run away with it and claim the work as your own. If it is a subject you know a great deal about, consider a collaboration. Or, if you have already been working on the same idea and are further along, you at least owe the person a conversation about it.
Now sometimes a number of people come up with similar ideas at the same time. Different researchers, for example, might come across the same clue and start researching on their own with the intent of publishing an article or book. This is an unfortunately fact of life, and if nobody knows you are working on it, you can’t blame someone else if they found the solution and published before you.
As part of the research and writing process, we look for previously published information. This search usually reveals whether something is already in print. Thus you can see whether you have anything new to contribute to the conversation while referencing the previously published information.
On occasion, it may be possible to miss something. This happened to me recently in preparing an article. A colleague did a slightly different search on a CD version of the PERSI database and found an article published 50 years ago that I had not found. Examination of that piece allowed me to see that the original author did not follow the entire chain of evidence on all individuals named in the document, and left several identifications out, allowing me to continue working on my own article.
If, however, you discover that you have published something that is almost identical to someone else’s work, it behooves you to make a reference to that work, even if it is after the fact. The is very easy for electronic publications, such as blogs and websites, where changes can easily be made. Scholarly journals and magazines publish errata and corrections all the time.
Acknowledging that someone else has done similar work shows that you are an ethical researcher and author. We all miss things and make mistakes. Acknowledging them will enhance, not detract, from our reputations. And we will all be the better for it.
We asked and you answered! Last week we asked which regions and divisions of the United States do you have genealogical interest in (according to the U.S. Census Bureau). Don’t forget to check out our bi-monthly newsletter or Facebook page to take the next poll and see how you compare with your fellow genealogists.
Following are some recent posts from genealogical and history blogs that I found interesting and informative. I wanted to share them with you.
Dear Myrtle passed along an interesting story this week with ties to the movie industry. She showed as an article that starts as follows: “Family history is typically passed down through stories and photographs. But for sophomore Sierra O’Mara Schwartz, it’s broadcast in movie theaters across the world.” Sierra is the granddaughter of Jack O’Mara, the lead character in Gangster Squad. Sierra is quite upset that the movie producers changed her grandfather’s story so much that he changed from hero to villain. Her story is taking off on the internet. You can read more in Family history, gone viral.
The City Record and Boston News-Letter blog recently posted about a couple of interesting stories in the Boston Globe. One shows how historians have located the burial place of British soldiers from the Battle of Bunker Hill, under the gardens of some modern-day homes. The other talks about a silver mug that showed up in the state’s abandoned property division. It traces its provenance back to eighteenth-century Boston silversmith Andrew Tyler.
The inimitable Audrey Collins posted an interesting piece this week on the blog of The National Archives at Kew. It’s not the document, it’s the information reminds us that there is a great difference between records and the information contained within them. And oftentimes, the same information might be obtained from other sources when the most obvious does not work.
Michael Hait also talks about records in his Planting the Seed blog. He elaborates on the necessity of conducting a focused search. He also clarifies the difference between a broad survey of records and “random” searching. Perhaps his best tip is that one must “Analyze each of the results, identifying what information may be relevant to your goal and defining any follow-up research that you may need to conduct in order to meet your goal. . .” You can read more in the post In When you find a document that might be about one of your ancestors. . .
Finally, Randy Seaver found an interesting website about the census. In Check Out the Census Dotmap — Can You Find Your House? He tells us about a website that has created maps based on the 2010 U.S. Census and the 2011 Canadian census. There is one dot for every person enumerated in those two censuses, totaling 341,817,095 dots.
“It can be hard to stay on top of all the newest genealogy technology.” If you find yourself thinking that very thought, this conference could be just what you need. Mocavo is returning this year to Salt Lake City for RootsTech. The conference theme is “where families connect” and they mean this literally, it’s one of the premier conference in family history and technology. It’s an ideal genealogy hub where you can meet new people or run into old friends, all who share your passion for family discoveries. Plus, maybe you’ll learn a bit while you’re there.
Mocavo will also be there with free scanning services. Bring those documents you’ve had in your attic for years and share them with the genealogy community. Perhaps one of the dusty records you have could be the missing link for someone else’s research. You can bring any paper documents, photocopies of original records, paper family trees or other historical documents and we’ll scan them safely for free!
Now that I have your attention, here are some quick facts:
Who should attend?
New genealogists, experienced family historians, and anyone in between. There are classes for every skill level plus a Late Night at the Library. Can the researcher in you honestly turn that down?
Alright you’re sold, when and where?
March 21-23 2013 in Salt Lake City, Utah
If you want to read more about it check out Rootstech.org and don’t forget, if you get your tickets before February 2 you qualify for early bird pricing.
When you are there, don’t forget to come visit us in booth 513 to get your documents scanned, or for any questions you have, or to just have a chat! If you can’t make it this year, you can always live vicariously through us by following Mocavo’s tweets and Facebook posts.
From 1984 to 2003, Angela Lansbury entertained us Jessica Beatrice (MacGill) Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote. Mrs. Fletcher was a world-famous mystery writer. She hailed from Cabot Cove, Maine. A small town with what would appear to be the highest murder rate on Earth. During the course of her career she solved more than 270 murders, never letting a perpetrator escape (even when it turned out to be a friend).
J.B. Fletcher was a retired English teacher who started writing mystery books, eventually writing 42 titles. In each episode she was surrounded by friends and acquaintances. About halfway through the episode, someone is murdered, and Jessica would help the police to solve the crime. Often, her investigation was done in the style of the hero of one of her books.
Law enforcement officials usually arrest the prime suspect, who is never the murderer. Jessica talks with other suspects. Quite often a casual conversation reminds her of something, which leads her to the identity of the murderer. She would then confront the perpetrator, sometimes making up evidence in order to get a confession. In the end, the murderer confesses and is taken away by the police.
So what can Mrs. Fletcher teach us as genealogists? Well, the first thing is that if your ancestor lived in Cabot Cove, Maine, there is a good chance he or she left records in police files! (There is, in reality, no such town.) Jessica’s primary talent was observation. She paid close attention to the murder scene, often pointing out potential clues to the official investigators.
She then interviews people closely associated with the victim. She picks up bits and pieces of information from each, which she puts in place to start solving the puzzle. Often, she runs off to check on a final bit of information to confirm her deductions.
As genealogists, it is important to be carefully observant in examining each record. The slightest change in wording can make a tremendous difference. Missing punctuation in a transcription can turn a list of three names into a single name. The order of words can change the meaning. The exact wording can leave relationships open to interpretation.
Another major clue for Mrs. Fletcher often came from things that weren’t there as we as things that were. An object that should be somewhere is missing, or hidden where it shouldn’t be.
No single clue by itself solves the mystery for Mrs. Fletcher. She incorporates a wide variety of evidence, include the scene of the crime, interviews with suspect, and even casual conversations, as well as her own observations in general. The same holds true for genealogy. We must incorporate the evidence from many records to come to a solid conclusion.
I loved Murder, She Wrote for many reasons. Not the least of these is the fact that is showed a woman as the lead character. And Angela Lansbury was 59 when the series began and 78 in her last appearance as the character, proving that life doesn’t end at 40! And here’s a piece of Murder, She Wrote trivia for you. The role was initially offered to Jean Stapleton. But after nine years of portraying Edith Bunker, she did not want to do another series.
The National Archives and Records Administration is in charge of preserving the records that document our history. From the Charters of Freedom (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights) of the eighteenth century to the emails and digital photographs of the twenty-first, they use up-to-date preservation techniques to make sure that researchers of the future have access to our documented history. Who better to consult for tips about preserving your own family papers?
Fortunately for you, this expertise is easily accessed through the NARA website. The preservation section of this site provides a great deal of detail, not only about NARA’s preservation efforts, but hints and advice about how to preserve your own family’s materials.
An important part of the work of the archives is done by the conservation division. When records are transferred to NARA’s custody, the conservation division assesses their condition, works to stabilize materials to make them ready for access by researchers. They also prepare documents for digitization projects. A conservation group in Saint Louis deals with the records at the National Personnel Records Center, including more than 6 million military records damaged during the 1973 fire there.
The conservation division has also put together information to help you preserve your family treasures, including:
- Family Papers
- Photographic Materials
- Paper and Parchment
- Books and Scrapbooks
- Digital and Electronic Media
- Audio, Video, and Motion Pictures
Following is an example of advice from the website on safely mounting your photographs into albums and scrapbooks:
“The method you use to assemble scrapbooks, photograph albums or memory books can enhance the preservation of the items or can cause irreversible negative effects. Mounting with the following materials should be avoided: synthetic glue (white glue), rubber cement, pressure-sensitive tapes and films, staples, or hot glue gun adhesives. These materials have poor aging qualities which can physically damage and/or discolor paper and photographs. Albums with self-stick pages (“magnetic pages”) should be avoided as well due to the adhesive used on the mounting page.”
Visit www.archives.gov/preservation to learn more about preserving your family heirlooms to make sure they are available for many generations to come.
“If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
As someone who has been subjected to bigotry and prejudice my entire life, Martin Luther King, Jr., has always been a respected hero, a beacon of hope that when I leave this world it shall be better off for those who follow in my footsteps than it was for me and my contemporaries.
Now perhaps your ancestor does not have a national holiday named after him or her. But one thing you can say is that they persevered. Most of us in the western hemisphere are descended at least partially from overseas immigrants. And we are here because they persevered.
The earliest colonists arrived in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to a wilderness populated by the indigenous people. Because the technology level of the natives was lower than theirs, the Europeans incorrectly thought of them as savages. Despite the harshness of the climate, they persevered and survived. And despite the tribulations the Europeans put them through, the natives persevered.
In the nineteenth century, conditions were so oppressive that millions fled Europe. Despite the horrid conditions on board ship, and the uncertainty of life in the new world, the conditions were worse where they were. Although faced with certain prejudice and bigotry, there was no future where they were. So they came. And they persevered.
Many of us have ancestors who were brought here against their will. They may have been Scottish prisoners exported to the colonies. Or Africans ripped from their homes and sold into slavery. Although they did not choose to come here, they did their best, and lived their lives the best they knew how. They persevered, hoping for a better life for their children and grandchildren.
In the early part of the twentieth century, our ancestors lived through the War to End All Wars. From that they survived a devastating flu epidemic, only to have the bottom fall out of the economy during the Great Depression. Then came another war that engulfed the world. And our ancestors persevered.
The most important thing we as genealogists do is bring their stories to life. We remember them. And we talk about them. And make certain that their stories are told. Don’t stop in your research. As in the quote above, “you have to keep moving forward.” And keep sharing. And, if you are very lucky, one day, members of your family will tell your story.