Friday, September 14, 2012

Records Prior to 1850

Question from Ann:
"Will you walk us through the steps to go about securing the info we will need from probate/wills prior to 1850?"

Ann was asking this question in reference to the comment I made in the Starting at the Beginning blog where I said to trace your first 4 generations thoroughly before going any further back than that. Once your line gets further back than 1850 things get harder because you no longer have census records that spell out all of the names in the household. At this point wills and probate are your best friends for determining relationships.

The first thing you need to do before you try and find a will/probate for someone is to narrow down when and where they died. That is why it is essential to thoroughly research your lines through 4 generations (possibly 5) first so that you will have the time frames and the locations that you need when you start going further back in time. There is no point in trying to find probate or deeds if you have no idea in which counties to search. There are some published will indexes but if you happen to be in a county where you have to hand search through the records you definitely want to narrow it down. The first place I check for wills/probate is the Family History Library (FHL) card catalog. The most confusing thing you will find are separate microfilms for wills, administrations, inventories, estates, guardianships etc. These are all probate records but they are split up into different document sets. Just for fun I looked at the FHL for Greene County, Georgia and here is what I found:

  • Index to records, 1790-1942
    author: Georgia. Probate Court (Greene County)
  • Index to estate record books, 1878-1813
    author: Georgia. Ordinary Court (Greene County)
  • Name index to loose estates, guardianships and wills 1786-1939 Greene County, Georgia
    author: Hageness, MariLee Beatty, 1942-
  • Estate records, 1790-1943
    author: Georgia. Probate Court (Greene County)
  • Wills, 1798-1914
    author: Georgia. Probate Court (Greene County
  • Inventories, appraisements and sales of estates, 1798-1893
    author: Georgia. Court of Ordinary (Greene County)
  • Miscellaneous loose court papers [Greene County, Georgia], 1798-1906
    author: Georgia. Superior Court (Greene County)
  • Administrators, executors and guardians bonds and letters, 1812-1916
    author: Georgia. Court of Ordinary (Greene County)
  • Wills, 1786-1921
    author: Georgia. Court of Ordinary (Greene County)
  • Court minutes, 1805-1893
    author: Georgia. Court of Ordinary (Greene County)
  • Court records, 1820-1836, 1859-1874
    author: Georgia. Court of Ordinary (Greene County)
  • Returns and divisions of estates, 1816-1851
    author: Georgia. Court of Ordinary (Greene County)
  • Greene County, Georgia, wills and appraisements and inventories 1787- 1798
    author: McMinus, J.
  • Greene County, Georgia wills, 1786-1877
    author: Turner, Freda Reid
  • Guardianships, 1804-1916
    author: Georgia. Probate Court (Greene County)
If you guessed that you will need to look through all of this then you guessed right. That is why it is so important to narrow down the date and place before you start. You do this by using all of the other records that you already have.

The reason probate is so important is relationships are usually spelled out. "My wife Matilda" "My daughters Catherine, Mary and Grace" "My daughter Patience and her husband William" "My eldest son John." You can start piecing the family together with this information.

The second record set you need to use are deeds. Many times relationships are also spelled out in deeds which is nice. The problem with deeds is that your time frame will be much wider than with wills and probate. For example, when I was trying to piece together the children of Jesse Lee [1735-1810] I had to look at the Bladen County, NC deeds from 1756 to 1787 and then Robeson County deeds from 1787 until 1810 (Robeson was formed from Bladen in 1787 and these dates cover Jesse from age 21 until his death). I then had to expand my search later than 1810 because I wasn't just looking for deeds with Jesse in them but also for all of his known children because they were deeding stuff back and forth to each other. Let's say there is a deed from Joseph Lee to Obedience Sterling "I give my sister Obedience a slave named Harney." If I have already shown Joseph to be a son of Jesse, I now have indirect evidence that Obedience is also a child of that Jesse. Just to complicate matters further, some of Jesse's children migrated to Marion County, Mississippi so deeds had to be checked there as well. Working with deeds is more time consuming than working with probate but just as necessary.

Whether probate or deeds, sometimes you will have to do research at the local courthouse. Not everything is microfilmed or indexed. If you get to this point, it is better to do the research in person yourself or hire someone locally that can do it for you. Unless you have very specific details like an exact date most courthouses will not pull the records for you unless you are there in person. You will have better luck with getting a courthouse to pull a deed than probate documents. If you see a deed listed in a deed index or abstract book that has the exact date and the principle names, you can write to the courthouse and ask them to pull it for you and you just might get lucky. If you send a request to a courthouse that says, "I think Jesse Lee died sometime between 1810 and 1816 in Robeson County. Can you find his probate packet?" Be prepared for a rejection letter.

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. I love your blog. You provide so many helpful tips and ideas.