Probate! Probate records are a great way to piece together a family pre-1840. Probate/estate files include wills, codicils, administrations, administrator bonds, guardianship bonds, petitions, inventories, appraisals, accounts, receipts, distributions and more. Many beginners will request a copy of a will not knowing that there may be many other associated documents. If they are told there is no will they don’t know to look for an administration. You want to get the entire probate/estate file. Sometimes a probate/estate file will be all together in one packet but sometimes the different documents will be scattered in different recording books. You need to know how that particular county handled probate. A probate file can be hundreds of pages long and span many years.
There are a couple of things you need to know. If the person wrote a will and then died he was testate and the executor named in the would have handled everything. If the person died without a will then he was intestate. An administrator would have been appointed by the court instead of an executor. Their roles were basically the same. If you can’t find a will for a person don’t give up. Start looking for an administration. If a widow held property, and the disposal of that property was not already laid out in her husband’s will, then you need to look for a will or administration for her. A great clue that the person’s estate was under an administration is finding an announcement in the newspaper.The administrator would place the announcement in case there was anyone in the community that had a claim against the estate (money owed). Administrators usually were some sort of family member but could have also been a close associate.
Wills and administrations can be a goldmine of information. Usually the spouse and children are named as well as descriptions of any real property that is being passed down. If there is an inventory you will get a sense of the person’s wealth. You might even get the married names of the daughters which will then lead you to their marriage records. I am working on a case like that now. Between the husband’s will and the wife’s administration a pretty complete family picture emerges. The couple had three daughters that had already died. The grandchildren from these three were named in a way that was very helpful, “…son of my deceased daughter…” with the full name of the daughter including married name. Since this is pre-1840 I would have never found the names of these dead daughters on a census record. The children of these dead daughters all died before death certificates so I could not have obtained the names that way. It would not have mattered though because the daughters had married and had different surnames. I would not have even known they were related if it had not been for the will and administration. You might even find exact birth and death dates, a marriage date, or burial location for the deceased which is always a nice bonus.
Of course you have to be careful with this because sometimes things aren’t exactly what they seem. Listed heirs may not be the children of the decreased. The wife listed may be the 3rd wife and not the only wife the man ever had. The children listed may not belong to the listed wife. The list of children may not be complete. There might be children that are deceased, children that have already received their legacy so they aren’t listed, or there might be children that have been cut out of the will. You still have to correlate what you find with all of the other evidence you have gathered to see the whole picture.
Here is an example of an inventory and appraisement from the estate file of Samuel Seegar of Madison County, Georgia, 1852. Samuel owned land and he owned slaves which made him fairly wealthy. He was only 42 when he died so he hadn’t made a will. He died intestate so an administrator was appointed.
Copyright © 2014 Michele Simmons Lewis