Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 242 – Genealogy Research Questions

Podcast host: Lisa Louise Cooke

June 2020

In this episode we discuss how great genealogy questions and research plans can help you accomplish your family history goals. Then I’ve got ideas you can start using right away to manage distractions effectively. 

Download the episode mp3

Watch Elevenses with Lisa live on the Genealogy Gems YouTube channel on Thursdays at 11:00 AM Central. After the live show you can watch the video replay at your convenience. You’ll find the show notes for Elevenses with Lisa here on the Genealogy Gems website.

Research Plans and BSOs

On March 26, 2020 I started producing a new weekly YouTube Live show called Elevenses with Lisa. Originally it was in response to the fact that COVID-19 had created a situation where we were all staying home. For me that meant that all of my in-person speaking engagements for the foreseeable future had been cancelled or rescheduled. I saw it as an opportunity to take on a new challenge, which is live video production.

I love doing the live show on YouTube. It’s definitely different than doing a podcast. It’s more interactive which in turn makes me more animated. And obviously it’s a visual medium so it provides an opportunity to show as well as tell.

Of course, sitting down to watch a video is more stagnant than listening to a podcast. When you’re listening to a podcast you can still move about and get things done if you want. So, I’m sure there are some of you who haven’t seen the Elevenses with Lisa show yet. That’s why in this episode I’m bringing you a few highlights of the YouTube Live show in audio form.

In episode 2 of Elevenses with Lisa I talked about the importance of creating research questions and plans. This was the first presentation in a series called How Alice the Genealogist Avoids Falling Down the Rabbit Hole. If you want to stay on track and achieve your genealogy goals, a research plan is really essential.

Then in the third episode I talked about “Bright Shiny Objects”, also known as BSOs, that can distract you from your research plan. I shared the techniques I use to deal with them so that I don’t miss a good thing while still staying on track.

If you watch the show this will be a refresher for you, and if you haven’t gotten around to watching it, I hope it will inspire you to join us in the future, as well as help you improve your genealogy research today.

You will find the complete notes for the topics discussed in this episode (and more) in the show notes web pages for these episodes of Elevenses with Lisa:

Episode 2 – how research questions and plans will improve your genealogy research.

Episode 3 – dealing with Bright Shiny Objects that threaten to get you off track.

  

Get the Entire “Alice” Video and Handout

If you enjoyed this portion of How Alice the Genealogist Avoids the Rabbit Hole and you’re a Genealogy Gems Premium member, I have the entire presentation edited together in one complete video class for you in the Premium Videos area at genealogygems.com.

how Alice the genealogists avoids the rabbit hole

Premium Members get the entire video class plus 7 page downloadable handout.

There you can also download the complete handout which is ad-free and 7 pages long. It includes not only research plans and BSO management but also creating supportive research environments both on your computer and mobile devices.

Become a member here.

GEM: June Weddings

Monday, June 15.

For centuries, the month of June has been the most popular choice for weddings.

free British family notices wedding photo

All about June Weddings – Genealogy Gems

One of the purported reasons was that some hundreds of years ago, this time was just after May’s annual bath, so the happy couple and the guests were about as clean as could be hoped.

With the ensuing advances in plumbing and overall hygiene, dressy weddings are readily staged year-round, from simple civil ceremonies and backyard or back-to-nature vows, to elaborate church functions. In normal years, there are more than 2.2 million weddings across the nation.

The median age at first marriage for women is now 28 years— up six years since 1980. Men are now an average age of 29.8 when they take their first vows.

Sources:
June weddings, accessed 2/3/2020  
Number of marriages, accessed 2/3/2020  

Getting Your History Digitized

Our family’s history comes in many forms, and some of them over time can become obsolete. I shared in this episode my continuing progress on my own project of converting the rest of my old home movies that are in a variety of formats (8mm, mini DV, High 8, and VHS.)  I use Larsen Digital and have been extremely pleased with the service and results. The folks at Larsen Digital have put together special and exclusive discounts for Genealogy Gems listeners and readers. Click here to learn more and receive exclusive discounts and coupon codes.

Read more: 5 Steps to Digitizing Your Old Negatives

5 steps to digitizing old negatives

Learn how to tackle the task of digitizing your old negatives at Genealogy Gems


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Download the Show Notes

Download the Show Notes PDF

 

40 Million New Genealogy Records To Help You Locate Your Family History

In December the genealogy records website Findmypast.com released new and exclusive historical records that highlight significant life events of the past.  According to the the company, more than 40 million new records are included.  Here are all the details from their press release:

LOS ANGELES (Dec. 17, 2012) – “The number of records released offers findmypast.com’s users a staggering amount of new data, ranging from exclusive United Kingdom records from as early as 1790 to modern-day vital records from the United States that will add new layers of information for researchers,” said D. Joshua Taylor, lead genealogist for findmypast.com, “Findmypast.com is constantly expanding our collections with thousands of new records being added each month. Moving into 2013, we look forward to increasing our record offerings to include rarer, more exclusive materials, in our dedication to provide the most comprehensive family history resource available.”

Many of the new records that can only be accessed through findmypast.com offer a unique glimpse into history. The Harold Gillies Plastic Surgery set, dating back to World War I, contains fascinating records of some of the world’s first restorative plastic surgery, while the White Star Line Officers’ Books include officer records from the Titanic.

Newly added employment and institutional records including the records of the Merchant Navy Seaman (aka the Merchant Marines) provide unique color to family history that can’t be created from just names and dates. Other record sets include probates and wills, such as the Cheshire Wills and Probates, which often offer crucial clues to link North American family trees back to the United Kingdom.

The full set of exclusive records recently released by findmypast.com includes:

United Kingdom Court & Probate

  • ·   Cheshire Wills and Probate
  • ·   Suffolk Beneficiary Index

United Kingdom Education & Work

  • ·   Cheshire Workhouse Records, Admissions and Discharges
  • ·   Cheshire Workhouse Records, Religious Creeds
  • ·   Derbyshire Workhouse Records
  • ·   Match Workers Strike
  • ·   White Star Line Officers’ Books

United Kingdom Military

  • ·   Army List, 1787
  • ·   Army List, 1798
  • ·   British Officers taken Prisoners of War, 1914-1918
  • ·   De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honor
  • ·   Grenadier Guards, 1656
  • ·   Harold Gillies Plastic Surgery – WWI
  • ·   Harts Army List, 1840
  • ·   Harts Army List, 1888
  • ·   Manchester Employee’s Roll of Honor, 1914-1916
  • ·   Merchant Navy Seamen (aka Merchant Marines)
  • ·   Napoleonic War Records, 1775-1817
  • ·   WWI Naval Casualties
  • ·   Paddington Rifles
  • ·   Prisoners of War, 1939-1945 British Navy & Air Force Officers
  • ·   Prisoners of War, 1939-1945 Officers of Empire serving in British Army
  • ·   Royal Hospital, Chelsea: documents of soldiers awarded deferred pensions, 1838-1896 (WO 131)
  • ·   Royal Hospital, Chelsea: pensioners’ discharge documents 1760-1887, (WO 121)
  • ·   Royal Hospital, Chelsea: pensioners’ discharge documents, foreign regiments, 1816-1817 (WO 122)
  • ·   Royal Hospital, Kilmainham: pensioners’ discharge documents, 1773-1822 (known as WO 119 at the National Archives)
  • ·   Royal Navy Officers Medal Roll, 1914-1920
  • ·   War Office: Imperial Yeomanry, soldiers’ documents, South African War, 1899-1902 (WO 128)
  • ·   WWII POWs – British held in German Territories

In addition to the exclusive records sets, this recent release includes additional records from the United States, Australia and Ireland. An update to the World War I Draft Cards collection provides registrations and actual signatures of more than 11 million young Americans from the beginning of the twentieth century.

Additional records released include:

United States Military

  • ·   Japanese-Americans Relocated during WWII
  • ·   Korean War Casualty File
  • ·   Korean War Deaths
  • ·   Korean War Prisoners of War
  • ·   Korean War Prisoners of War (Repatriated)
  • ·   U.S. Army Casualties, 1961-1981
  • ·   Vietnam Casualties Returned Alive
  • ·   Vietnam War Casualties
  • ·   Vietnam War Deaths
  • ·   WWI Draft Cards
  • ·   WWII Prisoners of War

Life Events

UNITED STATES:

  • ·   Kentucky Birth Records, 1911-2007
  • ·   Kentucky Death Records Index, 1911-1999
  • ·   Kentucky Marriage Records Index, 1973-1999
  • ·   Texas Divorce Records Index, 1968-2010
  • ·   Texas Marriage Records, 1968-2010

AUSTRALIA

  • ·   Northern Territory Anglican Baptisms and Confirmations, 1900-1947
  • ·   Northern Territory Anglican Burials, 1900-1968
  • ·   Northern Territory Anglican Marriages, 1902-1953

IRELAND

  • ·   Irish Catholic Church Directories, 1836-37

Census Land and Surveys

 AUSTRALIA

  • ·   Northern Territory Census, 1881-1921
  • ·   Northern Territory Electoral Rolls, 1895-1940 

Institutions & Organizations

AUSTRALIA

  • ·   Northern Territory Parliamentary Index, 1884-1890

Newspapers, Directories & Social History

AUSTRALIA

  • ·   Northern Territory Section of the Queensland Post Office Directory, 1920-1921

Using Wills and Probate Records in Genealogy Research

Using wills and probate records for genealogy can lead to unexpected “inheritances” of your own: clues about relatives’ identities, wealth, personal belongings, and family relationships. Wills can reveal great family stories, too: researcher Margaret Linford entertains her mother with them during trips to the courthouse. Here’s how wills can help your family history—and Margaret’s tips for finding and using them.

Using Wills and Probate Records in Genealogy Research

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way” to find out more about your family’s history.

Wills are legal records created to direct the settlement of a person’s property and other final affairs after his or her death. Probate (or estate) records are created after an individual’s death as part of the legal distribution of the estate and payment of debts. You’ll often find wills as one of many kinds of the documents included in probate records.

Wills and other probate records are valuable research tools, but are frequently neglected as sources of genealogical information. People often focus strictly on birth, marriage, and death records when searching out their family histories. If you rely solely on those records, your research will encounter many brick walls in the early 1800’s. 

Probate records and land records were often the only official documents left behind to tell the stories of ancestors who lived prior to the legal requirement for the registry of births and deaths.

Wills of slaveholders can also be valuable tools in conducting African-American genealogical research. Before the Civil War, enslaved people were listed in wills because they were valuable property of slaveholders.

For instance, in the 1863 Smyth County property tax records, it is noted that Abijah Thomas owned 56 slaves, which were valued at $53,800. Some were given their freedom within wills, while others were transferred to other members of the family or sold. For instance, one of the first wills recorded in Smyth County is that of Hugh Cole.

Within his will, he says the following: “I bequeath to my beloved wife Martha Cole a negro girl named Amanda which she is to hold during her natural life.” The mention of an enslaved person in a will—along with any personal description of him or her—may be the only surviving document to mention that person by name.

Within another Smyth County will, recorded on February 20, 1835, a woman named Elizabeth Blessing left the following directive: “I will and desire that my negro woman Betty be free at my decease, and must see to her own support during her life, as I shall not make any provision for her out of any part of my estate.”

Information Found in Wills Varies

You can find just about anything in a will!

One organ, one compass, chain and plotting instruments, two chests, one hat rack, one music rack, one old United States map. These are some of the items found in the appraisement bill of the personal property belonging to the estate of Abijah Thomas, who lived in the well-known Octagon House in Marion, Virginia.

Here is a photo of that home, now in a dilapidated state, from a Wikipedia file image (click image for attribution.)

Octagon12 8 07

Also included in his personal property is a church bell. The story behind the bell is intriguing and illustrates the significance of the probate process.

Abijah Thomas utilized the bell at his foundry works in Marion, Virginia, to indicate shift changes. For decades, the oral history surrounding the bell indicated that he had donated it to the Wytheville Presbyterian Church before he died. The court documents reveal a different story.

court document regarding the church bell

Court document regarding the church bell

Since Abijah died intestate, the court appointed three men to appraise his personal property. During this process, the bell was valued at $75. It was sold on September 1, 1877, to the Presbyterian Church in the town of Wytheville, Virginia, as shown in the above list of items sold from his estate.

This document dispels the family myth surrounding the church bell. This is just one of many examples of the types of stories you find in probate records in courthouses all across the United States.

Genealogical Information May be Found in a Will or Probate Records

Wills and probate records can pass along unexpected genealogical wealth to you. You may find the following information in them: date of death (or approximate date of death), name of spouse, children, parents, siblings and their place of residence, adoption or guardianship of minor children, ancestor’s previous residence, occupation, land ownership, and household items.

Probate records also contain such interesting stories that they can even be read for entertainment!

Whenever I go on a research trip, I usually drag some poor, unsuspecting soul along with me. That person is usually my Mom. While she enjoys the scenery on our drive to different courthouses, she rarely enjoys the time spent at the courthouse.

Some of the research I do requires me to stay at the courthouse for several hours. That has posed a problem in the past since I haven’t known how to keep Mom occupied. But I have found the perfect solution. When we arrive at the courthouse, I find an old will book and let her start reading.

My mom enjoys reading the stories in these old—and sometimes tattered—books. One of her favorite stories came from a will in Henry County, Virginia. It is the will of Addie T. Thornton and reads as follows:

“I also give to my nephew Thomas T. Earles, fifty ($50) in cash to be deposited in some safe Banking Institution, on interest until he arrives at the age of twenty-one (21) years old and then the principal to be invested in a watch and I request that a monogram with both his and my name, one on inside and the other on outside of watch.

Obviously, Addie Thornton cared deeply for her nephew, Thomas, and wanted to make sure he remembered her for the rest of his life.

Here’s part of Addie’s will, followed by a closeup image of the lines about the watch:

Addie Thornton's will

Addie Thornton's will

Stories like these are so much more meaningful than just a date of birth, marriage or death. Wills can help us know who these people were, how they lived and what was important to them during their sojourn here on earth. We can learn of their struggles and their successes. We can tell what their lives were like by reading through the lists of household items included in the inventories that are recorded.

And with stories like Addie’s bequest of the watch, we can also learn about ancestors’ personalities and how they expressed (or occasionally withheld) love for others through the final disposition of their belongings.

How a Will is Created

Before beginning probate record research, it is important to be familiar with the probate process and legal terminology associated with these records. It is estimated that, prior to 1900, about half of the population either left a will or was mentioned in one. Those who died having left a will are said to have died “testate.” Those who died without leaving a valid will died “intestate.”

A typical, legally-recognized will contains certain critical elements. It should be in written form and it must have signatures of the person leaving the will (“testator”) and witnesses, who attest to the validity of the document. A codicil is a document created by the testator to amend the will.

Once the testator dies, the will is presented to the judicial authority by a family member or executor/executrix (person appointed by the testator to see that his/her wishes are carried out), accompanied by a written application or petition for probate.

These petitions include names and addresses of the closest living relatives. The court then admits the will to probate and sets a hearing, providing an opportunity for interested parties to contest the will. The will is then recorded and the executor is given the authority to settle the estate. During this process, an inventory of the estate is made.

Some wills contain detailed information, regarding the testator’s final wishes. At times, these requests will shed light on relationships that might not otherwise be discovered. This was the case for a will on file at my local courthouse. Due to the nature of the requests made by the testator, I have changed the last name of the family to Smith. This wife was, obviously, upset with her husband and the circumstances of their marriage, providing clear details of her grievances for future generations.

“Since my husband has never made me a part of his family and has completely cut me out of ever living in Chihowie, Virginia [the husband’s hometown], or never provided me with a home or paid any of my bills and has broken all marriage contracts that we agreed to—I hereby decree that I be buried in Round Hill Cemetery at Marion, Virginia, where I own a lot—that my body or anything I own or possess will never be taken into Chilhowie or the Smith household.

My husband has never taken me into his own home, and furthermore stated, backed up by his nephew and his wife, whom he turned everything over to shortly after our marriage—that I would never own or live on a foot of the Smith ground, even though I have tried to build or buy or remodel a home in Chilhowie, Virginia, at my own expense.

“I give all books and material things pertaining to books to the Smyth County Library, Marion, Virginia, as I am sure that my family would not want anything to fall into the hands of anyone who has mistreated me.

“My husband has kept our marriage strictly on a time clock basis since his nephew and his wife moved back to Smyth County, and under their influence he comes at 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. (whichever is convenient to them) or later, and leaves promptly in the morning by 8:00 or 8:30 a.m., never calling during the day or show[ing] any sign of caring. He changed completely after they returned to Chilhowie to break up the marriage. Therefore, if I am still his wife, or otherwise, see that my wishes are carried out and that my remains and possessions remain in Marion.”

Where to Find Wills and Probate Records

The best place to search for a will is at the courthouse where your ancestor lived, if you can reasonably go there yourself.

Since the probate process is a function of state governments, the laws governing the maintenance of these records and their location will vary by state and should be researched before making a trip to the courthouse.

For example, in Virginia, probate records are maintained within the Circuit Courts and independent cities. In Massachusetts, probate records are found in county Probate Courts.

A useful resource for figuring out how U.S. probate records are organized state-by-state is free on the Ancestry.com wiki: Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources. Scroll down to click on the name of the state in question. Then go to the right side and click on the probate records link for that state to read about these records.

Once you have determined where the wills for your state/county are housed, the next step in the research process is to locate the Index for Wills. Even–perhaps especially–if you are unsure of the date of death for one of your ancestors, you may want to look through the index of wills (an example is shown here). Even when no specific death record exists, you may be surprised to find probate records that reveal the date of death, a list of heirs and more.

There will, most likely, be several index books, organized by year spans. These books serve as a compass, pointing you to any available probate records that may include your ancestors. The index is divided by devisor (the person making the will) and devisee (any person who is named in the will, as the recipient of property).

The research process will be incomplete if you do not conduct a search for your ancestors among the list of devisees. Even if you fail to find their names among the devisors, they could have inherited property from someone else.

Probate records include more than just the will of an individual. You may find letters of administration, lists of heirs, inventories, bills of appraisement, guardianships and other documents related to the settlement of an estate. In some counties, all these documents are found in the same collection. Other counties maintain these records in separate collections. It is important to understand the manner in which probate records are organized for your particular county.

The probate research process should not be rushed. Valuable records may be overlooked when time dictates the quality of your research. For this reason, it is important that you set aside ample time to comb through the probate records. If you find yourself confused about abbreviations or the location of records within the courthouse, there is usually someone in the records vault who would be happy to assist you. Never be afraid (or embarrassed) to ask for help.

Smyth County, VA courthouse records

Fortunately for many of us who can’t easily get to every ancestor’s courthouse, there are some wills available online on genealogy websites, including two of the genealogy giants, FamilySearch and Ancestry.com.

For example:

  • Subscription website Ancestry.com has made it a priority to curate an enormous collection of wills and probate records from all 50 states. At last count, this collection has more than 170 million records—and they keep adding to it.
  • The free FamilySearch.org hosts millions of probate records from the U.S. and around the world (click here to browse their probate and court record collections). Many of these collections are marked “browse-only,” which means they are not yet searchable by name online. You just have to page through them. Click here for instructions on reading browse-only records on the site (it’s not that difficult—and did I mention they’re free?).

Additionally, libraries or genealogical societies in your ancestor’s hometown or county may have books with abstracts from local wills or other resources related to local probate record research.

General Index to Wills probate records genealogy research

General Index to Wills

Well Worth the Effort 

Finding the will of one of your ancestors is an amazing experience. Walking into the vault of a courthouse sometimes feels like walking into a time machine. As you read through the pages that tell of people who lived so long ago, you feel like for even just a small moment that you have gone back in time. You are sitting with them and hearing their stories whispered through the aging and brittle pages that have been left behind. They are all there just waiting to tell their stories. So take the opportunity to go to the courthouse and “meet” your ancestors through the one of the last—and perhaps one of the most revealing—documents they may ever have written: their wills.

Researching Wills and Probate Records: Your Next Steps

Take your genealogy research to the next level by planning a trip to a courthouse to retrieve records like wills and probate records. These articles and podcast episodes will help you get ready:

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

Margaret Linford
Margaret Linford is a professional genealogist who specializes in the Mid-South Region of United States research and has logged over 20,000 research hours. Born and raised in Virginia, she has enjoyed traveling the world, and now lives in her childhood hometown with her husband and children. She enjoys teaching her children about heritage, taking them along on research trips and serving as President of the Smyth County Genealogical Society.

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