Probate Records << Teacher's Guide <<
| Objectives |
Main Idea No.1 |
Main Idea No.2 |
Main Idea No.3 |
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IN THIS LESSON, YOU'LL
- LEARN about the probate process
- EXAMINE wills for clues to relationships and ownership of land
- EXPLORE land records as a window into history
This lesson includes opportunities for class discussion and a video presentation.
Vocabulary words are included at the end of the lesson, though not specifically
brought into the lesson in the form of an assignment. Resulting measurable assignments
include a creative writing assignment, class participation and a report. While the lesson's
main ideas logically build on one another, the activities and assignments suggested can be
adapted or omitted according to your needs.
MAIN IDEA NO.1
Every time a person dies, records are created. For example, many people prepare wills
before they die. A will lets family and friends know what to do with the land and goods
left behind and who should execute the division of it all. Someone must also take
responsibility for debts the person left unpaid. If a will exists, we refer the person's
estate (or property) as "testate".
If a person dies without leaving a will, his estate is referred to as "intestate." Whether
the estate is testate or intestate, the process of distributing a deceased person's estate
creates "probate records."
Probate records are a wonderful source of information, partly because of the amount of
paperwork generated when property is divided among inheritors. This paperwork often
reveals family members and relationships, as well as gives you an idea of the economic
status and lifestyle of your ancestors. As you begin to examine probate files, you'll
discover the truth in the old saying, "you can't take it with you."
But where are the probate files?
Through census records, you should have been able to place an ancestor in a state and
county at a particular year. Usually, family history detectives assume that the probate
file can be found in the cities or town in which their ancestors spend the majority of
their lives. However, according to Myra Vanderpool Gormley, a professional genealogist
and author of Shaking Your Family Tree,
"A will was not always filed where the person resided. It could have been filed where
that individual held the largest amount of property. It could be filed in an adjoining
county, or where it was written, or even where the lawyer's office was located. Sometimes
it was filed where the heirs lived."
VIEW ANCESTORS EPISODE 211: "Probate Records"
For Bruce and Mary Kay Stewart, there's only one way to do genealogy - hit the road!
Turning their RV into a traveling research center, they stop at a county courthouse
and uncover a probate record that leads them to an old family homestead in upstate New
York. Experts discuss the various records that are generated by the probate process and
some of the interesting details found in wills.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- Why are probate files so important to family history detectives?
- Where are probate records housed?
- If you can't visit the place where your ancestor's probate file is kept, how can you still
access the information?
- What kind of family information can be found on wills?
- What does an "intestate" estate refer to?
- What is the "extra bonus" that can be found on petitions?
- Why do probate records lead to land records?
- What's the easiest way to search for a land record?
Check out these interesting sites:
This site posts the wills of some of the Mayflower passengers. Not only are these wills interesting to read, they
also provide a look into the way the English language has evolved.
Using the above sites as a resource, write a will. Include appropriate legal language where possible and applicable.
MAIN IDEA NO.2
WHEN THERE'S A WILL, THERE'S A WAY
Wills can often provide clues to other records. One of the more obvious links is between
wills and land records. If your ancestor owned property when he died, chances are that
property is mentioned in the will and inherited by a family member.
MAIN IDEA NO.3
A CLOSE LOOK AT LAND RECORDS
The following is an excerpt from an article entitled "History & Use of Land Records",
written by genealogist Linda Haas Davenport. It has recently been collection in book form and can be found at
A Look at the History of Land Records
As the original 13 colonies were established land was owned by a group of Proprietors.
These were men who had been granted land from the English King. They in turn sold land
to individuals and established common areas within the towns.
These early states used a surveying system called "New England Town Surveys" or modified
"metes & bounds".. The metes & bound survey uses descriptions of the local flora, fauna,
physical features of the land such as creeks, roads, mountains, neighbors, etc., to describe
the land. An example: "Beginning on a white oak the north west corner of Sammuel Vanatres
tract of land thence east with the same to John Haas his east boundry line, thence north
with the same to where it crosses the Publick road leading from James Goodners into Hanyard
to Liberty then with the meandering of said road to the beginning".
As settlements grew out of the bounds of New England, immigrants continued to push back the
frontier in search of the American dream. Many were farmers or ranchers attempting to homestead
humble tracks of land. Though women homesteaders were not unheard of, they were certainly the exceptions to the rule.
Going One Step Further
Read Linda Haas Davenport's entire article on History & Use of Land Records.
Write a report about the elements that can be found in a probate file.
Land records allow a look at America as it was before parking lots and sprawling malls.
If you've read the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, then you
may have an idea about what life in a frontier town was like.
The National Archives has posted documents from the Ingalls family homestead at
These records begin with an application from Laura's father Charles, who, in later documents,
is shown to have paid for the land he applied for. Other legal documents include a "Homestead
Proof - Testimony of Claimant" and an affidavit in which Charles swears that the land has no
valuable minerals on it that he could detect.
WHAT HAVE I LEARNED . . .
Probate files are a look into the life and times of our ancestors. The legal process of
disbursing an estate creates a considerable amount of paperwork that can yield many clues
to your family history. Land records are often mentioned in probate files. These records
allow you to learn even more about where and how your ancestor lived.
. . . AND WHAT'S NEXT?
For millions of immigrants, the allurement of personal ownership of land pushed them out
of the places they were born and onto a new continent. Many came by boat. Others came on
foot. In the next lesson, you'll re-trace your immigrant ancestor's journey and discover
the records that legalized his or her new citizenship as Americans.