Category: Estates | Inheritances

I’ve been working on some wills this week, attempting to sort out one of those family lines in which the same given names appear over and over and over.

In this case, only four generations of my direct line there are four Johns, three Thomases, and three Anns — and that doesn’t count any of the nieces and nephews. And dates don’t help much; at any given time there could be two or even three Jacobs in the same county.

So wills, even if they don’t actually mention names of widows and daughters, can be of assistance. Sometimes the probate files of intestate estates are even more helpful. If a person dies without having written a will, the estate must be inventoried and divided, with all the heirs signing off on their settlements. That includes daughters, including married ones. Even with a will, a probate file is generated, and they usually include all the receipts for things charged to the estate.

An important term that you need to know when researching wills or probate files is dower. Dower refers to the legally established percentage of an estate that the widow is entitled to. (It’s not to be confused with dowry, the money that a woman brings to the marriage.) How much she is entitled to depends — like most everything — on when and where the family lived. Laws vary from time to time and place to place.

In most of the wills I have been reading, the phrase “in lieu of her dower” is included. That means Granddaddy is most likely leaving Granny property worth more than the dower.

It’s possible that when you had to read a Shakespeare play in high school (and don’t tell me you didn’t), at some point Shakespeare’s will was mentioned. You know, that will in which he left his wife his “second-best bed.” Well, my ancestors left wills that sound as strange to a modern ear as that bed.

There is one in which the testator left his wife “the full priviledge and intire use of the two Rooms in the East end of my dwelling house… and the sellar underneath the same[,] the Kitchen & oven” and so on. [original spelling]

Wills also offer an insight into the economics of the period. In 1770 a female ancestor left each one of her three daughters a “worsted gown.” Another daughter received her best quilted petticoat along with the gown; another got “half a length of black silk.” Can you imagine naming your best dresses in your will?

Other curiosities can be found in the estate records as well. Among the receipts in one of my files is one for the bedpan the family had bought for the bedfast testator; another is for paying a barber to come shave him and cut his hair while he spent nearly 18 months in bed.

An estate can offer several clues to the family makeup. Suppose, for example, that Grandpa Horace’s estate was divided into eight parts. Samuel, Thomas, William, Horatio, SusyBell, MaryAnn and Marigold each inherited one-eighth, while Billy and Susannah ended up with one-sixteenth each. It’s a pretty safe bet that Grandpa Horace had eight children, but one of them had died previously, leaving little Billy and Susannah as his children.

And if the will mentions “my daughter Sarah (different last name), we know who Sarah married.

Some terms can likely confuse modern readers if they don’t know the language of the time. We all know (I hope) that junior and senior did not have their modern meanings. All they meant was that two men by the same name lived in the neighborhood and one was older than the other.

Another word to watch out for is cousin. It may include other relationships. I have a will from 1766 in which the deceased left something to his “cousin” John, then added the explanation “the son of my brother Thomas.”

If you’ve never worked with probate files, give them a look. As usual, it’s possible to find many, many on

At long last! The 1950 census has been released.

I’ve been waiting for this because now I can see myself on the census. Unlike the release of the 1940 schedule, this one went very smoothly. You may remember that 10 years ago, family researchers crashed the entire National Archives website, among other messy results of the release.

This one became available at midnight March 31, 72 years after the “as-of” date. It took a while to find me, because no one was home when the census taker arrived. So, my family is stuck on the end of the Enumeration District with others who weren’t home.

The actual census pages were microfilmed in 1952 and then the paper copies were destroyed. The reverse of the Population and Housing schedule included questions about the physical makeup of each residence, that information it was not microfilmed. So, like the agricultural and other schedules of the 20th century, it no longer exists and there are only the composite records of buildings.

What can you find on the available schedules? They include the number of the residents, names of all the folks who live there (starting with the head of household), race, sex, age at last birthday, place of birth, information about the type of work done, how many hours worked in the previous week and military experience.

And what did I learn about my own household? Well, for starters, the census taker spelled our last name wrong. He added an “e” at the end. He also recorded my dad’s birthplace wrong. Dad was born in Iowa; the census says “Ohio.” Besides which, his handwriting was not good.

There are indexes, but at this point they are pretty sketchy. All have been generated by the famous (or notorious) AI — Artificial Intelligence. That means it has been done by a machine. Although character-recognition software is much better than it was a few years ago, there’s no guarantee that the index is perfect. For example, when I was playing around with the Dickson County schedules, I searched for “Luther,” a common enough local name. I found an entry for “Edgarm” and another for a John “Lather.”

Continue reading…

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