Arts & Entertainment
Print storySubscribe to the Times


Willpower helps find forebears

Part 2 of 3

Published February 19, 2004

There are two givens associated with good genealogical research. The first is to find three ways to document each major life event. The second, "follow the money," should be the mantra of experienced rooters everywhere.

Any document that focuses on money, such as wills and pensions or valuable assets like land and livestock, is more likely to be accurate than records where money isn't involved. Wills and probate records fulfill both requirements. They also let you get up close and personal with your forebears. Today we'll look at wills. Next week, we'll tackle probate records. We'll leave the rest for another day.

Wills and probate records are not synonymous. The paperwork may not even be filed together. Don't stop searching when you locate your ancestor's will because even more valuable genealogical information is likely to be found in the probate records.

Wills are the legal means by which people establish their last wishes. Probate records reflect how the property was actually distributed. Or not.

When a person dies leaving property but no will (intestate), the court usually appoints an administrator to handle the estate. If there is a will (testate), the person named as executor in the document manages the affairs. Executors and administrators, as well as witnesses, tend to be relatives or close friends. Either way, the legal proceedings are filed in the county of residence.

Sometimes an estate is not of sufficient value to warrant a will or administration. In earlier times, family members may have informally distributed any assets, so no official documentation exists. Occasionally, holdings were substantial, but, inexplicably, no legal records exist.

Much can be learned from wills. They offer proof of kinship. Spouses and children are usually named. A share of the estate may go to the progeny of a deceased child, which substantiates additional family connections. Minor children involved? Look for guardianship papers. Guardians may be relatives or close friends.

Wills make an excellent resource for gleaning maiden names or discovering whom the daughter married. Jacob Snyder's references to his daughters confirm their unions: "Catherine, intermarried with George Phillippi, Hette, intermarried with George Fritz, Rachel, intermarried with William Arthur, and Helena intermarried with Samuel Infield."

Family dynamics are revealed. Who's in favor. Who's not. Henry Snyder evidently got his share of the family's worldly goods while his father Jacob was still alive if this clause in Jacob's will is any indication: "My son Henry has already received his full share out of my whole estate, real, personal and mixed, and therefore he is to receive nothing more." Jacob Snyder, 1847, Milford Twp., Somerset County, PA.

Certain circumstances or restrictions may be dictated. "All above is conditioned that the said Eliza A. Growall shall keep and care for her father the said DeWalt Snyder, during his natural life free of charge." DeWalt Snyder, 1906, Black Twp., Somerset County, PA.

Thoughtful husbands provided for their wives in their wills because women's property rights were severely limited well into the 19th century. Women were by law entitled to the minimum "widow's third" or dower, but some found themselves destitute and dependent upon their children. In other words, Mom had the homestead sold out from under her.

Wills are usually kept in the county courthouse and are indexed by surnames. (Some counties ship these records off to the state archives to free up space, so look there if the county doesn't have it.) You should be able to obtain a copy of the will and probate records by writing to the Registrar of Wills. Expect to pay about 50 cents or more per page for a copy and possibly a search charge of $5 a person. Wills generally run two to three pages. Check out the office's procedure in advance.

Not sure where to write? See the Handy Book for Genealogists published by Everton or log on to or the appropriate county Web site.

-- Read past Donna Murray Allen columns online at Type "Donna Murray Allen" in the search box. You can write to Allen c/o Floridian, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at Her Web site: which includes information on classes and lectures.

[Last modified February 19, 2004, 09:39:59]

Floridian headlines

  • His music miffed Martha
  • 10 Pressing Questions: Not-so-mellow Costello

  • Genealogy
  • Willpower helps find forebears
  • leaderboard ad here


    Back to Top

    © 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
    490 First Avenue South • St. Petersburg, FL 33701 • 727-893-8111