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Documenting Difficult Cases

Wills and Deeds Before 1850

More and more of this type of record can be found online. If not on the more popular sites such as FamilySearch.org or Ancestry.com, they may be found on the actual websites of the county or town clerks offices.

County and town records may be your best bet for documenting family relationships and dates prior to the 1850 Census. While the original documents are filed in county courthouses or record centers, it is often easier and more efficient to look at the indices, abstracts, and microfilm copies that are available at county, state, or college history libraries. Please note that when copying a page from any of the resources below, you will need to note the bibliographical source of the copy on its reverse side.

Deeds document land transfers and the original copies are generally filed with the respective county. Books of abstracts and microfilm of the originals may be more widely available. Deeds may note a chain of inheritance and death dates in reciting the history of the tract, or indicate a nominal price for a sale within the family (essentially a bequest prior to death or an exchange for lifetime support of an elder family member). Deeds may also indicate the use of land as security for an intra-family loan. Even if it does not note a family relationship, a deed serves to document a name and location and the fact that a person was alive at the time. While the deed may not necessarily be as helpful when proving a family relationship, it can serve as circumstantial proof of such a relationship.

Probate files contain the copy of the will that was filed after a person’s death along with the date it was written. The will generally names the spouse, if still living; any living children; and may name grandchildren, siblings, nephews, or nieces. A disinherited child may be left out of the will, but that child may show up in another relative’s will. Original probate files are filed with the county, although books of abstracts and microfilm of the originals may be more widely available.

Orphans’ court records cover cases in which a person died intestate, a minor child was orphaned and had to be assigned to foster parents, or a will was contested. Letters of administration may be issued to appoint someone to settle the estate, file a valuation of the estate, and or order the estate’s division among the heirs.

List of tombstone inscriptions, many recorded in the 1930s, may provide information about family cemeteries that no longer exist. This can be very helpful, as some cemeteries lacked quality record keeping or lost the information that was recorded. Please note that the misreading of dates and names on tombstones is common, and one should be careful when relying solely upon this resource.

Tax records may document whether a person was living or deceased (i.e. “for the estate of”) as well as the person’s location at that time. The records may report state, county, or local taxes. The older records are primarily property tax records.

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