In Search of Your Ancestors?
A column on genealogy by George Farris

July 3, 2008

11 - Wills and Probate Records as Sources of Family Information

I have alluded to wills and probate records in previous columns regarding land records - since land was typically the primary asset of estates and deed records often provided family information that couldn't be found elsewhere. It was not uncommon in the past for the head of a family to die intestate (without a will) - so the deeds associated with disposition of the land might be the only existing public record. Probate and estate records, the details of settlement of an estate, often were not preserved by themselves except for the brief summary court orders associated with the estates. However, when they do exist, wills and estate records are a very valuable source of family information. Estate records were kept in packets containing a wide variety of types of papers and documents associated with the estate. They were not easy to store and often were destroyed some number of years after an estate settlement. Sometimes they have been microfilmed and the original paper copies destroyed. While that does preserve the images, the somewhat random organization of estate records can make them very difficult to search on microfilm. Because the paper copies may have become brittle with age and damaged by use, documents have sometimes come apart and the parts separated in the file before being microfilmed. While re-assembling the pieces of a paper document is not difficult, finding and correlating pieces of a document separated on microfilm is much more difficult..

Following are a few examples of the use of wills and estate records from my own family research.

Robert McIlravy - Tuscarawas Co. Ohio

I've mentioned the McIlravys in a previous column in discussing problems in searching census records because of the wide variation of spellings of the name in various records. One of my gr.grandmothers was a McIlravy and I had researched her direct lineage many years ago - but only to her father and grandfather who had immigrated from Northern Ireland in 1812. The family is of Scottish origin - but some McIlravys resettled in Northern Ireland in the 150 years following Oliver Cromwell's 1649 invasion - or liberation (depending on which view you want to take in the Northern Ireland "troubles"). A few years ago, after many questions and speculations regarding the McIlravy 1812 immigrants from various McIlravy/McElravy researchers, I decided to try to determine which of the McIlravy lines originated from the same group of 1812 immigrants that ended up in Washington County, Pennsylvania - primarily to see if I could find any better clue to their origin and links to other McIlravy/McElravy lines.. The complete details of that effort are documented at for anyone interested. We used many different sources of information to try to sort out the families and I had developed a pretty good feeling for how they were related. But a major key to proving the relationships resulted when I found the will and probate records for Robert McElravy who died in Tuscarawas County, Ohio in 1859.

For my purposes the key excerpts from the will of Robert McElravy were these:

"Fourth I give and devise to Robert McElravey son of my brother Hugh the farm on which I now reside at the death of my wife and he will pay Robert McElravey son of my brother Daniel two hundred dollars at the death of my wife.
Fifth it is my will that at the expiration of five years from my death the Armstrong farm be solde and after all expences is paid of the sale of said farm and what debts remain otherwise unpaid be paid then all the residue of the price of said farm and all other unexpended assets of my estate be equally divided between the following persons to wit: my brother Hugh McElravey, my brother Daniel McElravey, my sister Nancy Hill, my nephew Dr. Hugh McElravey, my wife's sister Elizabeth Crossen, and my niece Elizabeth LaPort. "
These statements verified that Robert, Hugh (my, Daniel, and Nancy were siblings - which was key to sorting out two McIlravy families that had immigrated together. The relationships of others named in the will also helped clarify the picture.

In addition to this will, the probate records for this estate provided a record of payments made to the heirs over a period of years that included another key piece of previously missing information. That is that the husband of Nancy McIlravy Hill was William Hill. While it still was difficult to locate the right Hill family, it would have been nearly impossible without that information.

Moses Estes - Callaway Co, Missouri

In tracing my ancestral lines backward, starting with what I knew from family records, one of the first pieces of missing information was the name of my on my Farris line. She had died fairly young and my had remarried - so most of the information that we had found involved his second wife. We finally found the name Rosannah Estes on a death certificate for one of my gr.grandfather's sisters. Later we found Rosannah's name on deeds along with her husband, Jeremiah Farris, in Illinois. But determining who Rosannah's parents were took quite a while. There were many Estes families and it was not obvious how she fit in. Finding Jeremiah Farris's name in the deed records involving the Moses Estes estate (as described in one of the previous columns) pretty well convinced us that Rosannah was one of the children of Moses Estes. But it took some searching to verify that was the case.

As discussed in a previous column, while Moses Estes died in Tennessee the estate was not settled there - but in Callaway County, Missouri where his brother John had moved and with whom all of the children of Moses and Elizabeth Estes lived after their deaths in 1815. There is a fairly large estate record file in Callaway County. It contains many receipts on small scraps of paper for expenses and claims against the estate from various people - as well as documents involving claims of the Moses Estes estate against the estate of John Estes. There are also several Power of Attorney documents for people representing the interests of some of the children who had moved to Illinois, some of whom were now married. At the time that I visited the court house at Fulton, in Callaway County, the estate files had been recently microfilmed. I spent some frustrating time in trying to make sense of the random collection of images of that file before asking a key question - "Are the original copies of these documents still available?" The answer that I finally elicited after asking several people was that estate files had been packaged up in large boxes and were stored in the attic of the courthouse until the county decided how to dispose of them. Fortunately, there was a helpful file custodian who would actually take me to the attic and show me what box to look in for that particular file. By actually being able to spread out the documents and put the pieces together the file was far more useful.

An image of part of a Power of Attorney regarding the estate of Moses Estes dated 17 Nov. 1824 by Jeremiah Farris and Rosannah Estes Farris of Franklin County, Illinois. This document was in two pieces - separated in the estate file. The key phrase, which I have highlighted in the document, states that " ... the aforesaid Rosannah Farris late Rosannah Estes one of the children of Moses Estes deceased of the State of Tennessee and Jeremiah Farris who hath intermarried with Rosannah Estes ...". This phrase, which is split between the two pieces of the document, was the verification that we had been looking for that she was one of the 10 children of Moses and Elizabeth Estes who had died in 1815 in Wilson County, Tennessee. The estate file contained several such documents regarding others of the children - and it also included a list of the names of each of them that was titled "Payments to Moses Estes heirs."

Pech/Detloff - Plymouth County, Iowa

In tracing my wife's ancestral lines it was not clear what had happened to one of her The Pech family had immigrated to Bloomington County, Illinois in about 1870 from the area that was, at that time, the far eastern province of Prussia - called Posen. (At that time it was a German area - but during WW II the German population was pretty well removed and it is now a part of Poland.) From family records plus some research we knew that Dorothea (usually called Dora) Pech, a widow, and her five children had lived for a few years in Illinois, that one son had remained in Logan County, Illinois, that the two oldest sons and a married daughter had moved to Iowa, and that the other daughter had married Henry Detloff in Illinois and had moved to Iowa. We found no record of Dora Pech in Iowa - and assumed that she must have remained with the son who stayed in Illinois. In doing some research of Robert Pech in Illinois we learned a lot about him and his family - but didn't find Dora. But when we finally got to his obituary in the early 1900s, it contained the interesting statement that his mother had died in Iowa in 1903. Since there were no records of a Dora Pech around the Plymouth County, Iowa area where the Pechs and Detloffs lived it appeared that she had remarried before moving there. That led to some research in Plymouth County - where what we found after some searching were records of a Dora Detloff. After the fact, we realized that, at the time her daughter had married Henry, she had married his father, John Detloff, an immigrant widower. Her estate file in Plymouth County, Iowa verified all of that - with documents naming all of the children. It also contained other documents resulting from a dispute among her children over a part of the estate - which added more detailed family information.

While I have probably included more information about my own ancestry in these recent columns than most readers would have much interest in, I've used these examples from my own research to illustrate some of the sources and some of the research process that may be applicable to you in filling in the gaps in your own family history. Whether you are just getting started or have been working on your own genealogy for years there are undoubtedly some brick walls that you have encountered. Or, if you haven't, you will sooner or later. The further back in generations you research the more ancestral lines you encounter (the number of lines doubling at each generation). Most people can't go back more than four or five generations before encountering a puzzle of some sort that is difficult to solve.

Previous Columns in this series

1. Beginning your search
2. "Source Data"
3. More About Data Sources
4. Additional Data Sources
5. LDS and Data From Other Countries
6. Census Records
7. Military Records
8. Land Records
9. More About Land Records
10. Land Records as a Source of Family Information

© Copyright 2008, Inside Anderson County, All rights reserved.