|Tombstone of Lawrence Bradley, 1828|
Wills and probate records are often overlooked but are some of the most genealogically rich documents a researcher can find. These records contain estate details and important family information.
Among the biggest mistakes a researcher can make is to assume that their ancestors did not probate their estates because the family lived in rural areas. In reality, rural residents were more likely to probate estates because they often owned land for farms. Urban residents typically left less property than people living in rural areas unless they owned property in other areas.
Probate records provide important details about a person’s family and familial relationships. They can even be used to identify the parents for certain individuals, which is handy for research before the 1850 U.S. Census.
However, the documents can be more complicated than other resources, because many families used the same or similar names across generations. For example, it can be time consuming to determine the difference between the son Nicholas Meriwether, the grandson Nicholas Meriwether and the nephew Nicholas Meriwether.
Probate records also can reveal the names of wives, husbands and children of the deceased, as well as married daughters and sons. Often maiden names for the women mentioned in the documentation will also be included. These documents also can give researchers ideas about where their ancestor may have lived before settling and buying property.
So, what is the difference between a will and a probate?
A person who has a will dies in testate. The deceased died with his intentions completely and legally recorded before his death. A person who dies with no will is intestate, and therefore, the deceased has forfeited the right to determine how his or her estate is distributed. In that case, the probate court will appoint an administrator who will distribute the assets. These probate files can contain many types of documents, including unfiled wills, bonds, inventories, administrations, orders, accounts, decrees and distributions.
Guardianship records for minors also fall under the banner of the probate court. When looking at these documents, pay attention to whom the court appoints over a minor. The relationship can be of great importance, it could be a relative or close family friend. These documents also will name the deceased parent of the minor children, which will help put together the family unit.
Wills are helpful when conducting African American genealogy before the Civil War. Slaveholders would list enslaved people in their wills, because they were considered valuable property.
Researchers also can find enslaved people listed in probate file inventories. Many times, these documents will list family units together, which helps researchers looking to reconstruct who the family was, what they looked like and other details about their lives.
The Arkansas State Archives has wills and probate records for all 75 counties. Dates do vary from county to county. These documents can also be obtain by going to the county courthouses, or online at FamilySearch.org or Ancestry.com. The Arkansas State Archives has free on-site access to Ancestry.com for patrons who wish to come research.
Next month, the Arkansas State Archives will explore the difficulties of researching women, especially before the twentieth century.
For more information, visit the Arkansas State Archives online at state.arkansas.gov or contact us at 501-682-6900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.