Finding repositories for probate records

Finding repositories for probate records


Probate documents can be goldmines for genealogical
research, but few documents are both digitized and digitally indexed, so expect to put in
some real effort to find these. In this video, I’ll cover the prep work
you’ll need to do to find a repository for probate records. I’ll cover finding documents in a second
video. Short version: You’ll need a probable year
and place of death. Check Wikipedia to see if county boundaries
changed. Records can be lost—check the county’s
history. Start with Ancestry.com, then go to FamilySearch,
then get to the library. Let’s dig into the meat of this. To get started, U.S. records are stored chronologically
at the county level. You’ll need a rough idea when your ancestor
died, and where. Death certificates, Find-a-grave, even census
records can help. The where can be tricky, though: county boundaries
changed, especially in frontier areas, such as Ohio in the early 1800s or Pennsylvania
in the 1700s. Court records remain in the original county
courthouse. For example, if your ancestor died in Gettysburg,
Pennsylvania in 1799, you would find a probate record in York County. If they died a year later, however, you would
find the record in Adams County, which was carved out of York County in 1800. I’ve found Wikipedia is a great source for
understanding how counties are partitioned over time. Also, be aware that records may have been
lost, through water damage, fire or even the ravages of war. I’ve had a lot of difficulty finding pre-1865
probate records in southern states that saw heavy fighting in the Civil War. So, with all of that in mind, start your search
on Ancestry.com or another site where probate records are digitally indexed by name of decedent. I wish it were that easy, but it’s pretty
rare when I can find what want via a digital index. The next step is to check the probate inventory
on FamilySearch.org. Some probate records are digitized, though
not indexed. But many aren’t, which means you need to
go old school. I’m a big fan of the library at this stage. If you’re lucky, like me, you live close
to a city with a great genealogy section. If you don’t, inter-library loans can bring
great libraries to your local branch. Let’s take a glance at Family Search’s
probate information for Highland County, Ohio. See those books with authors? You’ll often find a handful of books published
in the last 20 to 50 years that have indices and abstracts, not just of probate, but of
all sorts of county records with genealogical value. Book links on FamilySearch will take you to
worldcat.org, which is a huge database of library catalogs. Worldcat provides more than enough info to
have your local library request the book via inter-library loan. And these books are goldmines. A lot of these books will index anyone referenced
in their abstract of a probate proceeding, meaning you can find probate proceedings that
mention your ancestor but are centered on your ancestor’s family, friends, associates
and neighbors. Ancestry.com and FamilySearch can’t do that,
and that kind of information can help you break down brick walls. Take a look at the notes I took from Records
of the Recorder’s Office of Highland County, Ohio. I was looking for information about the probate
proceedings for William Huggins, led by his son-in-law Thomas Chew. I expected to find the first two entries,
but not the third. Who were Nancy & Zebulon Overman? This is a topic for another video, but that
unexpected entry resulted in a complete restructuring of one branch of my wife’s family tree. Ideally, an old book abstracting probate records
will point you right back to FamilySearch.org’s digitized records, but there’s a good chance
you’ll have to order a microfilm from the Family History Library. If your public library isn’t a partner with
the Family History Library, you can have the microfilm sent to a nearby Mormon family history
center. Now, as a fellow who doesn’t believe in
a god of miracles, a personal god, I felt a little awkward showing my face in a Mormon
building. Like my preference for Einstein’s “old
man” was somehow tattooed on my face. Mormon co-workers told me not to worry about
it, and they were right: everyone was very welcoming. So don’t feel shy. Important point, though: you won’t be visiting a Mormon temple. So don’t go to those beautiful buildings with the spires and all that. You’re going to be going to a ward building which isn’t a holy site. If you’re not sure where you’re going? Well… if you enter the building and there’s a guy wearing a full white suit… you’ve got the wrong place. If you can’t find what you need via the
Family History Library’s microfilms, though, you have to ask yourself how dedicated you
really are, because now you have to find a repository for the probate books that contain
the docs you want. Sometimes, you can order them from the county
directly. Other times, a local historical society may
have the documents and are set-up to help you acquire them. But you’re still going to have to go find that repository. But the worst case scenario—and I’ve been
here—is that you have to physically visit the county courthouse to view their records. Which could be hugely expensive. As a last resort, if you can’t make the
trip, you could hire a process server. I’ve done that, but… a process server
is accustomed to finding modern court documents on deadline or serving subpoenas to people
who don’t want to receive them. Asking them to find a court case from the
1750s… they’ll take your money but expect to it to cost several hundred dollars and multiple trips. And even then, they may not be able to find
what you want.

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