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 Tracing Immigrant Origins

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Of course, we expect a probate file to name the heirs; that is its function. But, before you think that heirs are only descendants, who typically would be living near the now deceased immigrant (or certainly somewhere in the New World), consider that there may be other heirs. Perhaps an immigrant had no living children. Then his heirs may be brothers, sisters, or cousins (in addition to his wife). Indeed, an heir may be anybody the testator (the person who made the will) chooses to name, including servants, in-laws, friends, and others.

There is no law defining heirs who may be named in a will. If a person dies "intestate" (without a will), then the prevailing laws do proscribe who inherits, and in what percentages. Consider the possibility that some heirs may still be living in the old country. In such cases, the will, or subsequent probate documents, may identify where that heir was last known to have lived. If they still lived in the old country, it stands to reason that the heir probably lived near the original home of the testator.

The family and social connections between England and her colonies were much stronger than we typically imagine. The colonies were, after all, an extension of England. English custom and law prevailed. Although the distances were greater, there was little practical difference between a resident of York migrating to London, or emigrating to Boston. In either case, there were often still significant ties which bound him to his original home. Those ties are reflected in the people and places he may have mentioned in his will.

Picture of England and a profile of a manAnother factor to consider is the "identification" issue. Persons often identified themselves according to the place (often a town) they came from, or were born in. Thus an immigrant might refer to himself, in his will, as "from Dorset" or some other place in the old country.

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