Probate records are one of the major types of records used in genealogical research. Wills and other papers created during the probate process are often the best possible source to document relationships between family members, particularly parent to child.
However, they can serve a secondary, and equally important, role in your research. Some (but certainly not all) wills and other probate papers may provide a key link between an immigrant in the new world and his family in the old.
Interestingly, probate action can be helpful for immigrant origins research regardless of on which side of the ocean the probate took place. American wills may mention a family's origins in the old country, while foreign wills, notably British, may bequeath property (goods or money) to relatives who had emigrated to the new world.
Nature of Colonial Probate
Probate records are one of the few records which date back to the earliest settlements in North America. Furthermore, with few exceptions, they have been well-preserved. Hence they are an excellent source for documenting Colonial families. Remember, immigrants generally came to the New World in order to better themselves, and their family, economically. The possibilities were endless, as was land and property at that time. Hence, most immigrant males obtained a fair amount of property before their death. Probate is the process of passing that property, both land and various goods, on to one's heirs.
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.
Another 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.
This seems to have been more prevalent among Dutch settlers in what later became New York (and New Jersey). Perhaps because surnames had not been fixed among many Dutch, their home town was one of their "identifiers" and it may well appear in a man's will.
For example, the immigrant Adam Dingman referred to his origins in not one, but two wills. He and his wife prepared a joint will in 1683, wherein he called himself Adam Dingemans "of New Albany, born at Harlem, Holland". Many years later, his wife had died and his circumstances had changed. In 1720/21 he wrote another will and still included the phrase "born at Harlem, Holland."
Early British Probate
The same cultural, familial, and social factors noted above were also at work with the immigrant's family who were left behind in the old country. They still communicated with their children or other relatives who had settled in the Colonies. And, when they died, they remembered those relatives in their will.
Sometimes the references are vague, noting "my brother who has gone over the seas." Other times they may name the immigrant and the colony where they lived, such as "my son Henry, now in Virginia."
Seldom do British wills name specific towns in the Colonies, probably because there had been little communication, and they did not know the name of the town where their relative lived.
Researchers should also be aware that some persons in North America still owned property in Great Britain when they died. English law required that whenever a deceased person had died outside of England, owned property outside of England, or if a foreigner owned property in England, that probate had to be handled by the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. Hence, during the Colonial Era, the records of that court include many references to persons who died in the colonies.
For example, the estate of Philip Middleton, of St. Olave, Southwark, Surrey was probated in December 1650. According to the files, he had a daughter Hannah, wife of Edward Pomfast in New England. Apparently because of her distance, probate was granted to another daughter, Mary, wife of George Seale. Clearly the descendants of Hannah, living in America, would be interested in this probate not just because it names her father, but because it names his residence, and hence provides a direct clue to her origins.
Published Wills and Files
Of course, locating wills, especially of potential relatives in the old country, can be very difficult. However, an increasing number of probate actions are being published. For years, genealogists have realized that among the family members that immigrants left behind in the old country, some would mention the immigrant in their will. Many researchers have pored through old British probate records seeking mention of a son, brother, cousin, or other relative "in New England" or described in some other way as being in the British Colonies. The first major work publishing this kind of information was Henry F. Waters, Genealogical Gleanings in England: Abstracts of Wills Relating to Early American Families, with Genealogical Notes and Pedigrees Constructed from the Wills and from Other Records (2 vols. Reprint 1901, 1907, Baltimore. Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co. , 1969). Similar records were published by Sherwood (1932-33) and Withington (1903-1929).
Peter Wilson Coldham has issued two titles picking up where these earlier researchers left off. American Wills and Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1610-1857 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co. , 1989) focuses on the records of that key court.
American Wills Proved in London, 1611-1775 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992) is an effort to identify and abstract all of the wills not already included in Waters, Withington, or Sherwood.
While most of the interest in foreign records as proof of emigration has centered around English records, David Dobson has used a similar approach in his ongoing efforts to document the origins of Scottish immigrants to North America. Three of his volumes, all published by Genealogical Publishing Company are:
- Scottish-American Court Records, 1733-1783 (1991)
- Scottish-American Heirs, 1683-1883 (1990)
- Scottish-American Wills, 1650-1900 (1991)
Early wills in North America have often been the subject of publications as well. While those publications do not focus solely on wills providing immigrant origins clues, the fact that they were published greatly assists your research. One excellent example is Berthold Fernow, comp. Calendar of Wills on File and Recorded in the Offices of the Clerk of the Court of Appeals, of the County Clerk at Albany, and of the Secretary of State, 1926-1836. 1896. Reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1967. This source is especially useful for the early wills of the Dutch settlers of New York.
For additional information about finding and using published probate records in North America, including a bibliography of many early sources, see chapter 10, "Published Probate Records" in Printed Sources (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1998).
Direct Statements (America and the Old Country)
When you do find a will with a statement about the family's origin in the old country, it will either be a direct statement, such as the Dingman example noted above, or an indirect statement suggesting possible origins.
Even direct statements may require some additional research. First, consider that the place name may not be spelled as we find it today. Perhaps the copyist could not read the original very well, or the writer used a spelling long since discarded.
If the place name in a will refers to a non English place (such as towns in Germany or the Netherlands), the English spelling may be much different than the native spelling. Second, even if the place name is clear, it may not be completely specific. Perhaps it is only the region or district, or the nearest large city. You may need to do some research in the surrounding area to actually find the immigrant.
On those occasions when the place name is correct, you must still determine that the immigrant actually did live there, through records of that locality. This may also yield problems. In the Dingman example above, research did indeed reveal an Adam Dingman born in Harlem. In fact, there were three Adam Dingmans born in that city within the time period when Adam was born. Only through careful research, based on what was known about Adam in New Netherlands, was the correct one determined. Then the records revealed two generations of his ancestry.
Do be cautious when interpreting and evaluating the information you will find in a will. The place name mentioned may be a town in the New World. After all, many Colonial town names in North America were taken from places where some of the settlers used to live in the old country. Be certain that the reference to "Newbury" in a will pertains to the English, not Massachusetts town of that name. This can sometimes be done by comparing the date of origin of the town in the new world with the date of the will.
You might find a probate record which names a place in the old world, but not necessarily connect it to the immigrant directly. Perhaps the testator bequeaths an item to a relative in Old England, even naming a town. This does not mean that the testator was born there. Perhaps this relative moved there later in life, or was from a different town originally.
The will of Jan Jansen Damen of Manhattan (New Amsterdam) in 1649 is such an example. After mentioning his wife, nephew, brothers and sister, he also leaves a bequest to "the Poor at Bunick, Diocese of Utrecht". Since there was no diocese of Utrecht in New Amsterdam (New York) at that time, he must be referring to Utrecht in the Netherlands. He did name a specific town, so one would certainly want to begin there in any search for his origins. However, there may be reasons why Bunick was not his home. Perhaps his brother was there as a child, or any number of other reasons. It is an important clue, but an indirect one.
Many English wills simply refer to a relative living in "New England". This is an indirect statement. For many decades, descendants of John Drake of Connecticut believed that his English origins were well documented. A will by Francis Drake of Esher, County Surrey, England from 1633 included this bequest: "Unto John Drake my Cozen William Drake's Sonne twenty pounde to be sent unto him into New England...." Researchers could only find one John Drake in New England at that time period, the immigrant who had settled in Windsor, Connecticut. With this apparent clue, including the name of his father, William, researchers connected John Drake to numerous noble and royal lines in England.
Recently, Robert Charles Anderson reexamined this lineage and found, that while the English ancestry of John Drake and his father William were correctly researched, the identification of that John Drake with the Connecticut immigrant was incorrect. There was another John Drake in the Colonies to to which the English will referred (see the October 1988 issue of The American Genealogists). Thus the presumed origins and ancestry of the Connecticut immigrant were wrong.
This is an excellent example of three key pitfalls in tracing immigrant origins, especially in the Colonial era. First, be certain you have properly identified the immigrant. It is too easy to get him confused with other persons of the same name in the old country. Second, always review recent literature (especially periodical articles) for the most current status of research on a Colonial ancestor. Third, statements in old documents do not always mean the same as they would today. Today, New England is defined as the six U.S. states east of New York. However, in Colonial times, New England was often applied to any of the British colonies. The John Drake to which this will refers may well have lived in a southern colony, and still be described as "of New England."
After the Colonial Era, most wills of immigrants do not mention their origins in the old world. In large part, the United States was now a new country, so the social, economic, and cultural ties to the former country were not as strong. Also the vast majority of post-Revolutionary immigrants were not English. They were from other countries and chose to settle in a new country, often fully yielding their allegiance, as well as their identity, to their new land.
Even with colonial wills, such references may be rare. However, there are significant enough occasions where such clues do appear in probates that their use in locating immigrant origins is not uncommon. Given how few sources from this time period do name ancestral homes, it is certainly worth the effort to find the immigrant's will, or to seek reference to him (or a family member) in a will left in the old country.
If you have one or more colonial immigrants, notably of British origin, locate one or more of the books described above (by Waters, Coldham, or others). Seek each of your immigrant's surnames in the volumes. Carefully review any references to that surname. Could any of them refer to your family? If so, pursue the lead, and see what you can learn.