Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Wills and Probate Databases on Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com has so many databases (now 29,856 as of today) that it is difficult to find some of the most useful ones in their collection.

For instance, there are 959 databases in the Tax, Court, Land and Wills collection. I wondered how many databases there were for probates and wills for Massachusetts. In the Ancestry Card Catalog for all databases, I put:

* "probate" in the Title field, and there were 31 matches (not all Massachusetts, of course)
* "probate" and "massachusetts" in the Title field, and there were 10 matches
* "will" in the Title field, and there were 23 matches
* "wills" in the Title field, and there were 178 matches (which did not appear to include the 23 "will" matches!)
* "wills" and "massachusetts" in the Title field, and there were zero matches
* "probate" in the Title field, and "massachusetts" in the Keyword field, and there were 11 matches (the 10 in the first search, plus Suffolk County Wills which is the one I was looking for!)
* "will" in the Title field and "massachusetts" in the Keyword field, and there were 3 matches (none of which was specifically for a set of Massachusetts wills)
* "wills" in the Title field and "massachusetts" in the Keyword field and there were 10 matches (including Suffolk County Wills)

The screen below shows the results for "probate" in the Title field and "massachusetts" in the Keyword field - 11 matches:

There are probate indexes for Bristol County, Essex County, Middlesex County, Norfolk County, Suffolk County and Worcester County, all in Massachusetts, in the list above. Unfortunately, the Probate Register for Suffolk County, 1639-1799, does not have many entries - there are only 105 pages available (I wonder if there are many more volumes? I would have thought that there would be over 100,000 entries in a probate register for those years).

The Suffolk County [MA] Wills book was not included in the list above.

The search for "wills" in the Title field and "massachusetts" in the Keyword field resulted in this screen (21 matches):

The list includes books for specific families, in addition to seemingly unrelated English will books. The Suffolk County Wills book was #19 on the list. It has 435 records, which usually indicates the number of pages. Here is the database search page:

A user could put a name in the search fields, or click on one of the links in the Browse box on the right. The links include the Title Page, the actual transcribed text, and the Index. I recommend using the Index to see if your persons are in the book, and consider name spelling variations for these early records. If the user puts a surname in the search field, then snippet views of the matches in the book are shown.

Here is the title page image:

Page 1 of the book has the earliest entry, the will of Richard Eles:

The user can navigate within the book by using the right and left arrows in the upper right corner of the image (next to the "Go" button) or put a page number in the Page field (to the left of the "Go" button).

My lessons learned from this exercise include:

* Search from the Card Catalog page in addition to the specific database collection. You may be surprised!
* The "Title" search field provides matches only for what is in the Title of the database. Fort instance, if Massachusetts is not in the title of the work, the search will not find the database.
* Using a word (such as "Will") in the Title field and another word (such as "Massachusetts") in the Keyword field works well. Obviously, the search is only as good as the Keywords entered by Ancestry.com for each database.
* The probate and will books found in this search were for indexes and abstracts. These are not the actual records, but they are excellent "finding aids" for the actual records. Knowing a probate packet number or a probate court book volume and page number are very useful. Finding the actual records requires a visit to the probate record repository or use of the Family History Library microfilm collection.
* Many of these books have a wealth of local historical information about the early history of the court system that can help readers understand the records themselves.
* I'm concerned that many of these databases on Ancestry.com are "hidden" from users who only search by name from the Home or Search page. Users need to learn to use the Ancestry Card Catalog to seek out resources for their ancestral localities, and then learn how to search the specific databases. The latter is like finding a book on the shelf in a library - you note the Source information, check the Table of Contents, and check the Index.

Disclosure: I am not an employee, contractor or affiliate of Ancestry.com, and have received no remuneration for this article. I am a fully paid US Deluxe subscriber to Ancestry.com.

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