Monday, December 12, 2016

Don't Rely on's Indexes for Wills and Probate Records

I have mentioned this several times in earlier blog posts, but I want to emphasize it with several more examples.

I found the will of Samuel Brown (1686-1749) in the Barnstable County, Massachusetts probate records using the search fields provided by  There were three images for this record from Volume 8, pages 238-242.  I transcribed the three pages in Amanuensis Monday - 1748 Will and Court Records for Estate of Samuel Brown (1686-1749) of Eastham, Mass. today.

1)  I decided to see if there were more records for this particular Samuel Brown, especially an inventory and an account since they were referred to on the pages I transcribed.  I needed to look for an Index to the probate records that included this time period of 1680 to 1800.

I went to the Massachusetts, Wills and Probate Records, 1635-1991 database page, and selected "Barnstable" on the dropdown menu for the County in the "Browse this collection" area:

I scrolled down the list of "books" below the County, and saw the "Consolidated General Index to Probate Records and Cases, M-Z" as shown on the screen above.

When I opened the "Consolidated General Index to Probate Records and Cases, M-Z" I found that the index was alphabetical by surname, and then by given name, and then by year probated.  I was able to find the pages that had Samuel Brown" surname on it:

There are four probate files for persons named Samuel Brown of Eastham in the 1691 to 1749 time period.  My ancestor is the 4th one on the list, the one with records in:

*  Will Volume 8, Page 238
*  Letters Testamentary in Volume 8, page 239
*  Inventory in Volume 8, page 240 
*  Subdivision of the estate in Volume 17, page 156
*  Children's Guardian records in Volume 7, pages 137-139.

NOTE that the Index found only the Volume 8, pages 238-240 records, and not the other two records.

2)  I had searched for my ancestor George Brown (1652-1721) in the Ancestry index with no results.

The Probate Index for Brown noted above shows records for George Brown who died in 1721:

There are records for a number of George Brown's including George (1652-1721).  The records for him are:

*  Will in Volume 4, page 11
*  Letters Testamentary in Volume 4, page 12
*  Inventory in Volume 4, page 12

I went back to the Massachusetts, Wills and Probate Records, 1635-1991 database page, and scrolled down to find Volume 4:

I found the "Probate records, Vol. 4-5, 1721-1741" collection on the list, so I selected that and was able to easily find Page 12 of Volume 4:

There is the beginning of the will of George Brown at the bottom of the right-hand page of the image.  Why wasn't this in the Ancestry index of this collection?

NOTE the filmstrip below the image - this specific image (image 11) was indexed as "George Crowne" rather than Brown.

In the process, I noticed that the file after John Freeman (images 12-15) was indexed as "John Bafset:"

This is actually "John Basset" because the indexer was unaware of the "long S" convention in some colonial handwriting.

3)  So my observations are:

a)  You cannot trust the indexes for the wills and probate record collections to be accurate or complete.

b)  There are complete indexes in most of these collections that include all of the entries for a person, but not all of the entries are in the Ancestry indexes.  Nor is every Index book indexed (that would really help!).

c)  Within a span of three names, two of the names were indexed incorrectly because the indexers were not familiar with the handwriting characteristics of the time and place.

d)  The list of "Books" in the "Browse this collection" area are listed alphabetically.  This means that the "Books" are not in a logical order (e.g., Volume 8 after Volume 7 and before Volume 9) because that is not alphabetical.

e)  Researchers need to use the probate indexes available in these Wills and Probate databases, rather than relying on Ancestry's index.

It is unfortunate that did not do a better job on these probate record indexes.  These are excellent records to determine relationships and describe estates.

5)  A researcher needs to find EVERY record that probates an estate, not just the will.  Unfortunately, unless researchers are aware of the problems with the index, they will not find EVERY probate record.  In this case, these are the Probate Court clerk transcriptions, and not the actual probate papers found in a Packet in the Probate courthouse.


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Diane Gould Hall said...

Thanks for this insight Randy.

Carol Kostakos Petranek said...

Very important post, and thank you for sharing your findings. I worked as a Citizen Archivist at NARA in Washington, DC, and learned that Ancestry and Fold3's indexing is done by people in southeast Asia who may not speak or write English. They are taught to read the handwriting; however, we English speakers often have a difficult time with old handwriting -- so just imagine how difficult it is for them. This is also why you can often find a record in FamilySearch but cannot find the same record in Ancestry -- FamilySearch indexers are volunteers who will only index records they can read and understand.

stluno said...

An excellent point, Randy, and good examples. And thank you, too, Carol, for your information. Why am I surprised? I still can't accept, apparently, that once you're in it for the money, regardless of window-dressing, you're really, in the last analysis, ONLY in it for the money. So...caveat emptor!

Molly McKinley said...

Great bit of sleuthing, Randy. Those kinds of records are not in a rational order sometimes. You do have to do a lot more "looking around" to get the whole picture. Thanks for sharing your process.

Sharon said...

Randy: I found a few New Jersey wills/probate files on Ancestry that were among the items "deleted" last year -- just by searching for the name on Google. Worth a try. Psssttt. Don't tell Ancestry.

Teresa Eckford said...

Thanks for writing about this - good to remember that sometimes it's better to browse rather than search!