Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Dear Randy - Where Did You Get All of Those Probate Records?

In my recent post Amanuensis Monday - Probate Records of John Mousall (1595-1665) of Woburn, Mass., reader T asked in Comments:

"Randy, did you have to visit all those places where you got wills and deeds or did you find some on line? I need to find something interesting about my really old ancestors but have had no luck finding anything at all about them. Checking all the family trees at there isn't any document on any tree that wasn't from me in the first place. At least I helped a few people with documentation and I did get the credit for it. Double win!"

My response:  

I have collected Probate records for my ancestral families from several sources over the past 20 years:

1)  I visited the Courthouse in Worcester, Massachusetts twice back in the 1990s in order to access Probate Packets (in an envelope, closed with a string or ribbon) for my Worcester County ancestors.  The Probate Packets have all (or almost all) of the original papers (e.g., will, bond, administration, inventory, distribution, account, etc.)that dealt with a specific estate, and they are numbered 1 through nnnnn in several series (different year ranges).  This option requires travel to and from, and lodging and other expenses at, the location of the Court.  Consequently, I haven't done any of this in recent years.  I obtained photocopies of many of the original papers at the court house for an exorbitant copy price, and had to wait quite a long time to get service at times.

2)  I have used the Family History Library microfilms in order to access Probate Court records for specific estates all over the USA.  This was cheaper than 1) above, but required several visits to the Family History Center here in San Diego and the rental of many microfilms.  I also accessed these films while in Salt Lake City when attending conferences or companies there.  Usually, there is a Probate Docket file (on microfilm) for the County that lists the types of papers in each Probate packet, with a volume and page number.  Each one of the original papers in a Probate packet was entered by the Probate Court clerk into the Probate Court records  in a Volume and Page format.  If there are five separate records, then there may be five separate pages to find in as many as five different volumes.  I obtained photocopies or digital images of these pages at the Family History Library or Center.

Sometimes a user gets lucky and finds that the probate packet papers themselves, rather than the probate court records, were microfilmed.  One example of this is Middlesex Counties, Massachusetts.  Fortunately, that's the County with the most ancestors on my family tree!

Other repositories may have microfilms of the probate records - for instance, the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston has probate records for Massachusetts counties on microfilm.

3)  There are books and periodicals that have extracted information, abstracted information, or transcribed papers.  For instance, some of the early Connecticut probate records were published by Manwaring;  the early Middlesex County, Massachusetts probate papers were published by Rodgers;  the Rhode Island Genealogical Register abstracted Rhode Island wills;  the Mayflower Descendant extracted information from Bristol and Plymouth County, Massachusetts probate records.  I know I've missed some on that incomplete list.

4)  Some Probate records are available online.  For instance, A number of transcribed Essex County, Massachusetts wills are available at  Individuals have published wills and other records online - an example is my Amanuensis Monday Posts at

5)  FamilySearch has Probate Records, usually in browse only form, in their historical record collection - enter the search term "probate" on the page.  There are collections for several English counties, New Zealand, and quite a few USA states and/or counties.  For example, "New York Probate Records, 1629-1971" is at  There are waypoints for each County, and then for each "book" in the collection.  The collection for each state and county may be incomplete - the user needs to be aware of that.  This is a bit cumbersome, but it is free and it is usable on any day and time, and the user can capture a digital image of each page.

As I've stated before, Probate Records are one of the very best resources to gather evidence of family relationships and to be able to assess the real and personal property of a person.  They are also a "finding aid" - the property descriptions can lead to land records, the relationships can lead to church and vital records, and the probate dates often provide a death date and place, and can lead to cemetery records.  Lastly, they wills usually provide a glimpse into the religious beliefs of the testator.  Inventories reveal the property owned by the testator.  Probate records are potential ancestral gold mines!

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Copyright (c) 2013, Randall J. Seaver

1 comment:

T said...

I was SO excited to find Wyoming County New York included in the wills to browse. And then I started browsing the 1,903 images and realized Browse was the word. They are in no order, just whatever page got picked up next, I guess. I gave up. I have browsed those kinds of lists before. At the end of the collection I had wasted 3 days and had nothing. So this one will just be there for someone to browse but it won't be me. If it were even alphabetized or by year or something!