What can you learn from wills?
- Name deceased person (testator) went by. For example, one of my husband's ancestor's was born Johann Heinrich Rolfes, but his will is signed 'Henry Rolfes.' So, now I will search for Henry Rolfes in other records and search engines because this is likely the name he used.
- Residence of testator and location of any land holdings.
- Sometimes date of death of testator, although I've found that it's not always directly stated.
- Name of spouse, if still living.
- Names of children and, sometimes, grandchildren and/or siblings of testator. This often includes daughters' and granddaughters' married names, which can be so difficult to figure out sometimes.
- Residences of children and/or grandchildren. Sometimes this may just be a state (if they live in a different state from testator) OR, if they are more local, it may be an actual town.
Pay attention to:
- Witnesses of Will: Often extended family members, close friends, or neighbors. If you have an ancestor's will, but cannot find him in, say, a census schedule, try searching for these witnesses instead. It may lead you in a roundabout way to YOUR ancestor's whereabouts.
- Date on which will was created/signed by testator. If great uncle Johnny is specifically excluded from great granddad's will, and the will was created ten years before great-grandad's death, whatever happened that angered the 'old man' happened *before* that will was created. Just a little clue if you are trying to figure out family relationship dynamics. (And, yes, I recently just found a will of one of my husband's ancestors who specifically excluded two of his sons from most of their inheritance due to "disobedience," but there was, of course, no elaboration on said disobedience.)
I have seen some incredibly detailed wills in which the testator is very specific about which possessions go to which descendant, but I've also found wills that only consist of a sentence of two, in which the testator leaves all of his land/possessions to his spouse. In any case, they are definitely documents that are worth looking for in order to help you tell your family's stories.