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Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL, FASG, FNGS, FUGA, “Analyzing Wills for Useful Clues,” OnBoard 1 (May 1995): 16.

Of all the documents we hope to find on people of the past, wills can be the most informative and the most misleading.

Far less rigid in form and content than deeds, licenses, or bonds, wills offer their authors the opportunity to express themselves, their personalities, and their preferences and prejudices. But a will’s informality and latitude, clouded by changing customs and lexicology, can lead to misinterpretations and missed clues.

As we analyze a will for latent clues, the following questions are prime:

Is the will an “original” or a recorded copy? If it is an original on loose paper:

  • does it bear the testator’s signature or mark? An actual signature or a distinctive mark should be preserved in our notes. Matched with others elsewhere, it is vital to sorting identities.
  • does the text flow smoothly from the bottom of one page to the top of the next? Does the handwriting match throughout? Loose papers are more easily pilfered or altered. Sheets can be removed or replaced—by heirs who don’t like the terms of the original or by descendants seeking to hide information or “prove” certain points.

If the will is a clerk’s recorded copy:

  • has the original been preserved? Check it to eliminate the possibility of a copying error and (possibly) obtain signatures for testator and witnesses.

Does the will begin with an oath? (e.g.: “In the name of God, Amen…”) If so, the testator was not Quaker or did not belong to a similar religious body that eschewed oath-taking.

Are “infants” or minors mentioned? If so:

  • the estate may not have been settled until the last reached adulthood. Probates and court records should be checked for at least two decades. Children over fourteen might later sue for a change of guardian. Newly adult sons and husbands of newlywed daughters often sued for possession of inherited property or money.

Also remember:

  • “infants” might have been on the verge of adulthood. Legally, the term only meant that the person was a minor.
  • children “of tender age” were commonly under the age of fourteen.

Was education willed for children prior to the mid-1800s? Outside the Northeast, mid-to-older teens were not likely to be schooled unless the family was elite.

Does one heir receive only a token? Don’t assume that heir was “written out” of the will. Check conveyances and tax records to see if he or her husband received property in advance. If testator refers to such prior bequests, again check conveyances and property rolls.

Does a grandchild receive a special share? If of same surname, this is likely the child of a deceased son or an unmarried daughter. Grandparental wills often favored such children because they lacked a male provider.

Does testator state relationships to certain people? Those terms can mislead. Sons/daughters-in-law may be stepchildren. Sisters/brothers may be in-laws. Cousins may be any relationship past the first degree. Nephew may be grandchild.

Does the will mention debts, property, or beneficiaries in another region? This may be a clue to prior residence or origins.

Are slaves manumitted? Significance can depend upon age and color of those freed, religious affiliation of testator, or whether testator has a living wife or descendants. If a master freed all slaves or willed they be freed after the death of his spouse, then religious scruples may be at work. If he freed slave children, particularly when calling them mulatto and citing their mother as Negro (most particularly if he names no wife in his will) then kinship may exist. If a slave couple or elderly slave is freed, long-term service is more likely to be the motivation.

Slave names may also suggest other relatives of the testator, since the given names of slaves often duplicated those within the master’s family.

In general:

  • pursue all witnesses, but remember: witnesses could not be heirs.
  • verify recording; check court actions to see whether will was contested.
  • do not assume a named wife to be mother of the named children.
  • if any heir bears the name of the person whose parents we seek, we must still prove these are one and the same people.


Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, CGL

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG’s educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.