Probate records can add more to your genealogy than heirs and possibly death dates; it can add stories and intrigue.
At the Massachusetts Archives, I held the actual probate papers for my seventh great grandfather. He died intestate (without a will), probably of smallpox which was epidemic in Boston at the time (1721). At first, I wasn’t sure I had the correct ancestor as I paged through papers of administration, inventory lists, receipts and expenses. And then I discovered a letter to the court from the orphaned children’s uncle, explaining how my ancestor sent his children to Ipswich to live with their uncle right before his own death. The probate packet didn’t give me the names of the children, but it provided enough details to piece together his life and circumstances.
While looking for an obituary in a newspaper, I unexpectedly found a one-liner mentioning the probate of my third great grandmother’s estate. I had pictured her as a poor, illiterate immigrant, so “estate” sounded too big of a word for her, really. When I received the probate papers, however, I discovered my ancestor had $314.72 deposited in the bank. She had no real estate or personal property to speak of, just cash in a bank. Curious. The details are scant, but at least the bare-bones document ties together three previously presumed-related siblings.
As you can see, probate records can provide valuable information to add to your family history.
Finding Probate Records
For early records, visit the Massachusetts Archives.
Check the online Massachusetts Archives Collections (1629-1799), also known as the Felt Collection. The online database provides name, location, and subject access to 18 volumes. In person, you also can check the card catalog, which covers a quarter of this 328-volume collection.
Two notable compilations with probate data are the Great Migration series and Annie Haven Thwing’s index, both available from the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
Look for Index to the probate records of the County of Suffolk, Massachusetts: from the year 1636 to and including the year 1893, prepared under the supervision of Elijah George. You’ll find Volume 2: G to O and Volume 3: P to Z online, along with John T. Hassam’s Registers of probate for the county of Suffolk, Massachusetts, 1639-1799.
For later records, contact the Suffolk Probate and Family Court.
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