Wills are great for family historians finding out what land, or other more personal possessions, your ancestors had and so building your family tree. The genealogical information that they can often supply is often a huge bonus. It is worth remembering that any names and details of relationships that are found in a will are those supplied by the ancestor themselves and so can be expected to be a highly accurate source for you.
A will furnishes the researcher with an approximate date of death for an ancestor, which can be helpful if you were uncertain of this from your other research. For example, if you had not been able to trace a death record or a burial because you have found several candidates with the same name as your ancestor, then at least a will may give you the evidence of the year of death of your ancestor and so can point you to the correct entry in the parish register.
Another point to remember is that a will may provide you with a whole list of nephews, nieces, grandchildren, cousins and so on. Especially if the departed was intent on spreading their bequests more broadly around than just their nearest kin.
In my own ancestor’s cases, for the wills that I have traced so far, I have found that many of my own forebears were a little unimaginative and kept it short and sweet, leaving all to spouse and children! Yet, in other wills that I have researched that do not belong to my family, I have seen legacies in abundance.
These bequests can be used to confirm family relationships that have previously been deduced from records of birth or baptism. One of the great virtues of wills are that they spell out the relationship to the testator of everyone mentioned. For example bequests to a married daughter, or her children, should make it possible to identify the record of daughter’s marriage and the baptisms of the ancestor’s grandchildren.
From a will you can often find out about debts owed to and debts owed by your ancestor. You may discover something about their business dealings or whether they owned land, houses, or other property.
You may find out about the personal property that they held dear as it gets mentioned in separate bequests. I have seen a Welsh will in which the deceased left a watch to a relative and specified that they were not to sell it!
One other highly valuable thing about a will is that it may also provide information on the occupation and social status of an ancestor, indicate the closeness or otherwise of the relationship to a spouse and children, and may allow you to identify, in the present day, a house or land owned by the family in the past.
If you want to learn more about these fascinating documents then The Family History Researcher Academy course on English/Welsh family history has a module on this and many more resources that you can use.
This week my attention was drawn to a site on the web that allows people to upload a transcribed will to. This then allows other family history researchers to search for a will and read the transcription rather than struggle with the handwritten original. I wish them well with this project as I am sure it will be of great use to those who can find an ancestor’s will amongst those that have been transcribed.
This is what the site says about itself:
This site contains a number of transcripts which it is to be hoped will grow. Anyone who has transcribed a pre-1900 will is invited to contribute to this site which is searchable by Testator, Executor or Administrator, or Witness. It is hoped that ultimately there will be a large number of transcripts which may assist family historians in their research and also those who are interested in local history and the families who lived in a particular locality. The site is completely free and material on it is not to be used for commercial purposes. Please do not copy anything without the permission of the transcriber.