Friday, October 2, 2015

Where There's a Will, There Might Be a Way ...

Will of Elijah Ragsdale(1)

When I first started looking through the collection of wills and probate records available on and, I was anticipating that it would be very dry reading. Instead I've discovered what a wealth of information might be found in a close reading of a will. Just looking at the will of Elijah Ragsdale, my 4GGrandfather, provided a way to find things such as ...

1. approximate date of death. Many of the wills I have been reading from the mid- to late-1800s start with a paragraph mentioning "being of advanced age and knowing that I must soon depart this life" and end with the date the will was signed. This can help to establish an approximate date of death. In this case Elijah Ragsdale would have died on or after 16 Apr 1858.

The next step is to locate the document in which someone had filed the will for probate or applied for letters to administer the will. The next page after Elijah Ragsdale's will was the probate filing. That document contained the reference to "Elijah Ragsdale, late of said county deceased" and had a filing date of 7 Jun 1858 written at the bottom of document. This provided the second part to bracketing Elijah Ragsdale's date of death. Using the date from his will and the date the will was recorded for probate established that Elijah had died between 16 April and 7 June of 1858. Having a narrow time frame is a plus when a grave marker has only the year of death.

2. spouse's name and date of marriage. Here again, I love the flowery language used in many 19th century wills. In the will, Elijah mentioned his "beloved wife Mary with whom I have lived in strictest quiet for fifty-nine years". This sentence points to a probable marriage date sometime in 1799. The information in the will also corroborated what I had read previously in a Ragsdale Family History book.(2)

3. specific property owned by the deceased. Item Four of Elijah's will left property to his wife Mary. The lot is described as being "Block C, no. 15" in "Dallas, Paulding County, Georgia" and "containing 40 by 80 feet".

Probate records sometimes include estate inventory reports. It is one thing to note on a census record that an ancestor's personal estate is valued at $400. The inventory reports provide a much more vivid picture of the deceased and his time period as it lists each piece of furniture, numbers of books, descriptions of guns, the family Bible, a looking glass,and other items which comprised the personal property of an ancestor.

4. family relationships. In the his will, Elijah names two executors, his wife Mary and his son Sanders W Ragsdale. I've read other wills listing an individual as a son-in-law or the child of a daughter who was deceased or other similar descriptions.

And sometimes you find other interesting information in a will including ...

5. names of other friends, neighbors, and relatives. One interesting part of seeing an actual will (or copy of it) is noting the names of the witnesses to the signing of the will. Sometimes they fit Elizabeth Shown Miles' FAN principle of Friends, Associates, and Neighbors. Four men witnessed Elijah sign his will, John Jensen, Duncan Bohannon, John H Williams, and Jeramiah Weisner. With this will, the four witnesses remain strangers to me. They weren't census neighbors, spouses of relatives, known business partners of this farmer, or otherwise easily connected to Elijah Ragsdale. In other family wills, however, the witnesses were census neighbors, relatives not named as heirs within the will, or individuals appearing on the same church membership register as the deceased.

Because my husband and I both have deep North Georgia roots, I was not surprised when I saw my husband's  3GGrandfather Samuel Hillhouse, along with his 2GGrandfather Elijah Hillhouse, and two Hillhouse aunts listed as witnesses on the will of my 5 Great Uncle Richard Ragsdale. Small world.

6. tidbits of family history. I've come across family wills that make a distinction in the amount of money or property to be given to different children based on having given one child part of the inheritance previously. And sometimes you come across instances in which the deceased sought to speak from the grave, chastising a child for past sins, or giving very specific instructions as to a redistribution of property should the surviving spouse ever remarry.

Other wills contain the provenance of family items, describing a piece of furniture as having been made by a relative or mentioning that a coat with brass buttons has been worn during the Revolutionary War. Because I have been examining a number of wills from Georgia, I have read several wills that contained references to slaves of the deceased. Some even contain very specific instructions that a certain male and female slave were to be kept together as a family and were not to be separated from each other or from their children.  It is all part of a family's story.

If you have not taken a look at wills and probate records, I urge you to consider exploring these resources. Examining a will might provide you with another way to learn additional information about an ancestor or relative.

(1) Georgia, Wills and Probate Records, 1742-1992 [database on-line], "Paulding County, State of Georgia, Will Records and Estate Records, 1850-1877", accessed on
(2) Van Leer, Mrs. Blake Ragsdale. The Ragsdale Family in England and America. Canton, GA : Industrial Printing Service, 1975.

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