|Power of Words by Antonio Litterio.jpg, via Wikimedia Commons|
It started as a simple project. Look for online will and probate records for each of my 4 GreatGrandfathers. First step was to make a 5 Generational chart of each of my four grandparents using one of the simple forms available through the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Step two was to search and browse through the will and probate records accessible through both Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org. One 4GGrandfather had no will or probate information, one died intestate but there were a few probate records detailing what happened to his personal property.
Then I came to Samuel H Howard. My 4GGrandfather Howard died in 1853, leaving an extremely detailed will.(1) Item two of his will was such an example. As found in so many wills of that time period, he left his house and household items to his wife Polly for her life or widowhood. Samuel apparently was not content with such a vague statement. Instead, he spelled out that Polly was specifically to receive
- all the plantation utensils, farming tools, and blacksmithing tools,
- all his household and kitchen furniture,
- her choice of seven or eight head of cattle, 10 sheep, and as many of his hogs as she wished to keep,
- specific slaves by name as well as the names of those who were to be kept together if Polly later decided to sell any of the slaves,
- his road wagon and harness.
Next Samuel dealt with the distribution of his real estate upon the death of his wife Polly, detailing how it was to have its value assessed, by whom, and the amount of money to be given to son Abner who would not share in the inheritance of certain property.
Samuel Howard had a sister Avis living nearby who had inherited property from their father John Howard. The will described the location of the property by naming the property owners to the north, east, south, and west of it, and which of his sons would assist Avis as caretaker of the property. He did not even own this property but apparently wanted to be certain that his sister had someone to help her as presumably Samuel had done in the past.
He also named one son to receive his desk, bookcase, library, and the family Bible upon the death of his wife Polly. Two sons were named to look after his wife Polly and his sister Avis.
All of Samuel's specific directions came to a screeching halt, at least for me, when I read Item 10. "It is my absolute will and desire that my estate shall be divided into 11 equal parts ... The one eleventh part of my estate I set apart as an undivided part to be managed as I shall herein direct." OK so far.
So why eleven parts? Samuel Howard and his wife Polly had 12 children (Elizabeth, Thomas, John, Abner, P E Augustus, Moses, William, Amelia, Samuel, Harriet, Mary Ann "Polly", and Avis). Son Thomas and daughter Harriet had both died before Samuel had written this will, so there were 10 living children when Samuel signed his will in 1852. The will stated that an eleventh share was to go to "the legal heirs of [the] body" of daughter Harriet. No mention, however, was made of any provision for the children of son Thomas. Ten surviving children plus a share to Harriet's children does equal eleven shares.
The surprise, for me, is that neither the ten surviving children nor Harriet's children are named specifically. You would expect a will to contain a list of named individuals whenever there is a division of property involved. After all of Samuel's specificity throughout his will, the absence of the names of those to receive a share seems almost out of character. Samuel did, however, state that the executors of his will were to manage the funds for Harriet's children until they came of age.
Samuel concluded his will with the forgiveness of $800 owed to him by his son Moses, forgiven, that is, by the share of the estate that Moses would receive.
Finally, in Item 13, returning to his detailed directives, Samuel had a plan as to how any dispute over property value or shares would be handled. Three respectable land holders (not the executors) would assess the value of the property then make their decision. Any one of the eleven shareholders who disagreed with this decision would simply forfeit his/her share of the property except for $5. There. Samuel had spoken!
Like that old quote, the devil was in the details. Because Samuel Howard was so specific in writing his will, I ended up gaining a much clearer picture of my 4GGrandfather, his life, and his family. And I had thought that reading wills and probate records would be boring!
(1) South Carolina, Wills and Probate, 1670-1980, "Greenville, Will Books, vol C-D, 1840-1867", p 468-472; accessed on www.ancestry.com.