Friday, November 30, 2012

A Day in the Life: Probate

You are six hours away from home. The probate clerk has unlocked the records room, containing probate information back to the beginning of the county, and left you to it.

The will books are there, but books of probate court proceedings from early days are hard to find. Where are the probate packets (AKA "loose papers")? In one corner, a likely-looking group of metal shelves contain boxes of  . . . original marriage returns, handwritten on scraps of paper, bundled up in groups for each year -- 1843, 1844, 1845. A treasure for another day.

You look for an overall index. You find volume 2 -- which begins in the 1850s. You find Volume 1, a different-shaped book with a slightly different label in another part of the shelving. The desired decedent, from the 1840s, is there. And her case has a number.

The probate packets are on the other side of the room in ranks of big metal file drawers. The packets are in strict numerical order, but the order is NOT chronological. Worse, the number you found in the index book applies to someone else's probate altogether.

You paw carefully through a drawer that contains three rows of tight-packed trifolds in their narrow heavy paper or light cardboard holders, all from the 1840s. The decedent you're looking for isn't there. But as you scan the jacket labels one by one, you notice that everybody in the drawer has a surname beginning with B, and every packet is dated in the 1840s. Since few people die in alphabetical order, a light dawns. You remember a classroom and a distinguished teacher admonishing students to think about how and why a given record was created. Now you need to think about how the record was treated after creation!

These 1840s probate packets were not fitted up with fine jackets back in the near-frontier days when the cases were heard in court. They were probably tied up in string and left in drawer, as the marriage returns remain to this day. At some point, perhaps in the comparatively affluent early 1900s, the probates got special treatment. The county clerk must have bought several gross of jackets, and someone went to work sorting, labeling, and numbering all the old probate packets so that they could be preserved and relocated at need.

How did the clerk organize the packets? Alphabetizing them all may have seemed like a herculean task, and it would mix probates from very different eras. But putting them in exact chronological order would have been difficult and largely irrelevant, since some probates that began in 1840 ended then, and others dragged on for years. Evidently a compromise was reached: sort them all by decade, then alphabetize each decade by the surname of the deceased, and number them in that sequence. Anyway, that's how it looks to you now, and your job is not to conjure up a history of one county's probate office but to find that one packet!

The theory was close enough to help. You quickly put your hand on the right packet -- with dozens of pages inside, each breathing a bit of life from the 1840s. Time to sit down and scrutinize every scrap, all the time wondering if someone else would have figured out this organizing scheme sooner, and how your experience might benefit the next comer.

Harold Henderson, "A Day in the Life: Probate," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 30 November 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

1 comment:

Sonja Hunter said...

Great story and a useful lesson, Harold!