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Probate Records: Why Historians, Genealogists, and Writers Should Love Them

Mary Moore Croy never remarried after David Croy's death in 1878 at 35. The inventory gives insight into her life and interests.

Mary Moore Croy never remarried after David Croy’s death in 1878 at 35. The inventory gives insight into her life and interests.

How excited can one genealogy/history/historical fiction writer get…over probate records?

  • Historically, you discover what ordinary people valued and find hints regarding social hierarchies.
  • Genealogically, the records can provide answers to specific genealogical questions, from the names and relationships of heirs to the actual death date of the deceased, not to mention unveiling the personalities of those involved.
  • For writers, these records paint a picture, through the details found there, of the life they lived.

I didn’t have time to delve any new records on-line. I was busy with the “final” edits of my book of historical fiction based on my Pennsylvania family history and starting a new one on my New Haven roots. So I tried to ignore the big event, Ancestry’s grand reveal of a host of new will and probate records. I tried. I couldn’t do it, and I am so glad I gave in and took a peak!

With a special shout out to the distant cousins, and anyone else out there who follows my blog-search these records! Unfortunately, if you didn’t log on during the Labor Day weekend, Ancestry’s freebie “come-on” has passed. But the information is worth gold (well, come on, I’m a history nerd).

One caveat, the records are NOT complete, so don’t forget to contact individual courthouses and libraries. For example, of all 88 of the Ohio Counties, only eight are included.

I recommend going directly to the new information on the Ancestry site. Here’s how:

  1. After logging on to Ancestry, make sure you are on their home page.
  2. At the top you will see “New and Exclusive U.S. Wills and Probate Records.” Click “Search Now”
  3. There you may begin your search, get a quick introduction, or view a research guide. Note: you must view all this on their new site. They are encouraging those who use Ancestry to break away from the old version of their search site.
  4. Now put in the name you are interested in researching. I used surname only so I could browse with my family sheets in mind.

What did I find so far? (I say so far because it will take some time to ferret out all the wonders hiding in these records.)

  1. Probate records for Alexander Huston, Montgomery County (father of Mary Huston Croy Roberts…the heroine in my book of historical fiction), including wonderful tidbits like the fact that he owned a Rhone, Sorrel, and Bay mare and colts. Also, his wife, Mary Ann, purchase 8 yds Muslin for $5, 1 and ¾ gallons whiskey for $1.32, and 1 lb coffee for $.50. The purchases of other family members are also recorded.[i]
  2. The will of Jacob Oswalt II who married Sarah Huston. (Parents of Susannah Oswalt who married Andrew Croy, my 3x great-grandfather.) Recorded in Seneca County, where he finally ended up, it includes this comment “Michael Oswalts, John Oswalts, Samuel Oswalts, Jacob Oswalts and Joseph Oswalts…each one Dollar to be paid out of my money that Jacob Shoe Jr has in his possession…” His daughters split the proceeds from the “two forty acre lots lying in Big Spring Township, and one town lot lying in the town of Springville, Seneca County, Ohio…” (I also found the records of Jacob Oswalt’s father, his stepbrother, and his son.)[ii]
  3. The names of two of Edward Huston’s children. (A son of Alexander)[iii]
  4. The will of Mat(t)hias Croy (likely brother of Jacob Croy, husband of Mary Huston, out of Londonderry Township, Bedford PA) which included the married names of his daughters.[iv]
  5. The probate record of John Croy (again, the likely brother of Jacob Croy) where, on one of many pages, I found this: “…money on hand at the decease of John Croy on the 2nd of August 1824” (and the records of a number of his children).[v]

And then, when I didn’t think it could get any better, this e-mail arrived: “I have copied the handwritten recording of the will of Alexander Houston.  I have also copied the Chancery Record of John Huston v. Henry McGrath (40 pages).  For these copies and postage, please send $10.05” So, never let Ancestry or any on-line source be the only place you research. If you aren’t lucky enough to live where you’re researching, a letter (snail or e-version) and a stamp do wonders.

Media credit:Probate Records of Mary Moore Croy, wife of David Croy: 1 December 1899. Washington County Probate Court, 205 Putnam St., Marietta, OH. Microfilm Copies: acquired 13 August 2015.

[i] Ohio, Wills and Probate Records, 1786-1998 [database on-line, accessed 9 September 2015] Montgomery County, Ohio, Case # 139, Ca. 1810-1887; Probate Place: Montgomery, Ohio.

[ii] Ohio, Wills and Probate Records, 1786-1998 [database on-line, accessed 9 September 2015] Probate Records, 1828-1954; Probate Place: Seneca, Ohio; Probate Date: 26 September 1836.

[iii] Ohio, Wills and Probate Records, 1786-1998 [database on-line, accessed 9 September 2015] Montgomery County, Ohio, Case # 3234, Ca. 1841-1861; Probate Place: Montgomery, Ohio.

[iv] Ohio, Wills and Probate Records, 1786-1998 [database on-line, accessed 9 September 2015] Will Records, 1804-1919; General Index to Estates, 1801-1935: Ohio. Probate Court (Belmont County); Probate Date: 9 October 1837.

[v] Ohio, Wills and Probate Records, 1786-1998 [database on-line, accessed 9 September 2015] Montgomery County, Ohio, Estate Files #597-666, # 659, Ca. 1810-1887; Probate Place: Montgomery, Ohio.

Finding Vital Records: Four Lessons Learned

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A wonderfully accurate account of a death.

A wonderfully accurate account of a death.[i]

My goal for 2015 is to document, for the Ohio Genealogical Society, the Civil War service of the seven sons[ii] of Jacob Croy (1810-1872) and Margaret Pugh Croy (1813-1884). If you are familiar with my blog, you know that I have researched this portion of my heritage extensively. (Interested? Search “civil war” at this site and you will find all my entries.)

Given the extent of my research, you would think this an easy task; it is not, and here is why. The Society includes this caveat; “Pre-1880 censuses cannot be used as sole evidence of relationship since no relationships are stated in these records.” [iii] The term ‘sole evidence’ gives a little leeway for proving the relationships. Still, the fact that documentation of Ohio births and deaths only began in 1867, were spotty, and didn’t always include parent names until 1908, complicates things. The Society also requires proof of marriage, and a license “is not acceptable evidence …it only proves intent…” Records of marriages are more numerous in Ohio but some counties record only licenses, and, until 1900, names of the parents were not included.

Bottom line? I was forced to hunt down the necessary vital records, some not easily obtained or valid based OGS rules. Some records were easy enough to find: the birth and marriage certificates of me, my husband, father and mother. Attempting to use the OGS criteria to document the Civil War brothers and their relationships to each other, to their father and mother, and to their spouses would require much more detective work since the majority of the records I needed would be dated between 1810 and 1930.

I knew the brothers familial relationships through so many indirect sources, and knew the truth, didn’t I? That comment just made dyed-in-the-wool Certified Genealogists cringe but, really, my dad knew the name of his grandfather, didn’t he? Relax, I’m joking, and we’ll get to the punch line later, but by gathering the more obvious documents, I was led to my first lesson.

Lesson #1: Gather together those documents so often taken for granted. Beg them from family members, retrieve them from your own files, put them in archival sheets, order them by date, and store them in a fire safe.

Marriage and death certificates of the relationships closest in time proved easy enough to obtain, but they were everywhere. I started to realize how easily these genealogically significant documents could disappear.

Lesson #2: Search wide, and keep going back to your resources. Go to your favorite “pay to view” genealogy site, of course, but FamilySearch is an absolute must. And don’t forget the state genealogical sites. They might require payment for membership so you can access their site but the dollars might be worth it, especially if you have enough ancestors from a particular state.

My “pay for” site didn’t yield much usable information so I turned to FamilySearch. Using its ‘wiki’ resources[iv] I determined what was available by state and county. Their searchable resources have also increased mightily. I found a number of actual documents (not indexes) unavailable when I looked a year ago. Using their information, the Ohio Genealogical Society resources, and what I knew about the location of the family through time, I began contacting individual counties for records and, in the case of Calvin, my great-grandfather, I looked to other state records in Kansas and Oklahoma.

Lesson #3: Not all counties and states are equally responsive concerning record retrieval, and some make you stand on your hands, do a break dance, and a back-flip to boot.

Kiss the ground and shout “Halleluiah” if you have ancestors from Washington County, Ohio. Their library and probate court personnel answered my e-mails promptly and gave me what I needed at almost no cost. Through them I retrieved useful death and obituary records, all through e-mail, and they included very interesting ancillary data. Other counties had no on-line or e-mail connections so I resorted to snail mail. And Oklahoma recommended I go through VitalChek. I had to document my relationship to the deceased (dead since 1922), fax my information, and pay $50 for the results. That leads me to the final lesson, for now.

Lesson #4: Sometimes parts of the records, filled out by fallible humans, are just plain wrong.

I awaited my great-grandfather’s death certificate anxiously. It was, after all, according to the OGS standards a valid record of relationship, and I already had clear documentation that three brothers dying after 1908 where sons of Jacob Croy. This certificate would prove the fourth, very important, relationship. Wrong!

So here’s the punch line. Calvin Croy had moved his family from Ohio between 1880[v] and 1885.[vi] Justus Croy, my grandfather and the person who filled out his death certificate, was between three and five years old when he last saw any Ohio relations. Communication systems were sparse at the time, and, it seems, his mother and father hadn’t talked much about his grandparents. He probably didn’t consult his mother when filling out the form either. He got the first letter of his father’s parents first names right and used his mother’s maiden name for the maiden name of his father’s mother. I researched the John Croy and Mary Smith he named on the death certificate just to be sure. No such Ohio couple at an appropriate time, not that I could find.[vii]

And the not-so-perfect accounting of a death.

And the not-so-perfect accounting of a death.

Seems the census information for 1850, 1860, and 1870 was more accurate than a toddler’s recollections forty years later, no matter what the OGS lineage rules say. So I have more work to do. Hopefully the Civil War records coming from the National Archives will hold definitive proof of the yet unverified relationships. I can also probably “prove” the relationship using the census information as supporting evidence. But for now I search on, four brothers shy of my goal to honor seven brothers who served in the Ohio Volunteer Infantry at a defining moment in their lives and the life of our Nation. I’ll keep you posted.

[i] “Ohio, Deaths, 1908-1953,” Database with images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 22 June 2015), 1914 > 34601-37460 > image 2483 of 3296.

[ii] Robert, William P. Greer, David, Nathan, Duncan, and Calvin Harrison Croy

[iii] The Ohio Genealogical Society: Lineage Society Rules and Application Procedures.

[iv] example

[v] Year: 1880; Census Place: Keene, Coshocton, Ohio; Roll: 1003; Family History Film: 1255003; Page: 115C; Enumeration District: 048; Image: 0234 accessed September 27, 2012

[vi] National Archives and Records Administration; Nebraska State Census; Year: 1885; Series/Record Group: M352; County: Richardson; Township: Spencer; Page: 18. Accessed September 27, 2012

[vii] Certificate of Death, Oklahoma State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics.