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Inheritance in Genealogy

Inheritance in genealogy can refer to possessions handed down or to traits passed down through DNA. When we are searching for missing ancestors we examine known relatives, DNA when available, censuses, and court records. I'm still researching in Colonial America this week trying to determine where the patriarch's four children and his dozens of grandchildren moved to and why. Reading the will of the oldest ancestor and the way he divided up his property led me to research "primogeniture" again.

drawing of a gold crown with red and orange jewels

Primogeniture is the custom begun in the Medieval Ages to pass down the family farm or a royal kingdom in its entirety to the eldest son in order to avoid fighting that could lead to war. Primogeniture kept control of land in the hands of a very privileged few. Traditionally, the birth order of the males determined their fates in life: the first born got the land, the second born went off to be a priest, and the third born joined the military.

The inability to own land was not a popular concept, as you can imagine, and the chance to own their own land was one of the many reasons people moved to the New World, and especially to the Plymouth Colony. This law of inheritance came from England with the colonists but it applied only to those who died without a will and was completely abolished within 15 years after the American Revolution.

However, it was still traditional that the oldest son would inherit the bulk of the land or estate. It's absolutely maddening to read through all of these wills that leave acres of land to the sons, and leave their daughters a few shillings! My favorite clause in a will said that one daughter would not inherit at all if she did not follow her mother's wishes! I was lucky enough to find wills for this family's first three generations, and it led me to several siblings that were not till now known. The eldest son in each case did inherit more than his siblings, by the way.

painting of colonial American woman washing diapers
The Laundress by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1761)

One will led me to a second wife (confirmed by marriage records), which explained how 19 children were not impossible. Nineteen!!!! Can you imagine the laundry, the feedings, the bathing, the everything with no electricity, while making the soap, the food, farming, all the while fearing Indian attacks? Oh, and let's not forget a little thing like a Revolution. The mind boggles. The afore-mentioned daughter that needed to mind her mother to inherit apparently never married. Makes me wonder who won? Did she inherit or not?

It was in the next generation that the family dispersed completely from their ancestral homes in Colonial New England. One can imagine, that no matter how wealthy their father may have been, there would not be enough land left in the family for all of the 19 children to farm. Most of them took advantage of the new opportunities in the new territories opening up and moved West.

colorful map of early American colonies

Remember when you are looking for wills and probate records that territorial and boundaries changed a lot during the colonization of America. One of these sons was living in Massachusetts in early records, but his will was probated in Connecticut because the state lines changed! That's why it's a great idea to do a wider filter in your searches to include neighboring states or counties.

The big family tree companies have some probate records on file, as I'm sure you know. If your counties of interest are not yet there, most probate records are kept on file at the county level. Check with your local county clerk to see about accessing and researching there. For research in another more distant county or another state, you can find links to free probate records by starting at FamilySearch or CyndisList. Some of the older published records are now available online in places like GoogleBooks. They are not always indexed, but if they are in PDF format you can search for a name or city. Just Google for something like "Probate Records"+"Your County" + Year to get started.

Inheritance laws vary from country to country, and from state to state, with the biggest variable being whether or not there is a will. Additional research about inheritance laws should always be on your list of things to do to ensure accurate genealogy.

Hope things are going well for your trees! Don't forget to drop me a line if you'd like a free quote to help with your brick walls.

Thank you,

Leslie Ryan

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