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Genealogy Methodology: Researching Wills

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transcription of will of John McCaskey of Tyrell County, 7 April 1760

Transcription of the will of John McCaskey of Tyrrell County, April  7, 1760 (microfilm no. C.096.80001)

Wills are often the last records our ancestors created. People from all walks of life created wills, although not all have survived. Some wills perished in courthouse fires of the 1700 and 1800s, some people never left a will because they may have died unexpectedly. Wills are used as a way to dictate how one’s real and personal property should be divided at death. Wills are an excellent source of proving family relationships before the existence of birth and death certificates, which was 1913 in North Carolina. This can be especially true for those who send questions on proving a relationship to join the Daughters of the American Revolution AR or another society that requires proof of relationship between a parent and a child. Although other records can show real property (land, houses, etc.), wills are often unique in that they can show personal property that was owned and used at home. Frequently in the 1700 and 1800s they bequeathed items such as pots, pans, feather beds, and dishes. You have a small window into their daily life by learning what their belongings were.

Wills are excellent sources, but it’s never good to assume a relationship exists between a wife named in the will and the children – she may be their stepmother or only a mother of some of the children. When a wife is named, all that proves is that the man and the woman were married. Wives did sometimes leave wills; in most cases, women left wills when they died after their husband. In some cases, the wills of women redistributed property that was left to them by their husbands.

Sometimes known children may not be included. This is especially true if the children were adults. The eldest son, who is an adult, may have received his share of the estate when he moved out and began his own family. This was a common occurrence. In cases such as this, it is necessary to use other records to prove a relationship, such as deed books or estate records.

Wills can be an instrumental resource when looking for former owners of enslaved ancestors. Slaves are often, but not always, named in wills when they pass from the deceased to the heirs. An example of this comes from the book Mecklenburg County, North Carolina: Will Abstracts, 1791-1868, Books A-J by Herman W. Ferguson. The book provides transcripts of original wills for Mecklenburg County. On page 75, there is a will for Robert C. McCord dated December 22, 1837, that states his son is to receive his slave George, but that if George should die, the son should receive his slave Charles. However, if George should live, Charles is to be left for the use of his wife and other children until all children are “of age.” At that time, Charles is to be sold and the money distributed among his heirs. McCord also left to his father-in-law an enslaved woman named Phoebe. On the same page of the book, the will abstract of Hugh Barry dated September 27, 1834, names the following enslaved men and women: William, Peter, Carolina and her 3 children.

So where does a person find these wills? Many wills are now located at the State Archives of North Carolina, but wills, especially during the colonial period, can be in many different places:deed books, court minutes, Secretary of State Records, or in private manuscripts. There are a few resources to help you determine if your ancestor has a will that survived. In the Government & Heritage Library, we have a book called North Carolina Wills: A Testator Index, 1665-1900

In addition to many county abstract books of deeds and wills, we also have the following four books to search:




  1. […] the book is new to our library, it was actually published in 1970. As I’ve talked about before, wills are an important tool in genealogical research. We have many will abstracts and indexes for […]

  2. […] & Heritage Library. In summary, the Archives contains original documents such as deeds, wills, and court records. On the other hand, the GHL has published books, many of which are abstracts, […]

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