By Marian Pierre-Louis
Genealogists like a good challenge. Brick walls are the ultimate challenge. We may love them or hate them but they keep up researching actively for years, sometimes even generations, in an attempt to break them down.
Image from FamilySearch.org [New York, Probate Records, 1629-1971," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-1951-24584-13603-31?cc=1920234&wc=9VSC-L2S:213304001,221584701 : accessed 25 April 2015), Jefferson > Wills 1848-1854 vol 1-2 > image 96 of 655; county courthouses, New York.]
As many of you know, one of the best places to learn how to break down brick walls is in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ). The NGSQ is a journal provided to members of the National Genealogical Society. This publication is geared toward teaching genealogists how to solve difficult research problems.
After you read a few issues of the NGSQ you'll notice a pattern. Many of the articles are focused on using probate and land records. If you're serious about solving challenging genealogical problems then probate and land records should be your go-to sources of information.
Traditionally, more casual genealogists have shied away from using land and probate records. That's because these records have been hard to access. Most of them haven't been digitized. They have been available via microfilm but it could mean ordering many films in order to get all the indexes and relevant record years you might need. The other challenge is the courts themselves. They are typically open working hours - nine to five, Monday to Friday. For folks who can't take time off of work this has posed a great challenge.
Working with deeds and probate can be a real challenge too. Probate records may be found in copybooks with each document filed chronologically. That could mean pulling up to ten books if the probate of an estate dragged on for many years. On the flip side, you may be given a file with all the original "loose papers" from the probate settlement. Many genealogists are left confused by the volume and variety of the documents and are left wondering what they all mean.
Land records can be easy to work with if you have a specific book and page number but if you don't it means wading through index volumes that themselves can be challenging to decipher. And when you have an ancestor who bought a lot of properties, it can be difficult to sort out which individual piece of property is the one where the homestead was located.
Before you get discouraged and give up on the thought of using probate and land records, know that you have an ally in your corner. Over the last year or two FamilySearch.org has been working diligently to get these records online. With online access, you can take some free time over a weekend to figure out these records and then reap the rewards of the genealogical treasure that they hold.
Perhaps the most beneficial set of probate and land records that FamilySearch.org has put online is the one for New York state. Anyone with New York ancestors knows that researching there is an exercise in hope and patience. FamilySearch.org digitized and made available online for free two databases: New York, Land Records, 1630-1975 and New York, Probate Records, 1629-1971.
The most important thing you need to know about these databases is that they are not indexed. Having them available online without having to order microfilm or to travel to the local courthouse makes the extra effort worth it. Eventually, in time, the records will likely get indexed. In the meantime, the index books themselves have been digitized and the images placed online. What you will do is to go through the effort that you would in the courthouse. First search through the index books to find your ancestors and then go to the specific books referencing the corresponding book and page numbers that you found.
The New York land and probate records are organized by county. Locate your county and start drilling down alphabetically by last name and by time frame. Each county will be slightly different, both in how the records are indexed and in what years are covered. Once you get used to the records in one county don't presume that you will be able to follow the same system in another county. It could be completely different and you'll find that you have to invest time into learning how the next county organizes its records.
New York records are not the only land and probate files you'll find on FamilySearch.org. Here are some others for you to explore:
Massachusetts, Land Records, 1620-1986
Vermont, Land Records, Early to 1900
United States Bureau of Land Management Tract Books, 1820-1908
California Probate Estate Files, 1833-1991
Texas, Probate Records, 1800-1990
New Jersey, Probate Records, 1678-1980
Florida Probate Records, 1784-1990
Tennessee, Probate Court Books, 1795-1927
Pennsylvania, Probate Records, 1683-1994
If you're still not sure whether your target region or province has land or probate records online, then head for the Family Search Wiki. On the main page, type your location and probate or land records. For instance, try North Dakota probate. The first result will be North Dakota Probate Records which explains all about those records and where to find them. Want to find land records in Queensland, Australia? Typing Queensland Land Records will bring you to an article on Australia Land and Property.
Have you ever tried searching land or probate records before? Did you have any trouble figuring out how to make the most of them? If you have any questions, post them here in the comments and I will answer them in an upcoming blog post.