Using Wills and Probate Records For Clues to Bust Genealogy Brick Walls


Finding a will or a probate record for your ancestor helps prove relationships to heirs. They may become clues that help you unlock your genealogy mysteries.

Watch this research plan development process in action in this video.

What am I looking for in probate records?


I have clues from John's death records, from early census records, descendancy research, and online trees. I'm hoping to find any connections in John Townley’s probate records to serve as waypoints to Effingham and/or Elizabeth, New Jersey.


Occasionally probate records mention lands received from a predecessor or where the person originated. It's a long shot, but we want to do a reasonably exhaustive search. I'd rather look and not find, then not look and miss a clue.


I'm also hoping George W or Major J Townley appear in John's probate records as they outlive him. Perhaps they served as witnesses. Or maybe they are named as creditors paid or persons who bought items from an estate sale.


After exploring probate records for John, I'll also explore such documents for Effingham Townley, the potential ancestor discovered in my online tree exploration.



Clues in 1890 Probate for John Townley


Knowledge Gathered

  • Estate number 35852

  • Will dated 2 January 1889

  • Daughter-in-law Catherine Townley (widow of Asa H Townley) the farm in Campbell County, Kentucky at Flagg Spring and Nellie Townley receives this land for her inheritance

  • Daughter Eliza Woodruff receives a piano, the lot 101 and 103 on Barr Street and $8,000 (paid in bonds)

  • Grandsons Grandison Osborn, $4,000, Richard Osborn $2,000 and William Osborn $1,000

  • Daughter Mary Speer, house and lot on Eight Street, including a home on Van Horn Street. and $5,000 in bonds

  • Son, Richard, house on 110 Barr Street, where he lives, and $8,510 in bonds.

  • Wife Eveline Townley - all the remainder of my property

  • [granddaughter] Evaline Townley (daughter of Richard Townley) and [grandson] William Spear $1,000 each, but only if there is a surplus in the estate

  • Son Richard Townley and son-in-law Alfred Speer to be executors

  • Witnesses: WM C Hefferman and John C Riley

  • Ada Riley and Ella Riley witness John C Riley's signature (who was now deceased) on John Townley's will. 6 Aug 1890

  • Probate presented 16 August 1890

An intriguing detail involved the passing away of John's witness John Riley and his heirs' need to attest to John's signature. You never know what you'll find in these court records.


I currently do not know how WM C Hefferman and John C Riley are related to John Townley. I'll add that to my To-Do list.


As a side note, I still need to investigate why the heirs received their money in bonds. This practice is new to me, and I'm interested in learning more.


I was disappointed that neither George nor Major Townley served as witnesses to John's will.


1890 Estate Docket for John Townley


Knowledge Gathered

  • Will of John Townley deceased, admitted for probate and recorded

  • Richard Townley and Alfred Speer Executors

  • Eliza Woodruff, Martha Speer, Mary J Speer and Catharine M Townley sureties for a$40,000 bond

  • Will Recorded Vol 42 Pg 548

  • N Wright Jr, Geo H Kattenhorn and Wm G Hosea Appraisers

I am currently unaware of the identity of Martha Speer. She's likely John's daughter Mary's in-law. Why is she involved in providng sureties?


Catherine M Townley is the wife of Asa Townley, who was deceased.


The appraisers are not relatives, but they were worth noting for future reference if needed.


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1890 Newspaper Notice



Knowledge Gathered

  • $40,000 is left to widow and children

  • Richard Townley and Alfred Speers are executors

  • John Townley is a well-known insurance man

The information in the probate notice aligns with what I had discovered in other records with one exception. John Townley, so far as I have researched in census records, was a bricklayer. Did he change careers near the 1890s?


Additional Analysis of John's Probate Records


The above highlights from John's probate records generate several clues and resolutions.

  • I have more evidence to further validate the death date and place of John Townley.

  • These records provide details about his wealth status.

  • I have another set of records to explore, namely land records in Campbell County, Kentucky. These records won't necessarily break through John's brick wall. Still, they will help me better understand John's relationship with his son Asa.

  • George and Major do no appear in the records of John Townley, This further supports they are not siblings and not likely close kin.

  • They did arrive from New Jersey at the same time with the same last name.

  • Any further research of George and Major Townley in Cincinnati will purely benefit my genealogy research skill development.


Researching My Genealogy Hypothesis in Probate Records


In a previous video, I developed a hypothesis that Effingham and Rhoda Townley from Elizabethtown, New Jersey, are John’s parents.


Effingham’s name did not appear in the 1830 Census record. Search the 1820 Census record will not help me confirm the link between John and Effingham, so I sought out probate records.


Before I researched Effingham in the 1820 census, I wanted to investigate him in probate records.



According to the 1828 Will of Effingham Townley, his five children Richard, Abby, John, Jane, and Caleb, receive an inheritance. His deceased son William is also named. Effingham names his sons John and Richard to be executors. Olivia I Halsted, Jacob Gages, and Joseph D Price witnessed the signing of the will. Upon Effingham's death, Richard proceeded to probate the will.



If you want your own genealogy research plan template, get a copy of my Research Plan Template and print it out or use it online.



Time to Update the Research Log


In full disclosure, I have not obtained the entire probate packet for Effingham due to Covid lockdowns. Still, I’m really interested in finding out the identity of the John named in this will.


Hopefully, when I can view the full file, I'll learn what I need to link Effingham to a specific John Townley.


Additionally, it's time to turn my attention to Land records! Before I do that, I must transfer these notes to my research plan. Check out my updated research plan with the link below.


VIEW UPDATED RESEARCH PLAN


Additional "Using Probate Clues " Show Notes


Continue learning about probate records and other resources for your genealogy quest through the following blog posts and videos.



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