Friday, March 21, 2008

Gotta date?

Dates are crucial!! Did great-grandpa Thomas Winston die on November 1, 1795? Then how come the records show he sold property two years later? And why is his daughter Nannie referred to as an infant when she is married by 1800?

Do you run into this kind of puzzle in your research?

As a novice genealogist, I used to accept the date a will was made as the date a person died. But no -- sometimes it is years earlier. This means, of course, that changes may occur before the will’s author actually dies.

If you have a copy of the will (probably as it was copied into the official register at the county seat), it will usually end something like this: “In witness hereof I have set my and hand and affixed my seal this fourteenth day of the seventh month one thousand seven hundred and ninety four.” But it may not be filed for probate until months or years later. Look for the record of the witnesses’ appearance before the court to get a better idea of the death date. Then follow up with a look at the additional papers generated as probate proceeds.

If there was no will, letters of administration will be issued, usually fairly soon after the subject had died.

Another thing to look out for, date-wise, is the assumption that a “marriage clue” indirectly derived from a record is the date the nuptials took place. When we turn to these invaluable published lists, it is easy to assume the date shown is the wedding day.

A good compiler will, of course, include references to the original documents, and it is wise to go back to those, or at least make note of what they are. If a daughter is named with a different surname in her father’s will, and a man with that surname accepts her distribution (as was often the case), it is reasonable to conclude that he is the heiress’s husband. But a list of “clues” in a book may just list the couple and the date of the will’s filing. That is helpful, but it is NOT the date they were married. (If the daughter is listed by her birth name in the will, and a different surname at the time of probate, you get some idea of the time span in which her marriage occurred, however.)

Land changes hands -- people die, but the property is still there. Court records regarding lands may continue to be created long after an early owner’s decease. A son inherits, but doesn’t come of age until several years later. Meanwhile a guardian is supposed to see that his holdings are properly managed. Eventually they appear in court, give the date of the father’s death, and state the age of the heir. I just came across the phrase “recently arrived at 21” in such a court document. Consider when the court appearance occurred, who the deceased was and when he/she died (if it is given), and any other dates that show up in the record. By the way, you can home in on a minor’s approximate date of birth in another way: if the court names a guardian for him, he is likely under 14. At that age, the general rule is that he may select one of his own choosing. (Don’t let the term”infant” throw you -- minors are customarily referred to as infants in legalese.)

The point is -- be sure you look at ALL the dates and deal with them appropriately. (And, by the way, if you are like me, you will check your math more than once!)

In the interest of full disclosure, I must say my research has centered around colonial and post-colonial Maryland and Delaware, and 19th century Indiana. Many of my conclusions are drawn from work with these documents, with reinforcement from general genealogical handbooks and dictionaries.

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