Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why Probate Records Are So Important.

Today, I made a remarkable discovery. Well, it's remarkable to me. It was accomplished almost entirely with the Pennsylvania Probate Records found at and is a testament to how important these records are and how much you can learn from them if you take the time to find and study them. It also proves research before the almighty 1850 US Census can be done.

Ann Sutch Will 1827 mentioning brother Richard
I had been searching for the parents of my ancestor, Ann Shoemaker, for a while. All I knew of Ann was that she married Daniel Sutch, had 4 daughters, and then died in 1827 in Gwynedd, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. I did not even know when she was born but I approximated it around 1760. But I did also know she had a brother named Richard. I discovered this from her will in the Montgomery County Probate Records, proved in 1827, which specifically named her "brother Richard Shoemaker" as executor of her will (shown above right). This not only gave me her maiden name but also a brother's name to research. It was difficult though, because all I knew of Richard was that he was probably alive (and an adult) in 1827, and likely lived in Montgomery County. But Shoemaker was a common name in that area and Richard was not uncommon either. Without knowing anything else about him, how could I confirm records to be the Richard I was looking for?

Well, in the Proceedings Index for Ann (Shoemaker) Sutch, there were some listings for Orphan Court Dockets. These are often records that have something to do with the will of a deceased person after it was proved. There were two dated 1838 which turned out to be a petition and answer for the replacement of trustee Richard Shoemaker, deceased, with someone else. The petitioners were E. Jones and Job Roberts (I promise this will be important later on). This suggested that Richard Shoemaker, brother of Ann (Shoemaker) Sutch, died sometime in or soon before 1838. So I went looking for a Richard Shoemaker who may have had probate records dated around 1838. There was only one in Montgomery County who fit with this and although there was no will listed, there was an Admin Bond date for Aug 5, 1837 in Horsham and the Admins listed were Job Roberts and Evan Jones. So I knew I had the correct Richard Shoemaker because Jones and Roberts were listed in the Orphan's Court record for Ann Sutch, sister of Richard Shoemaker.

But that's not all. Once I entered Richard's death year as about 1837 in Horsham, a Quaker record on popped up for a Richard Shoemaker who died July 10, 1837 in Montgomery County (subscription required to view this record). I looked at it and although it didn't say he died in Horsham (there was no death location at all), it did say his father was Ezekiel Shoemaker who had died 1816 in Horsham. I already had a hunch this was my Richard Shoemaker because in the Estate/Proceeding Indices, there was only one Richard Shoemaker who died in or around 1837 in Montgomery County (and if he died in July, a probate record in August made perfect sense). But just in case there was another one who perhaps didn't have any probate listings at all, I decided to research Ezekiel.

Firstly, I noticed on the Proceedings Index right above my Richard Shoemaker there was another entry for a Richard Shoemaker who died around 1790 in Horsham and his executor was named Ezekiel Shoemaker. I looked at his will first and sure enough, Ezekiel was his son. Best of all, two of his daughters married into the Roberts family, which linked this elder Richard and son Ezekiel back to my Richard, because if you recall Job Roberts was listed in my Richard's probate records (who would have been this elder Richard's grandson). Granted, Roberts is a common name too but there's starting to be too many coincidences to ignore. Additionally, according to other family trees, my Richard also married a Roberts.

Ezekiel Shoemaker 1816 Will naming his daughter,
Ann "Such" (Sutch).
I looked up Ezekiel in the probate records and fortunately, he had a will and sure enough, in his will he names "my daughter Ann Such" (shown left). So not only do I now have proof that Ann was the daughter of Ezekiel, I also already have Ezekiel's father's name as Richard, and Ezekiel's siblings names as mentioned in Richard's will! A wealth of information, with the exception of one record, came entirely from these probate records.

To top everything else off, I then found a Quaker death record for Ann Sutch who died 1827 naming her father as Ezekiel Shoemaker of Horsham (subscription required to view this record). These must be new records added to since I'm sure I scourged the internet looking for another death record for Ann once I found her will and knew she died in or before 1827. My search would have been a hell of a lot easier if I had just found this record first! Regardless, I still would have gone in search of Ezekiel's will to find out more about their family (like his wife's name) so the point still stands that probate records are important.

For some reason, there is a secondary record with no indication of the source or repository attached to some member trees that claims Ezekiel's daughter Ann "died young". I hope I have been able to conclusively prove that this is not true with all these primary records I've mentioned and provided links to. Family trees put Ann's birth year as 1764, not far off the estimated birth I made around 1760, so if this is true she would have been 63 years old when she died in 1827. She married Daniel Sutch and had four daughters named Jane (b. abt. 1788, m. Charles Gilbert), Sarah (b. abt. 1791, m. William Davis), Ann (b. abt. 1792, m. Homer Dubree), and Hannah (b. abt. 1805, m. Joseph Amber). Some information on their family can be found in the Ambler Gazette.

So don't overlook probate records as an important method for finding that elusive previous generation. It may take a lot of digging and it may not always lead back to what you're looking for but you will likely discover something you didn't know before.

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