Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Monday, July 2, 2012

Wills, Family Photos, and Aunt Susie's Diary

Old family photos, wills, and diaries are often invaluable items that can help solve a family’s puzzle of life. On a number of occasions, I have seen these sentimental items in antique stores, and it always make me wonder why these potential family artifacts are not among the treasures and keepsakes of the individuals’ descendants. As someone interested in family history and its preservation, it makes me sad to see these special pieces of history lost to posterity. 

More than likely, you have heard the saying that “a picture speaks a thousand words.”  And in the case of old family photos, this could not be more true.  Not only do many of these old photographs have the names of those pictured written on the back of the photo, but the name and address of the photographer may appear on the photo, as well. Just a simple bit of information like the address of a photography studio may lead a family researcher to look for information about one’s ancestors in a location previously unknown to the family. And in other cases, the date of the photograph may be determined from information about the photography studio’s years of operation. Examination of old family photographs is always fascinating, since close observation of facial characteristics and how the individuals are dressed in the photos may reveal clues that will be helpful in further research.  Some of these observations may assist a researcher in determining an ancestor’s social status, ethnicity, and even possible religious affiliation. Always interesting is the fact that old photographs often reveal facial similarities and other physical characteristics to known living relatives. Our genes speak loudly and very clearly.

An often overlooked source of valuable information about our ancestors who lived and died prior to 1900 are probate documents. Commonly known during the 18th and 19th centuries as one’s “Last Will and Testament,” these old documents contain first hand information provided by the deceased about his family at a defined snapshot in time.  Following English Common Law, upon which our nation’s legal system was based, the oldest son inherited lands owned by his father. Therefore, the names of the decedent’s oldest living male heir, the name of his widow, and the names of his other offspring are included in the text of the will, provided they received bequests of real property, household or personal property, or money. Other valuable information resulting from the examination and review of a will may be the maiden name of the widow of the deceased, married names of his daughters, and the names of grandchildren who also received bequests. Since names of females were not listed on U. S. census records prior to 1850, finding the married name of a female ancestor in a will is a cause for celebration.  And in many instances, the names of other close family members may be among those who served as witnesses to the signing of the will. In the last decade, online access to early probate documents has increased tremendously and continues to grow by leaps and bounds.  Free access to large numbers of information from probate records is available at  And a subscription to will allow a researcher to view information gleaned from millions of probate documents housed in thousands of locations throughout the U.S. without ever leaving home. Of course, the ultimate dream of most family researchers, if they will admit it, is to search through hundreds of old dusty and musty courthouse records until they find and actually hold the probated copy of an ancestor’s Last Will and Testament in his or her hands.

I guess I am a sentimental sort, because I believe anything written by a family member or loved one, young or old, is something worth keeping.  Within the family history research community, I am not alone.  These statements bring me to “Aunt Susie’s Diary.” Not everything our relatives leave behind is valuable to their descendants. Most of us know that, particularly if we have helped someone move or assisted in closing out an estate of an elderly friend or loved one. But if that individual maintained diaries or other handwritten records of personal thoughts and activities, photos of trips taken and picture postcards received, or letters from those who lived in distant places, these items may become family treasures in years to come. All are worth keeping, not because they are museum quality or have monetary value, but because they tell the story of someone’s life.  And who knows, that story may be just what someone needs a half-century or more from now to complete a family’s puzzle.

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