Friday, July 23, 2010

Indiana Probate Packets

Are you researching an Indiana ancestor who died prior to civil death registration? Can't find his death date? Or researching an ancestor who died in IN after registration but you want more information? Not sure where to look? You may be in luck thanks to an often overlooked resource for Indiana-the probate packets.

On my most recent trip to Parke County, IN I was working on my NGS HSC lesson on probate records. The lesson called for me to do an inventory of the probate holdings available in the county so I was basically just snooping around the back room of the Clerk's Office. While they do have the standard ledgers that you see just about everywhere else, they also have a huge set of metal drawers that look like they're built into the wall. The only identifying info on the front of the drawers are little pieces of paper with typed years on them. So for this trip, I decided to find out what these drawers had inside. Boy was I surprised. Inside, were the complete probate files, often called case files in other states, with loose pages from the probate proceedings. Included in these folded up packets were things like the petitions for administration, inventories, recipts, and any other documents that had been presented to the court pertaining to an individual's probate case. Yes, several of these items were noted in the ledger books so you could find out when someone died from those as well, but with these packets, you're not just reading a notation in a ledger than an inventory was presented, you're looking at the inventory itself. More importantly, you're seeing the widow's petition for the release of the estate which can tell you any number of things such as names of children and whether she could write. You can also find out a great deal about extended family groups, such as the decedent's brothers which can help reconstruct another generational family group.

In one of the probate packets for a family member, I found that the widow did not present her own petition for the estate. Instead, her husband's brother did it for her and prior to this time, I had not been able to connect the decedent with anyone else in the county. Also, in the same drawer, right in front of that probate packet was another, thicker probate packet for someone else with the same surname. So I opened it up and found that this was another relation to my ancestor (I'm not entirely sure but I think it may be another brother) and that my ancestor was actually administering that estate when he died and included in that relation's packet was a receipt from my ancestor's widow showing that the new administrator had paid her for her husband's share of the estate to which he had been working to administer when he died. It was an unbelievable find and one that I wouldn't have been able to make so quickly without those packets. It's one thing to see the same surnames in a ledger book, but it takes quite a bit of work to go through and track all of those people and try to bring out the relationships between them without something like these packets with their personal letters spelling out relationships and things like receipts to tell you that yes, these people were related and had dealings with each other.

As stated initially, these probate packets are held by the county Clerk's Office. While the order books and will books and books of the Common Pleas Courts have been filmed by the FHL, these packets have largely been ignored, probably due to the fact that seeing the proceedings in the order books tend to answer the main question people have for these pre-registration deaths: when did so-and-so die? However, when you want to know more about the person than just when did they die, like what was their widow's name, or who administered the estate, or who were the children, the packets are invaluable. The can even tell you things you hadn't thought of yet like the names of two of your ancestor's brothers and those are all things that can seriously open up your research leading to older generations, maternal lines, and filling in previously unknown children. These packets should not be ignored just because you think you've answered the main when did he die question and that is why they are starting to come to the attention of others, such as the Indiana Genealogical Society, who are beginning the long process of indexing and digitizing these packets to both get them out there for researchers to discover and use and to preserve them for the future. I'm working on starting at least an indexing project for the Parke County packets right now so hopefully they'll start to become available in the near future as well.

If you've got Indiana ancestors, get out there and go through those packets! You never know what secrets they'll have inside.

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