At the Massachusetts Archives, I held the actual probate papers for my seventh great grandfather. He died intestate (without a will), probably of smallpox which was epidemic in Boston at the time (1721). At first, I wasn't sure I had the correct ancestor as I paged through papers of administration, inventory lists, receipts and expenses. And then I discovered a letter to the court from the orphaned children's uncle, explaining how my ancestor sent his children to Ipswich to live with their uncle right before his own death. The probate packet didn't give me the names of the children, but it provided enough details to piece together his life and circumstances.
While looking for an obituary in a newspaper, I unexpectedly found a one-liner mentioning the probate of my third great grandmother's estate. I had pictured her as a poor, illiterate immigrant, so "estate" sounded too big of a word for her, really. When I received the probate papers, however, I discovered my ancestor had $314.72 deposited in the bank. She had no real estate or personal property to speak of, just cash in a bank. Curious. The details are scant, but at least the bare-bones document ties together three previously presumed-related siblings.
As you can see, probate records can provide valuable information to add to your family history.
Finding Probate Records
For early records, visit the Massachusetts Archives.
Check the online Massachusetts Archives Collections (1629-1799), also known as the Felt Collection. The online database provides name, location, and subject access to 18 volumes. In person, you also can check the card catalog, which covers a quarter of this 328-volume collection.
Look for Index to the probate records of the County of Suffolk, Massachusetts: from the year 1636 to and including the year 1893, prepared under the supervision of Elijah George. You'll find Volume 2: G to O and Volume 3: P to Z online, along with John T. Hassam's Registers of probate for the county of Suffolk, Massachusetts, 1639-1799.
For later records, contact the Suffolk Probate and Family Court.
Receive email alerts when a new genealogy article is posted by clicking on the “Subscribe” button above this article. Also, follow the Boston Genealogy Examiner on Facebook, the social networking site. Having a Facebook page allows me to post relevant news stories, links, events, and other tidbits that may not make it to my Examiner.com page. If you have comments or suggestions for stories you’d like me to cover in future columns, please let me know. Like this story? Share it with friends and social media contacts.