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  • “Where There’s a Will...” (Some Curious Mid-Atlantic Probate Records)

    Mary Ann Nicholson

    Published Date : October-November 1991
    Wills are a never-ending source of important genealogical data.  They hint at fascinating human drama and often provide amusement for genealogists because so much can be revealed about a family’s relationships.  While some families may put a good face on discord or jealousy, when writing that last will and testament old hurts may not be ignored or forgiven.  A will is often an aggrieved parent’s last word.

    Daniel Walton of Byberry Twp., Philadelphia Co., Pennsylvania, in his 1718 will [1], wrote that

    In considering my eldest son Samuel Walton and his disobedience and undutifullness to me and his mother and also his extravagent Life whearby I have been forced to pay Severall Soms of money to discharge his debts which doth amount to Such a Som or to so great a part of my Estate as I do think fitt to be his portion thearfore I do give him One English Shilling and no more.

    In 1694, Henry Waddy of Oxford, Philadelphia Co., Pennsylvania, left most of his estate to “my ungrateful kinsman, Daniel Hall” [2]. William Potter of Shrewsbury Twp., Monmouth Co., N.J., in his 1765 will [3], provided

    Ann, once the wife of John Soper, to receive £5 yearly for six years and no more as she has been very wicked to me and destructive to my interest.  Daughter, Susannah Dickeson, and her husband, John, to receive five shillings, and no more, for good reasons known to me.

    Whatever her transgression, Dorothy (Tatham) Hickman’s parents remained bitter. John Tatham of Burlington, N.J., in his will proved in 1700, left his estate to his wife Elizabeth for her welfare and that of the children, “excepting Dorothie Hickman, to whom for her graceless and shameless rebellion I do give one piece of eight if demanded and no more” [4].

    Dorothy’s widowed mother, Elizabeth Tatham, “drawing near my delivery,” gave daughter Dorothy Hickman the legal token amount of “six shillings in full if lawfully demanded,” but gave her other daughter £1000 when she was twenty and £1000 to the unborn child if it survived.  Elizabeth died 21 October 1700, and the will was proved in 1701.  However, she must have relented a little on her deathbed because a memorandum dated 23 October 1700, attached to the original will, was signed by seven women who had attended her and been present in her house “when and where we heard the said Elizabeth Tatham bequeath unto her daughter Dorothy Hickman the sum of £200 and desired us the subscribers to be witnesses thereunto” [5].  These Tathams are apparently the same family mentioned in the will (dated 28 April 1696, proved in Barbados 14 May and in Burlington 29 August 1696) of Dr. Thomas Peche or Peachee, late of West Jersey, who divided his estate between John Tatham, John Tatham Jr., daughters Dorothy and Elizabeth Jr., and Mrs. Elizabeth wife of John Tatham who was named executor, but still left five shillings apiece to “my reputed son John Peche and his mother Mary Peche” [6].

    Writing on 14 August 1708, Margaret Jennings of Philadelphia, widow of Henry, made several specific bequests and then gave “all the rest unto lsaac and Sarah reputed son and daughter of my deceased husband Henry Jennings, to be equally divided between them”  Isaac and Sarah Jennings were children of Henry’s first wife, who were left in England to be raised by their mother’s relatives.  The will was proved 14 March 1710/1711.

    Some husbands honored the necessity of making very specific stipulations to ensure the care and well-being of a recently acquired wife, when her grown step-children might not have willingly assumed any responsibility for her otherwise.  But some fathers left nothing to chance and took pains to ensure that their sons would give their long-suffering natural mother her due.

    Zebulon Brown of Mansfield, Burlington Co., N.J., making his will 8 May 1758, carefully stipulated the filial chores his sons were to perform for their mother.  To wife Martha he gave


    the choice of one bed and furniture, warming pan and any horse, kine, cow and six sheep; a part of an orchard and privilege of any fruit growing upon the plantation for her own use and the upper part of the meadow

    as long as she remained his widow.  Son Samuel was to fence his mother’s part of the lot and he and his brother, Zebulon [Jr.], were to mow and stack the hay for her use.  She was to choose half the cellar and have “the whole new building with the privilege of the oven to bake in and likewise the well for water.” She received a side-saddle, bridle and chest of drawers and choice of “sundry sorts of household the value of £5.”  Son Samuel was to pay his mother £8 a year for her widowhood and provide “sufficient firewood at her door that will suit her chimney.”  Son Zebulon Jr. was to pay her £5 a year during her widowhood, beginning three years after [testator’s] decease, and if that was not sufficient for her wants then Samuel and Zebulon Jr. were to provide for her equally out of their father’s real estate as long as Martha remained his widow [8].

    The widow Martha Brown, making her own will in 1764, must have felt some animosity toward her son-in-law Samuel Garwood. Knowing that a husband had legal control of his wife’s money, Martha left her daughter Alice “20 shillings, her husband to have no demand on it” [9]. The first item in the will of Quaker Benjamin Moore of Evesham, Burlington Co., N.J. (proved in 1795) is as follows [10]:

    First, it is my desire that Peace and Harmony may remain in my Family and be cultivated among my descendants when I am gone, that the distribution of what I have been favored with and am now about to give them may be received, and enjoyed, with satisfaction and thankfulness, without any Jar, Contention, or hard thoughts, as the Bounty of kind Providence.

    Wanting to leave something to each child but not possessing much in worldly goods, a father might make a good show by leaving his primary asset, the family farm, to a son stipulating that the son satisfy the testator’s monetary bequests to siblings out of the proceeds of the farm.  This responsibility, of course, could put a heavy burden on the son who, it was presumed, would be as (or more) prosperous on that same farm as his father. This custom is illustrated in the 1857 will of Cader Woodard of New Garden, Wayne Co., Indiana [11]:

    I give and bequeath to son Luke the plantation whereon I now live with all the apertances (sic) provided he pays one thousand dollars to my following named children to wit: Absilet, Sarah, Rachel, Caroline and my three grandchildren: Miriam, Benajah and Sarah Elma Hough, my three named grandchildren to draw equal to one of my above named daughters. The above named thousand and the balance of my effects to be equally divided between the children as above named when my son Luke complys with the above conditions he is then and not until then to have full right and title to the above named plantation.

    In the tradition of remembering namesakes with some small legacy, Joseph Brown of Mansfield, N.J. bequeathed $20 each to grandsons Joseph Brown Hunt, Joseph Brown Woolman, and Joseph Brown Conrow, when they reached the age of 21 under terms of his will proved in January 1826 [12].

    Where and under what conditions a will is written may prove of prime importance to a genealogist.  A mariner stricken at sea in 1725 carefully delineated his nautical location: “I, Peter Johnson, being now on the wide seas, in the Lattitude of 38 and 55, and being weak in body...” [13].

    Not all wills were promptly and properly probated.  Margaret Crosse and William Reeder were named executors in the 1765 will of James Crosse of Upper Makefield, Bucks Co., Pennsylvania.  But when widow Margaret made her own will in 1787, she complained that her son [in-law] William Reeder had carried her “deceased husband’s will to Virginia with him and refused to deliver same or have it proved” [14].

    Before an estate can be settled, there must be an inventory.  The men assigned in 1685 to take the inventory of the estate of housewife Agnes Croasdale of Neshaminah, Bucks Co., Pennsylvania listed sixteen items, among which were “one blankit, all husbandrie tooles,” but when faced with a clutter of miscellaneous household items, coined the quaint but apt phrase “and hustlement about the house” [15].

    Everyone, of course, should make a will, but when writing it, give a passing thought as to what future genealogists might read between the lines.


    1.    Norman Swayne, Byberry Waltons (1958), p. 11.
    2.    Publications of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania (hereafter PGSP, 2(1900-3):21-22.
    3.    Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New Jersey (First Series) (hereafter NJA), 33(1928):335.
    4.    Unrecorded Wills, vol. 4:157, State Archives, Trenton, N.J. The printed abstract of this will (PGSP3[1906-08]:145) reads “one piece of dirt” but the original is plainly “one piece of eight.”
    5.    Ibid., 4:129, 133; PGSP3(1906-08):145.
    6.    NJA 23(1901):357-58.
    7.    Ibid., 258.
    8.    NJA 32(1924):44; Will #60236, State Archives, Trenton, N.J. (hereafter SAN]).
    9.    NJA 33(1928):63.
    10.  NJA 38(1944):255-56; original #11684C, SAN]
    11.  Wayne Co., Indiana, Will Book 3:520, Richmond Court House.
    12.  Burlington Co., N.J., Will Book C:693, Mt. Holly Court House.
    13.  Collections of the New-York Historical Society 26(1893):357.
    14.  Bucks Co., Penn. Will Book 5:183.
    15.  PGSP 1(1895-98):212.

    Mary Ann Nicholson is a volunteer researcher for the NEHGS Enquiries Service. Earlier articles have appeared in NEXUS, the Register, TAG, NYGBR, The Genealogical Magazine of New Jersey, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine.  Particularly interested in Quaker genealogy, she also edited The Family of Daniel Shays (NEHGS, 1987).

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