A few weeks ago, Gary asked me how to find original county records at the Latter Day Saints website. Hazel Townsend, a Rankin researcher who has spent more hours in county courthouses than I have in school classrooms, asked me the same thing. This week, a friend had a question about when a certain will was dated and proved because she couldn’t access the original record.
If three excellent researchers aren’t able to find original county documents online, someone probably ought to write an article describing how to do that. Here’s one. Frankly, it is much more fun to go to county courthouses, but finding records online is faster and far less expensive.
First, create a free account at this website and sign in. Not only is it free, but the website won’t pester you with emails. They DO ask for your birthdate and gender, and want to know whether you are a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. You don’t have to be a member to open a free account.
Here’s the current page where you can sign in or create an account at the above link …
Once you have opened an account, click on the “search” link at the center top of the page (see above image) and select “catalog” from the drop-down menu. Below is an image of the “search” page that will appear. The default setting on this page is for a “place” search, which is what you want if you are looking for original county records.
The only thing you have to do on that page is enter the desired county in the long horizontal box and click “search.” If you are looking for a will recorded in, say, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, you would enter “United States, Pennsylvania, Lancaster County.” If you simply enter “Lancaster,” though, the website will produce a list of options for you. You will get a “search” result that is a list of the types of records available for Lancaster. The first part of the list looks like this …
Here is the part of the list that includes “Probate records (15),” which is where to look for a will recorded in Lancaster …
Let’s assume we are looking for Adam Rankin’s 1747 will, so we would select “United States, Pennsylvania, Lancaster – Probate records (15).” When you do that, a list of various materials containing Lancaster probate records will appear. This is only a partial list:
Most traditional books aren’t available online. For example, the first entry in this list is an abstract of wills published by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. If you select that option, you will get a record telling you where you can find that book.
If original county records are your target, select an item which names the county as the author.
To find Adam Rankin’s 1747 will, select the last option in the screenshot, the one in purple typeface: “Wills, 1730-1908; Index to Wills, 1729-1947,” authored by Lancaster County.
The result will again be a screen that is too large for me to capture in one image. Here is the top part of the screen …
Notice the option in red boldface: Pennsylvania probate records are available online. I will leave it to you to explore that option. If you are looking for Adam Rankin’s will, it won’t be helpful because that site has a poor photo of the Lancaster will index, and the page number for Adam’s will is unreadable. Hard to find a will without a will book and page number, unless you’re in the mood to search through the film one image at a time.
Let’s stick with what works and will apply to other records, such as deeds. Here is the bottom part of the screen … it’s hard to read. Sorry. I haven’t figured out how to work around some WordPress limitations and my own techno-ignorance.
Select “Index to Wills 1730 – 1830” by clicking on the little camera in the right-hand column. When films are not available online, the image of the camera will have a “no” sign over it (the red circle with a diagonal line running from upper right to lower left).
Here are the first few of the 158 images in this film. You can see them all just by scrolling down. Click on any one to enlarge it, and you will see that you are in an alphabetical index. By trial and error, you can quickly locate the “R” entries. I’ll save you some trouble: go to image 116 of 158.
At that image, you will see that Adam Rankin’s will is recorded in Will Book J at page 108. If you already had the will book and page citation, that’s great: you could go straight to Will Book J and skip the index.
Assuming you are in the index, go back to the page with the camera images on it and select the image containing Will Book J. The fun begins: trying to fine page 108. You can find it at Image No. 351.
And there you are … “by the mercies of God,” you have an image of Adam’s will as originally recorded in the county will book of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1747.
Keep in mind that the clerk of court made this entry into the will book. He was copying the original will that had been filed with the court for probate. But this is not the original will signed by Adam and two witnesses.
Here is an image of the entire will book entry, which I hope is legible.
If you can read it, you will see that the will is “deated” (sic, dated) May 4, 1747. On September 21, 1747, at least one witness, James Pettigrew, appeared in court to prove the will so that it could be admitted to probate. (Both witnesses may have appeared, but my screen shot cuts off the remainder of the probate court’s boilerplate entry). The dates conclusively prove that Adam died sometime between May 4th and September 21st. He probably died in September, because most executors presented a will for probate as soon as possible – but that’s not proved by this document.
You may have seen claims that Adam died on either May 4thor Sept. 21st. Ironically, those two dates are the least likely to be Adam’s exact date of death out of all the days in the entire four-and-one-half-month period between will execution and proof. All one can say for certain is that Adam Rankin died in 1747 between those two dates.
Now you might want to explore the website and see what other goodies are available. One caveat: family trees posted at Familysearch.org have the same evidentiary weight as trees posted on Ancestry.com. Zero, in other words …
See you on down the road.