In following the lines of my colonial ancestors, such as the families of John Chew and John Carter, there is sometimes no research recourse other than to find their names recorded in dusty old court ledgers. Thankfully, that task has been updated by the advent of, first, microfilming, and second, online access to those digitized records. Even so, it can be quite tedious reading through the old script faded by the centuries. But compounding the effect of those roadblocks is another question I have. While an ancestor might have expressed on paper what his will was in how he wished his belongings to be distributed, was his designated executor in possession of a constitution disposed to following those exact instructions?
It has taken tracking property down through the generations to awaken me to the possibility that perhaps those who were supposed to do as directed might not have actually followed through. This can cause research difficulties. Take the instance of an ancestor with a fairly common name—both given name and surname being claimed by more than one person in the community. How do we tell the name twins apart?
This can be key if, for instance, we are looking for someone named John Carter, a man possessed of not only one of the most popular given names for sons, but a widespread surname in the region of Virginia. When a discrepancy appears concerning the name of, say, a wife, do we assume this John Carter was married more than once? Or that we might just have the wrong John Carter?
One way to identify a specific person, back in that era lacking decennial census enumerations or death certificates, was to trace that person by mentions of his name in legal documents. What property one man might have inherited from a father would logically be described in a subsequent will when it came time for that person to bequeath the property to the next generation. Either that, or the property would likely be mentioned in a deed book, showing the exchange of ownership in court records in that alternate way.
Then, too, courts kept records of legatees' confirmation that they properly received what they had been granted in the will. One way or another, there should be a chain of documents demonstrating what became of an ancestor's property. And that way can become another method of identifying the right heirs of the right ancestor—if, indeed, the executor's personal constitution was to adhere to the instructions of the testator.
In the case of the Carter family I've been tracing this year, I'm beginning to wonder whether that personal constitution to stick to the rules was wavering, or whether the will I've been reading just wasn't the will for the right John Carter. I've followed the legal documents for three generations connected to my fifth great-grandfather, John Carter, and right now, I'm beginning to wonder whether I've actually identified the right man. This coming week, we'll take a closer look at some of the documents which show me that those age-old, revered genealogies published on this and related family lines might have gotten some of the details wrong.