Sunday, February 14, 2021

Fast-Forwarding the
Tedium of Record Searches


Finding an ancestor's will in digitized court records can be a great discovery—until you realize that the situation was messy and produced an impossibly long probate file. Such was the case, both with my third great-grandmother, Sidnah Tison McClellan, and with her father, Job Tison.

Embedded deep within those messy folders lies the key for someone hoping to sort through their African-American ancestral branches, for both these Tisons were slaveholders—Job in Glynn County, Georgia, and Sidnah in Columbia County, Florida. Though researchers don't necessarily need to scroll through old microfilms to find the details needed in specific files any more, large or complicated files still remind us of the tedium of these searches through legal records.

Searches through digitized files, while making the task much easier—for those records included in collections at or—still only enable computer-assisted searches by the name of the principal party. Thus, I can find the will for Sidnah McClellan, but not necessarily do a computer-driven search for any of the other names mentioned in the document. Paging through the extended file of Job Tison—which took decades to settle, incidentally—can make such a search complicated, indeed.

I had first tried to piece together the names when I was seeking the identity of one particular enslaved man who has ever since figured prominently in the oral history passed down in our family. That man was King Stockton, newborn son of enslaved woman Hester, who had been "inherited" by Sidnah and brought to Florida on the occasion of Sidnah's marriage to George McClellan.

My thought was to see if any of the names listed in Sidnah's probate in 1860 lined up with the names of the enslaved people mentioned in her father's will in 1824. With such a span of time separating the two events, I figured it wasn't very likely, but there were a few names which I wanted to trace.

In Sidnah's file, the following names of enslaved persons were mentioned: Arnett, Charley, King, Hester, Butch, Gipsey, Tom, Rose, Frank, Clarissa, Bob, Jane, Mary Ann, "Old John," Maria, Frederick, and "Old Mary Ann." In addition, there was a name that appeared to read Manimina, but the handwriting was too difficult to decipher confidently.

Comparing Sidnah's list with that of her father, there was in that 1824 listing Tom, Judy, Ned, Maria, Ben, Hester, Phillis, Clarissa, Peter, Joe, Lydia, Patty, and Frank. In addition, there was the specific stipulation to leave "Mary Ann and her future increase undivided" until the point at which the youngest Tison child would come of age.

That youngest child would have been Theresa Elizabeth Tison, who was born in 1820, and by 1841 had married Sylvester Mumford, who in the 1850 slave schedules reported five enslaved individuals, the oldest of which—a male—was then said to have been twenty six years of age. Even if his list had included that "inherited" person, Lydia, named in Job Tison's will, that would have had to be an infant from Job Tison's listing.

As for any of the other names matching up, of course King's name wouldn't have appeared; he was born long after Job's passing. While there was a match with the names Tom, Frank, Maria, and Mary Ann, those were names common enough to have been repeated in many lists. Clarissa might have been a less usual name and perhaps one with significance, but it is too soon to tell.

The task from this point is to see whether any of the names from the Tison will appear in the subsequent listings of any of his children. But to complete such a task would mean locating and reading, page by page, through the wills of each of the next Tison generation—or checking interim records filed before 1865.

Thus, the tedium—until recently made the announcement, which I found thanks to a tip from fellow blogger Randy Seaver on his Genea-Musings, instituting an update to how such records are made searchable.

Several different record sets of interest in African American genealogy will be updated in the process, but the one I welcome the most will be the re-indexing of their "U.S. Wills and Probate Collection."

For this collection, the intention is to "capture all people mentioned by name in wills." While this is helpful news for those trying to trace their enslaved ancestors, it is also a beneficial change to any of us who are seeking out specific details which might—or might not—be included in a will. For instance, considering the possibility that those who serve as executor, or even those who sign as witness, would be a significant part of an individual's "FAN Club"—Friends, Associates, or Neighbors—this augmented search capability would make it much easier to do a geographically-limited search for a specific name mentioned as, say, witness to other persons' documents.

I have often wished that universal search ability would be applied to other record sets, as well, such as, for instance, Irish baptismal records to seek the names of godparents for a child. There are some patterns of association which are applied so commonly among specific people groups that to be able to conduct a computer-assisted search to bring such relationships to the surface would indeed speed along our research progress.

Not to mention, cut through the tedium of research and let us get on to the analysis of what we're finding. 


  1. Very useful information, and presented in a way we can digest and use. As always :-) !!

    1. Thank you, Lisa! I am certainly looking forward to putting the expanded search capabilities at Ancestry to good use in the near future.

  2. Ancestry's re-indexing of their U.S. Wills and Probate collection to include every name is going to be a game changer. This is good news, and I am looking forward to it. For decades I knew that my 2X great-grandfather was probably mentioned in the Mississippi probate of his father-in-law's father, but I had no idea which county to search or which Mason to look for. I finally got into Ancestry's wills and probates through Heritage Quest and started reading every Mason will and probate. I almost gave up too soon, but I found it in a probate that was ten to fifteen years past the point I expected to find it.

    To think that know I could easily locate the dozens of people that I hope will turn up in a probate record in some random place is pretty exciting stuff.

    How near in the future can we expect this??

    1. Oh, Kathy, what a grind that search must have been! Especially with a surname like Mason! You are certainly persistent.

      The Ancestry press release did not give a date for completion on that re-indexing project. I am sure you and I are joined by many other researchers in hoping they will make this policy a priority. The utility of that idea is universal for researchers.


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