Thursday, December 2, 2021

Without a Will


...there may still be a way.

Yesterday, we were puzzling over why Maude Woodworth Bean's paternal grandmother, Eliza Smith, would have shown up in two places in the 1850 census. One instance was in her father Abraham's household, while the other was in the household of her husband Lafayette Woodworth's father, along with their two oldest children. Was one entry for someone else by the same name?

While it is true that Smith is a common surname in this country—and Eliza a popular given name of that time period—it wasn't necessary to mount an exhaustive search to demonstrate that there were no others by that name in Eliza's hometown in Kenosha County, Wisconsin. Noticing that Eliza's father, Abraham Smith, had died just five years after that same 1850 census was taken, I thought it might be possible that he left property behind at his passing. And where there's property to be inherited, there is usually a will.

Unfortunately, in Abraham Smith's case, his November 1855 passing was not preceded by any indications which might have prompted him to record his last wishes, for the man died intestate.

Fortunately for us, far removed from the time of that sad loss to family, it turns out that the county in which Abraham Smith died has been diligent about allowing digitization of their records, including probate records for that time period in the 1850s. From the comfort of my own home, I was able to read through the entire packet of material in Abraham Smith's file, and note key entries which will serve our research purposes.

Prime among those documents were a few pages tying family details together. First was the court record that named Abraham's oldest remaining son Amos as the administrator of his estate. As we'd already seen from the one 1850 census—the one including an entry for a single Eliza Smith, their oldest child—Abraham and his wife Amanda were parents of nine children, of which Amos was the third born. As the oldest son remaining in 1855, it fell Amos' lot to perform the duties of administrator.

The second document in the probate file for Abraham Smith was Amos Smith's acknowledgement of a petition in the probate process, a document in which is listing the names of his father's widow and children as heirs. Topping the list was the oldest child, named specifically as "Eliza F. Woodworth aged 27 years," followed by her brother Amos.

Why Eliza showed up twice in the 1850 census, I still can't say, but finding this document helps establish the fact that that Eliza listed in the household of Abraham Smith did indeed represent the same woman listed again in the census as the wife of Lafayette Woodworth.

Best yet was the third document in the probate file: a receipt signed by Eliza Woodworth acknowledging that she received her equal portion of the proceeds of her deceased father's estate.

With that collection of digitized documents easily found online, I am more confident that I've got Maude's grandmother Eliza attached to the right Smith family—a consideration which easily could have led us in a wrong research direction. But with that discovery comes another question: whatever became of the eldest Smith son, Joel? The absence of any mention of his name in his father's probate record is owing to the fact that Joel predeceased his dad by just a few years. At Joel's premature passing, he was only twenty years of age. Could this be an echo of the Marfan Syndrome which struck a devastating blow to so many of the descendants of Maude's generation in the Woodworth family?


Above: digitized copy of Eliza Woodworth's signature from a receipt in the probate file of her father, Abraham Smith; image courtesy


  1. Aren't digital records the bomb! My mother could have never ever imagined finding these records from her own living room.

    1. Digital has certainly changed the researching world. And what a heyday researchers like your mom would have had if they could just get their hands on a laptop! I'm certainly grateful I've gotten a chance to experience both research worlds, but this one has certainly let us go farther, faster--and allowed more time for some thoughtful analysis of what we are finding.


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