Saturday, February 18, 2023

Wills and Their Ways


It is sometimes aggravating, after finally finding the will of a brick-wall ancestor, to discover that the hoped-for Big Reveal isn't quite up to our standards. After all, if that beloved wife were such a dear companion, why didn't her husband even mention her name? In wills, I've learned to expect a full accounting of all children's names, too—but have sometimes been sorely disappointed when locating the coveted document.

It is those frustrating ways that our ancestors might have had—leaving things unsaid when we most expected them to be more explicit—that I want to muse over today. As it turns out, I did uncover a Broyles descendant's will last week which almost—but not quite—left me pondering what it is we wish to find in wills, and why we sometimes don't find it.

I mentioned, yesterday, one observation that dawned on me during this mental journey: that perhaps it is nigh impossible to read some names and details in wills due to a combination of sloppy handwriting and faded ink. But in the reading of this Broyles descendant's will last week, I may have stumbled upon some other dynamics which might translate into a more forgiving way to look at our ancestors' wills.

Let's take a look at the background story behind researching this will. Though my Broyles research goals extend from my Most Wanted ancestral line for January, I am still working behind the scenes to trace my fifth great-grandfather's descendants down to the sixth cousin level for use in connecting with DNA cousin matches. From Adam Broyles' daughter Jemima and her husband Joseph Brown, I've gone step by step through all their descendants. Right now, I'm working on the lines of their grandson James Rice Brown (1827-1915).

I noticed that James' son George died in 1896, a very difficult time for the object of my research to disappear off the scene, considering that he married Fannie McAfee after the 1880 census. This unfortunate situation thus left me little recourse for discovering their children's identity. (Well, there still were ways, but considering I'd be looking for the household of one Fannie Brown, you can imagine all the ways this search could take a wrong turn.)

Thus I was quite pleased to locate a copy of the will of George Brown, and read it through. While George did—unlike some men regarding whose wills I have been disappointed in the past—actually give his wife a name, in several places he mentioned his children only as "our younger child" or "our youngest child."

That is where the thought occurred to me that perhaps George Brown, unlike most of us who tend to defer unpleasant tasks until a more "convenient" time, was the type of person who liked to keep his personal affairs well organized. Perhaps the nebulous terms for his children were meant to make the document all-inclusive without actually naming all the children because, at his age, he might have more children born to him in the future.

Eventually, George did mention the name of two of his children—sons James R. Brown and George M. Brown—but I couldn't be sure those were his only children. Granted, the will continued at length with several stipulations—for instance, explicitly stating that his wife's father, Joseph M. McAfee, "have nothing whatever to do with my estate"—but before I ever reached the end of the document, a few more thoughts occurred to me.

Due to finding George's obituary in the October 29, 1896, edition of The Morning News of Savannah, Georgia, I realized his was a sudden and unexpected passing. Not quite yet thirty five years of age, George Brown was just entering the prime of his career, serving as solicitor general "of the Blue Ridge circuit," and traveling to Atlanta for some political purpose when he was stricken with what physicians called cholera morbus.

His death on October 28, 1896, apparently came quickly. His wife, perhaps summoned to travel to Atlanta due to the seriousness of his illness, or perhaps planning to join him a few days after he began his business trip, arrived too late be at his side before his passing.

What was surprising to learn, when I read to the end of George's will, was that despite his young age, he had drawn up the will only months before his unexpected demise. The will was dated June 26 of that same year, 1896.

As it turned out, my guess about additional children was well founded. I got brave and looked for census records for all possible widows named Fannie Brown in his hometown of Canton, Georgia. One household in 1900 showed sons named James and George, just as their father had mentioned in his will. 

That household also included a five year old daughter Margaret, and a three year old son named Joseph—perhaps named after George's uncle Joseph Emerson Brown, once a governor of the state of Georgia. Born in January of 1897, young Joseph arrived not quite three months after his father's passing. Though at that point unnamed, he was likely on his father's mind when he drew up his will.    

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