Saturday, May 20, 2023

A Last Will Becomes
a Family Tree Roadmap


Though I don't write about it much, behind the scenes each week, I'm still working on the unfinished business of previous months' research goals. Lately, my task has been to add the collateral lines to the Ijams branch of my mother-in-law's tree. Since my explorations in colonial Maryland documentation had enabled me to push back another generation in that family's history, I was building the tree of her direct ancestor William Ijams' brother Isaac.

Because I use that fuller tree to help identify distant DNA cousins, in that process, I then drop down the line of all descendants of that collateral line.

Thus, I soon arrived at the generation of Caroline Elizabeth Ijams. Isaac Ijams was Caroline's maternal grandfather, but Caroline was also connected to my mother-in-law's line because Caroline's mother, Isaac's daughter, had married her cousin, William Ijams' son Joseph.

Caroline had married land agent (and later, broker) Dana F. Stone who, like Caroline, had been born in Ohio but lived in Iowa. The couple apparently lived quite comfortably, but at Dana's death in 1882, though he left his wife well off, he left her childless.

Thus, two years later, when Caroline was drawing up her own will, in the absence of any children of her own, she left a lengthy document which, once I discovered it, became my roadmap to fill in the blanks on a large number of relatives in the Ijams family tree.

Caroline was not only quite generous with her bequests, but also was explicit about how each legatee was related to her—thus, the value of this unexpected family tree guidance.

While pondering over just how I was going to use the document to design a more complete branch of the Ijams tree, I discovered two other genealogy bloggers who were, at the same time, on the same wavelength. Last Wednesday, Teresa at Writing My Past wrote her thoughts on "Building a Tree from a Will." She had stumbled upon the same sort of gift, hidden within a last will and testament of an ancestor.

On the same day—and also writing from Canada—Jackie Corrigan of As Canadian as Can Be delved further into this topic I had stumbled upon, with her post, "Using Probate Records to Untangle a Family." With the discovery of Caroline Ijams Stone's will, that was indeed what I was doing, and I liked Jackie's specific tip to "let this story be a reminder to be patient and thorough: don't rely on just one source." That particularly resonated with me when I saw Caroline's will stretch to six pages of carefully laid out instructions on gifts to line after line of specific relatives. I need to go through each entry to determine just how that person fits into the Ijams family tree.

I've already found some documents through this process which helped explain what became of Ijams relatives whose family lines had simply disappeared. In one example, the will led me to Caroline's maternal aunt Elizabeth, Elizabeth's husband Thomas Beall and their son Josiah, who I now know died in Cass County, Indiana. On Josiah's death certificate, his mother's maiden name wasn't even noted, but I now have the key to see that she was Caroline's aunt.

Having found so much useful information through this one woman's will, it reminds me that, with this current month's research project, I can put that technique to good use once again. The first step to doing so with the Jackson line I am now working on is to find the will for Lyman Jackson. As we'll see next week, though, sometimes those wills are a gift to us, but sometimes we're kept from such a handy outcome.

Be glad when we find the useful documents, I guess, for there are some instances when those last words are kept hidden from us, no matter how hard we try to find them. 


  1. Well done!!! I had a very similar experience with a sister of my 2nd great-grandfather David Auble (1817-1894). Elizabeth died unmarried and left a will in Philadelphia when she died in 1899. It identified the four siblings I knew about, but also the four siblings I didn't know about, and in some cases descendants of those four. I wrote a 10-part series about it - the 10th post has links to the others - Now I always look for the will of a bachelor uncle or old maid of a family. Your post reminded me to search for the childless widow or widower too!

    1. Randy, discovering wills like that are a true gift! I wonder if those generous benefactors had any idea that those of us generations removed would be reading their every word for family history clues. To me, wills of bygone eras are like our current age's well-written obituaries. We can learn so much about a family through these documents--if we can find them.


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