Typically, if someone in the United States wants to see what an old will says, he or she has to travel to the county where the will was entered into probate and ask the clerk of the court to find the will. For very old wills, this often requires searching through microfilm. However, that is changing as millions of old wills are now searchable online.
If you have ever been curious about Herman Melville, Eli Whitney or Daniel Webster's will, it has recently become very easy for you to figure out what they wrote in their wills, thanks to technology.
The well-known genealogical website, Ancestry.com, spent two and half years scanning 170 million pages of old wills and probate records and put them in an online database.
While many other countries have previously placed the contents of old wills online, this is a first in the United States on this large of a scale. This development appeared in a recent CNN article, "Paul Revere, J.P. Morgan wills among millions now online."
In some ways browsing through the wills shows how the United States has changed. Many of the oldest wills do not even mention the testator's first born son or wife. Why? In the early days of the nation, the law of primogeniture was in effect. Among other reasons, this approach helped ensure that the family farm or business remained in the family, even if a widowed mother remarried. Consequently, the eldest son inherited everything except for a one-third share to the widow.
In addition to legal developments over time, the wills also show the shift from handwriting to typing that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Clearly, researchers should make even more interesting discoveries as they continue to study this new database.
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Reference: CNN (September 4, 2015) "Paul Revere, J.P. Morgan wills among millions now online."
Image Credit: This is an oil on panel painting by Gilbert Stuart of Paul Revere. It was painted in 1813, when Revere was about 78 years old. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons The official position taken by the Wikimedia Foundation is that "faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art are public domain". This photographic reproduction is therefore also considered to be in the public domain.