Sunday, September 6, 2015

An unexpected treasure trove - Probate Case Files

Earlier this week, announced the release of a huge group of digitized, indexed records - U.S. Wills and Probate Records for all 50 states. I've only dealt with wills a little in my genealogy research, so this was an exciting prospect for me, and I hoped to find records of my ancestors in these files. I went through and quickly searched for the more unusual names in my tree - Bergstad, Craddock, Vadnais, Waechter, Beilstein, Groff, and a couple others. I found one hit in Groff, with the probate case file for Cynthia P. (McMullins) Groff, wife of my 3rd-great-granduncle, George Groff. I still need to look through that one (it's 38 pages!) but what I did see in my cursory scan through it has me very excited - married names for all her children (both those with George and those from her first marriage to Milton Smith)! But I wanted to find something for a direct ancestor if possible, maybe even something to break through a brick wall. So I kept searching, and soon found something - a probate case file for J.E. Craddock of Montana!

I scanned through it and found that J.E. Craddock's probate case was being handled by four of his children - G. A. Craddock, J. B. Craddock, W. L. Craddock, and E. L. Craddock. That fit nicely with what I knew of my James E. Craddock's children - George, Jessie, William, and Ernest. I knew that in addition to those four, he had three additional children - Moses, Otis, and Edna. I kept looking and found mention of them as well. This was my guy! And the file was 64 pages!!

I downloaded all 64 pages of the file, and began going through them. After the initial mention of the four sons requesting letters of administration, the bulk of the file was taken up with paperwork that didn't tell me much (letters to and from court the trying to name the administrator mostly). Then came some more interesting details. E. C. Kurtz was eventually named administrator of the estate, and there were notices posted in the paper for several weeks inviting creditors to come forward and claim any money owed them by James. The funeral home that took care of the funeral was paid $15 for furnishing the hearse (this was in 1917; I wonder what that would cost today). James' daughter Edna Morton was paid $101.70 for funeral expenses and for caring for James through his final illness. Mr. Kurtz was paid $75 for his role as administrator.

I also learned that James had two lots in Victor, Ravalli county, Montana that were, according to the case file, split so each child received an "undivided one seventh of all the real property." It doesn't go into any more detail than that. I'd have to look up the original plat of the survey to see where exactly the property was, since there is no map attached. The remaining cash in James' account was also split evenly, so each child received $69.87 as their part of the inheritance.

Reverse side of Ernest Craddock's voucher

But the most interesting part of the whole file wasn't any of the forms or receipts. It was a note written (presumably) by my 2nd-great-grandfather, Ernest Craddock, on the back of the voucher he received for his $69.87. His was the only one with this information, and since he was the 3rd youngest of the children, it's interesting that the information came from him. On his voucher, Ernest wrote the following (spelling and grammar are original): "We don't know where Otis, is he is in the Army somewhere that all we know about him he never writes. Yours truly E L Craddock". That short little note brought a whole different aspect to this file. At first I'd imagined all the kids coming together to deal with the loss of their father, and to divvy up his property evenly. But now, according to that note, there had been some estrangement between Otis (the youngest of James' children) and his older siblings, to the point where there was no written communication and no one knew where he was, at least for a time. I know they eventually found him, as his voucher is in the file and signed by him. But it made me sad to think that the family went through a loss like this without one of their own to help deal with the situation, to talk to, and comfort and be comforted by. I hope they overcame the estrangement and stayed in communication as time went on. But it just goes to show that you really never know what you'll find when you research your family history, or where you'll find it. Sometimes the most powerful little nuggets are tucked away in the margin or on the back of what looks to be something boring and inconsequential.