This year was the first that I attended the NGS Family History Conference, and I never could have imagined how much I would learn from each and every lecture that I attended there. I was always left with the urge to rush back to my hotel room to open up my laptop and try out a new research trick, or to look at a record in a different way. One of the many inspiring lectures that gave me some food for thought was the Helen F. M. Leary Distinguished Lecture, “Trousers, Beds, Black Domestic, Tacks, and Housekeeping Bills: ‘Trivial Details’ Can Solve Research Problems,” by Elizabeth Shown Mills.1
This lecture stressed attention to detail, in particular the information and significant dates that could be gleaned from probate records and household bills. For example, a doctor clearly wouldn’t continue to attend and bill a patient after they had died, and the purchase of items needed for a burial, including a coffin or, less obviously, a new suit of clothes, could also suggest a date of death.2 When contemplating this, I immediately thought of my ancestor Elithan Hall of Washington County, Illinois; details of his life are few and far between, but I did possess a copy of his probate file.
Within the probate file for Elithan Hall was a petition that stated that he had died on an unspecified date in March of 1859. This petition was not created until 1866, but seemed to be the most reliable document referencing the date of his death.3 After attending Elizabeth Shown Mills’ lecture, however, I recalled that the probate file had included quite a few miscellaneous bills. I wondered if one might suggest a more specific date of death, and I could hardly wait to reexamine the contents of the file to see whether I had overlooked any details before.
As it turns out, I most certainly had. To be honest, the facts became almost embarrassingly obvious! Within the probate file was a doctor bill, which stated, “1860: From April 26th to May 5th for Medical Attendance during his last sickness.”4 There was another bill as well, signed by a different man: “From January 27th 1860, To May 9th 1860, To Sundries including burial expenses.”5
Last sickness? Burial expenses? From these seemingly minor details, I realized that Elithan Hall had likely lived more than a year longer than the date on the petition, which I had blindly accepted although it was created more than five years after the fact. In reality, Elithan Hall likely died in Washington County, Illinois, on 5-6 May 1860, and was buried no later than 9 May 1860.
What surprising clues have you found in a probate file?
1 Elizabeth Shown Mills, “Trousers, Beds, Black Domestic, Tacks, and Housekeeping Bills: ‘Trivial Details’ Can Solve Research Problems,” National Genealogical Society Family History Conference: Las Vegas, 2013.
2 Elizabeth Shown Mills, “Trousers, Beds, Black Domestic, Tacks, and Housekeeping Bills.”
3 Washington County, Illinois, Ellerton Hall probate file, Box 34, County Court; Illinois State Archives, Springfield. Ellerton was a variation of the name Elithan.
4 Washington Co., Ill., Ellerton Hall probate file.
5 Washington Co., Ill., Ellerton Hall probate file.