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The University of Massachusetts Amherst


A guide to selected genealogical resources at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library.


Probate records, "the process of settling an estate after someone's death," rank among the most valuable genealogical records in existence, dating from the 1600s in Massachusetts and from the "earliest settlements in North America." Wills and other probate records exist "for persons in America in periods and places when there are few other records."

Probate packets or files can yield such personal information as the decedent's full name; his date and place of death; the names of his spouse, children, and grandchildren; his trade or occupation; residences; religious affiliation; citizenship; and relationships between family members. Probate files can contain a single record or a combination of records such as wills, inventories of assets, lists of heirs, appointments of executors or administrators, documentation of the distribution of assests, assignment of dower, indentures, claims, receipts, and guardianship petitions.

Probate records are usually filed at the county level based on the decedent's residence at the time of his death.

"Of all the documents ancestors have left behind, wills are among the most common." "Roughly half of the residents of the United States have either left wills or have been mentioned in them." Wills can clarify relationship information and may reveal exactly how the decedent felt about certain family members. Of special interest to genealogists as well as to economic and social historians are the intimate glimpses into the ancestor's lifestyle and social and economic status as shown by the list of his personal property (household inventories of clothing, furniture, tools, etc.), his standard of living, what he valued, and the property he owned including slaves.

The W.E.B. Du Bois Library owns numerous and varied resources pertaining to probate records.