Sep 2015

Genealogy Gold Mine: Millions of Wills Now Online

Chicago Tribune

Thousands of amateur genealogists who fantasize about being left a fortune by a distant relative can now get a reality check. Starting Wednesday, upward of 100 million wills written over the last three centuries will be posted to Ancestry.com, the popular genealogical search engine.

Wills trump other genealogical resources, which rarely open a door to our forebears' thoughts, notes Todd Godfrey, a vice president of Ancestry.com. A wedding license simply witnesses that someone met someone else at the altar on a certain date. It is silent about what they were feeling.

"A will preserves what was on your mind when you had to sit down to write your will," Godfrey said. "We get a picture of you in your own words."

As such, wills give amateur genealogists insights into what otherwise are just names on a family tree. They enable historians to paint a more nuanced picture of movers and shakers — and a collective portrait of the social world they moved in.

"What is striking about Chicago wills is how often they talk about what to do in case of fire," said Jennifer Utley, who heads the Ancestry.com team that worked on the wills project. That reflects how large the Chicago Fire of 1871 loomed in the minds of survivors and successive generations, Utley explained.

We know exactly what was on the mind of one member of Chicago's upper crust when he wrote his will. George Pullman's daughter Florence was the apple of his eye. He had named the hotel in his company town in her honor, and he bequeathed her an island in the St. Lawrence River. Then the developer of the railroad sleeping car turned his attention to his twin sons, George Jr. and Sanger:

"Inasmuch as neither of my sons has developed such a sense of responsibility as in my judgment is requisite for the wise use of large properties and considerable sums of money, I am painfully compelled as I have explicitly stated to them to limit my testamentary provisions for their benefit to a trust producing only such income as I deem reasonable for their support."

They got $3,000 annually. The twins had promoted pit bull fights, finished 147 and 148 in a prep school class of 148. Sanger was kicked out of the New York Athletic Club for nonpayment of dues. His brother's obituary in the New York World was headlined: "Death of George Pullman a Warning to Rich Fathers."

Up to now, looking for a rich uncle's will was an arduous endeavor, yet many tried, some by proxy. "Private detectives and lawyers use our source materials," Utley said. Presumably they have a client who hopes that money grows on their family tree.

They are among the 2 million subscribers to Ancestry.com. An expanding fascination with family history is witnessed by the number of fee-based genealogical services, including myheritage.com, as well as free online sites, such as familysearch.org. Ancestry.com's monthly subscriptions start at $19.95, though the probate records, as well as all U.S. birth, marriage and death records will be available free through Labor Day. Some municipal libraries subscribe to the services. The third season of the popular PBS show "Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr." is slated to air in 2016.

But to find a will, you had to know which of the nation's 3,007 county courthouses it was filed in. That's relatively easy with well-known figures such as Pullman or Marshall Field, who ran a Chicago department store and retired to New York City.

But it is trickier in the case of workaday folks, say, a distant relative of whom you know only a name. Even with an educated guess, you had to go to the local courthouse, and find a clerk willing to search dusty files and ledger books. The quest got a little easier when the Mormon church microfilmed wills in the 1970s and '80s.

But microfilm isn't searchable by computer — as is now possible after the digitizing of the Mormon records by Ancestry.com, which spent $10 million on the project, sending its own researchers to gather even more records. The result was more than 170 million pages from wills and probate records filed in the United States from 1668 to 2005.

Even if you don't find yourself an heir, there are consolation prizes. Like a peek at the range of emotions — from love to hate — that have inspired bequests and instructions to executors.

"In one will, I remember, a man left his son-in-law a rope and suggested he hang himself with it," Godfrey said.

Another told his executors that he wanted to be buried next to his wife. "He wrote that if his wishes weren't carried out, he'd come back and haunt them," Utley said.

Marshall Field was aloof and stingy with praise for his department store's employees, but he left bequests to a number of them. He set up a trust of $100,000 for a trio of executives, including Harry Selfridge, who transplanted Field's merchandising formula to a London department store.

Field's will also generated a bitter court battle that determined that a grandson, being illegitimate, wasn't a legal heir.

"It's fascinating to see what those who have amassed great wealth do with their money," Utley said. "Some endow a yacht race and the winner's cup. Others are philanthropically minded."

Potter Palmer's final testament made Jane Addams of Hull House a trustee, directing her to use some of the real estate mogul's fortune to support a "People's Palace for the promotion of the physical, mental, moral and social culture of those citizens and inhabitants of Chicago to whom fewer opportunities are open."

William B. Ogden, Chicago's first mayor, was solicitous of his sister Emily Wheeler's well-being. He left her 6 percent of his estate's income, "free from her husband's interference," Utley noted.

Could that mean that Ogden didn't trust his brother-in-law? But Nelson Knox Wheeler was a judge. That's the fascination of genealogical research: One name leads to another, and a fresh search, Utley noted.

"When we were doing the wills project, I couldn't leave it at the office," she said. "I'd find myself still poring over wills at 3 in the morning. It's addictive."

Article written by Ron Grossman, Chicago Tribune.