If you can, obtain a copy of your ancestor’s complete probate file. Probate files are normally housed at the county courthouse in the county where your ancestor died, and you will have to pay for a copy of the file, but it can reveal much about your ancestor and how he lived. An estate inventory is often included in the file, as well as an accounting of the estate sale, the purchase price of each item, and who bought it. You may be surprised at the things our ancestors owned and the value of those items.
If there was a will, it will also be in the probate file. Wills are usually straightforward, but you sometimes find instances of unusual generosity, thinly-veiled pettiness, and familial strife. A friend shared a will from the 1860s in which her ancestor lambasted his second wife for cruelly mistreating his daughter while favoring her own children. In his will, he cited examples of the mistreatment, stipulated that his stepchildren could not continue to live in his house, and “by no means” was his daughter to continue living with her stepmother. He wanted his daughter to leave the house “immediately after my death,” and in a final twist of the knife, he wanted the will read at his funeral.
My favorite way to learn about my ancestors is to go where they lived, walk where they walked, breathe in their air, take in their vistas, and stand at their graves. It may sound odd, but I feel them around me, welcoming me, and it’s a humbling experience. Also, by going to where they lived, I can personally look through old courthouse records, talk with local historians, and look for local history books to help me better understand the area and why my ancestors may have chosen to settle there.
Truly, genealogy can (and, arguably, should) be more than a collection of names and dates. Our ancestors have stories to tell us, if we’ll only look for them. Meanwhile, I hope these few examples have inspired you to ask questions and seek answers so that you’ll better understand who your ancestors were – not merely that they lived.