Saturday, April 1, 2017

Probate Records Hint At Family Heartbreak

My day job brought me back to beautiful Salt Lake City this past week.

It should go without saying that I added a day at the end of the trip, so I could visit the genealogy mothership and report for family history research duty.

Family History Library - Salt Lake City, Utah

Exhaustive Search 
I am trying to crack the genealogy enigma that is my fifth great-grandfather Thomas Kirk. In particular, who were his parents and their ancestral origins?

Unfortunately, the existing records for Thomas are pretty spotty. In search of the tiniest of clues, I'm conducting an exhaustive search that includes an examination of the existing records for his children.

I pulled a handful of microfilmed probate records from Crawford County, Illinois - where, in the mid-19th century, at least seven of Thomas' 13 children moved to from Licking County, Ohio. As the minutes until the library's closing time ticked by, I cruised through seemingly endless reels of microfilmed history.

Piecing together family history from endless reels of microfilm.

Coffin and Trimmings
Among my first finds was the probate package for Thomas' son Greenberry Dorsa Kirk who died January 30, 1859. Greenberry, or G.D. as he was called in his estate settlement, was one of Thomas' seven sons who lived to adulthood.

G.D. Kirk's brother, James Kirk, served as the administrator for the estate, and "produced satisfactory evidence to the Court that he had given due legal notice to all persons having claims against said deceased [G.D. Kirk]."

Among the debts "duly established against the estate of G.D. Kirk" were $11 for a "coffin and trimmings" and $55 in medical bills. We know G.D. Kirk died when he was 37 years old, but we do not know the cause of his untimely death. The outstanding medical bills suggest that his cause of death required treatment. Perhaps he suffered an accident or lingering illness, but lived long enough to receive medical attention to the tune of $55.

Itemized debts for G.D. Kirk's estate, including $11 for coffin and trimmings

On February 22, 1862, the estate was finally settled. James Kirk reported that G.D. Kirk's estate was bankrupt and that he had to pay his brother's outstanding debts from his own funds.

"This day comes James Kirk Administrator of G.D. Kirk deceased and makes report as follows to wit that the widow by law obtained all the Estate of said deceased consisting of personal estate only, leaving nothing to pay on 1st class claims, but that he the said Administrator paid the said claims from his own private funds - receipts being herewith filed and the Court being duly advised declare the said estate insolvent and release the Administrator from all further trouble in the premises."

Final settlement of G.D. Kirk's estate and his gravestone (courtesy Larry Boyd)

G.D. Kirk's probate file gives us a small glimpse into what clearly was a difficult financial situation for his widow and children in addition to their already heartbreaking loss of husband and father.

Being Desirous of Settling My Worldly Affairs
I next found the Crawford County, Illinois probate package for Thomas' son William Kirk who died on October 31, 1888.

On January 7, 1889, William's son David Wilson Kirk filed his father's last will and testament with the probate court. The will named David as the executor.

William drew up his will on February 19, 1864, following the deaths of his siblings Rachel in 1852, Hugh in 1856, and Greenberry Dorsa in 1859 - all of whom died intestate.

Perhaps his siblings' untimely deaths and subsequent estate settlements without wills prompted William to proactively make arrangements - while he still had his health and mental faculties - to spare his heirs any unnecessary legal frustration.

William's will begins, "In the name of God amen, I William Kirk of the County of Crawford and State of Illinois being in good health and of sound and disposing mind and memory, and being desirous of settling my worldly affairs while I have strength and capacity do make and publish my last will and testament..."

An excerpt from William Kirk's last will and testament and his gravestone
(photo of stone courtesy of Larry Boyd)

Among William's final requests were that "my just debts and all expenses incurred during my last sickness and for my burial shall be promptly paid by my Executor as soon after my death as the same can concurrently be done." 

Was this request something desired after the insolvency of his brother G.D. Kirk's estate? In the end, William's estate paid out final claims totaling $846 - a sizable amount for the 19th century.

While neither probate package yielded clues about Thomas Kirk's ancestral origins, I did learn about the heartbreak Greenbery Dorsa's family suffered and the effort his brother William undertook to spare his family similar pain. 


  1. For one day of research, Michael, I think you did very well. Did you take pictures off the reader or were you also able to get images saved to take home? ~ Cathy

    1. Thanks, Cathy! I went in with a specific plan and didn't waste any time getting down to brass tacks. I did a combination of saving the microfilmed images. Some of the records that were less central to my primary research, I just snapped a photo at the film reader with my iPhone and iPad. For key records or those that were longer (like William's will above), I moved the film to the microfilm scanner and saved a high-res copy for my records.

    2. I was wondering because about a dozen years ago a researcher sent me photos off the microfilm. He had a hard time with the glare. I so appreciated his sharing them with me at the time. Thanks for replying, Michael.

    3. I'm sure it wouldn't be cheap, but I do think technology is marching on - and, until everything microfilmed is digitized, it'd be worthwhile to have scanners at each of the microfilm readers. Says the guy who had just one day of research and had to make judicious use of every single minute. :)

  2. Thank you for sharing your adventure with us. :)