Friday, August 17, 2018

Finding an Elusive Death Date

Photo by Chris Lawton
Cliffhangers are the worst! I prefer stories to be tidied up, closed up neatly so I can move on to the next one. Most of us like to "tie up loose ends," to "cross our t's and dot our i's." A story without a clear ending feels unfinished, unresolved, anticlimactic. And when that unresolved story is the story of our ancestors, an unclear ending or an undotted "i", can feel that much more anticlimactic and frustrating.

For many of us, the undotted "i" may be a marriage date, a birth date, or a death date. In this post, I'm going to walk you through how I've worked on finding a date of death for my ancestor Joseph Williams with no available vital records.

1. Gather what you know

When looking for a date of death for an ancestor, we can narrow down our search by finding them (and their families) in the U.S. Census. By finding them in one census, and then not finding them and/or finding their spouse listed as a widow(er), we can narrow down when our ancestor may have passed away. In the case of Joseph Williams, I have narrowed down his date of death being between 1880 and 1900 using census records. By searching census and vital records for Joseph Williams, his wife, and his children, I was certain of this much. But that's a wide window, isn't it!? Nearly all of the 1890 U.S. Census was destroyed in a 1921 fire, but some records do still exist. Unfortunately, none exist for Powhatan County, Virginia where Joseph Williams lived.

The Library of Virginia website lists which records they have on Powhatan County, so let's see for which time periods they have death records. The LVA website lists the following: Index to Births, Marriages and Deaths, 1853 - 1871; Register of Deaths, 1853 - 1871; and Death Certificates, 1912 -1917. But...none of these cover 1880-1900.

So what do I know at this point? Joseph Williams passed away between 1880 and 1900, and there are no records for deaths held at the Library of Virginia. So let's turn to some other record sets and see what they might have.

2. Land records

Powhatan County Circuit Court holds land deeds for the county. By looking through the land deed books there, I found numerous exchanges of property involving Joseph Williams in Powhatan. As expected, these were nearly all from before 1880. The first was from 27 February 1841 and the last was from 1 July 1868. But there are a few from after 1880! On 6 March 1882, Joseph Williams gave 40 acres to his son William Henry Williams. And then there are two records in the deed books regarding Joseph Williams' land that was taken by the Farmville and Powhatan Railroad: 29 February 1888 and then 6 March 1888 when the issue was concluded.

This shaves eight years off of the window for Joseph Williams' date of death. Now we know he passed away between 6 March 1888 and 1900. Since land records involve the passing along of property, what legal records might we check next?

3. Chancery records

One of my favorite pages on the Library of Virginia website is their Chancery Records Index. The wonderful people over at LVA have created searchable indexes for the chancery records from Virginia. Many - including Powhatan County - are scanned as well as being indexed. That means you can view high-quality images of an entire chancery file from wherever you live. It's amazing, really!

This is what the search page looks like at the Chancery Records Index
To search the index, first choose the county or city that interests you. You can search by first and last name of the plaintiff as well as the defendant. Or, more broadly, you can search one or two surnames that are mentioned in a particular case. You can also narrow the search by a range of years.

If we select Powhatan County, and put Williams in as a surname to search, we find 51 records including the surname Williams. For our particular focus here, I scroll to look for chancery records from after 1888 - the date we know Joseph Williams was still living. I find a chancery record with index number 1901-003 for a plaintiff "Admr. of William T. Turpin" and a defendant "Admr. of Joseph Williams etc." This looks promising, doesn't it? Chancery index numbers are dated from when the case was closed - in this case 1901 - and here admr. is the abbreviation for "administrator" - the person responsible for the estate of a deceased person.

After clicking "view details," we're taken to a new page that shows an index of surnames included along with a number of pages in the file. This case includes 57 scans and the following surnames: Davis, Gary, Gregory, Hoy, Turpin, and Williams. I know this is my Joseph Williams because his daughters and granddaughters married into most of these families. After reading through the case thoroughly - a few times over - I found a few important tidbits that proved vital to narrowing down Joseph Williams' death date. The first few pages of most chancery case files are the summary of the case - including important dates and persons involved. So let's dive in, shall we!?

4. Diving deep into a chancery record

When I first found this chancery record for Joseph Williams, I had a lot of questions. Why was the family of Joseph Williams taken to court? What's the story here? When I dove into the record, I was able to piece together the story of what took place at the end of Joseph Williams' life.
"Several years since one Joseph Williams died in said county seized and possessed of a tract of land lying in the County of Powhatan on the Farmville and Powhatan Railroad near Moseley Junction and adjoining the lands of Geo. L. Davis and others and containing 122 1/2 acres more or less. That the said Joseph Williams also died possessed of a considerable personal estate and intestate." (p. 2)
The summary continues:
"At the time of the death of the said Joseph Williams dec'd, he was indebted to the said Wm. T. Turpin dec'd for medical services rendered and supplies furnished during his illness and otherwise upon a bond to complainant the said Wm. T. Turpin having departed this life intestate and your complainant having regularly and duly qualified as his administrator brought suit by warrant upon the said bond against the said E. A. Baugh Sheriff and received a judgement for the sum of $68.75 with interest from the 12th day of August 1893." (p. 3)
The sheriff of Powhatan County was made the administrator of the estate of Joseph Williams, while the son of William T. Turpin, David L. Turpin, was made his administrator. In regards to the judgment mentioned, "The said judgment is wholly unsatisfied unpaid and still due your complainant. Execution was duly issued therein and returned 'no effects'" (p. 3-4). Joseph Williams - or perhaps his family after his death - had not paid his medical bills. Now the Turpin family was settling their accounts.

Extract of Judgment from Powhatan County Chancery 1901-003 p. 40
This shows us that Joseph Williams was deceased by 5 August 1895. Additionally, the extract of judgement shows that the unpaid bill is being charged interest from 12 Aug 1893. The chancery file also confirms that Joseph Williams died a widower and names his children and some of his grandchildren. The file also includes the correspondence of the court searching for the various descendants of Joseph Williams in Powhatan, Chesterfield, and Newport News. Other helpful details are addresses of some of the descendants as well as a written note by Joseph Williams' son in law, George L. Davis. The conclusion of the case is that Joseph Williams' land was sold at auction, his daughter Eliza Hoy bought the property and paid the family of William T. Turpin from the proceeds. The remainder of the money ($30.55) was distributed among the family of Joseph Williams. So we can now safely say that Joseph Williams passed away between 6 March 1888 and 5 August 1895. But was he living on 12 August 1893?

5. Order Books

The Library of Virginia also includes microfilm for Powhatan County Order Books. The order books include details of daily happenings in the court. After scrolling through many pages from 1891-1893, I found a few comments that Joseph Williams was still working to resolve his dispute with the Powhatan and Farmville Railroad between 9 June 1888 and 9 May 1889. So now we have a few later dates for him. I found an internal index for the order book from 1893-1898 and found Joseph Williams mentioned on Monday 4 March 1895.

Detail from Powhatan County Order Book from 4 March 1895
"The court doth order that the estate of Joseph Williams, dec'd be committed to the hands of E. A. Baugh, Sheriff of Powhatan County to be by him administered according to law" (p. 428). 

I haven't been able to find a record on 12 August 1893 that mentions Joseph Williams, nor have I found a more specific date than 4 March 1895. 


Vital records aren't always available when we need them. In their absence, we have to dig deep in the records we do have, and find the records that are still available. We can narrow a death date down from census records, get further clues from land deeds, and dive deep in chancery records and order books. 

At first, all I knew was that Joseph Williams passed away between 1880 and 1900. Now, I can say with certainty that Joseph Williams passed away between 9 May 1889 and 4 March 1895. I have yet to determine if he was living on 12 August 1893 - the date interest began accruing on the judgement against him by the Turpins - but I have new leads yet to pursue. 

Do you have elusive death dates for your ancestors? Have you searched chancery records or order books? 

There are still uncrossed t's and undotted i's in the final chapter of Joseph Williams' life. But there are also many undiscovered records in need of being read before I can discover how to write that last chapter. Until then, I'll remain striving to encounter my ancestors through family research, remembering the past made present.

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