Questions of will

Oh to have been a fly on the wall

So The Legal Genealogist was poking around in old records again last night and ran across some early will books from Outagamie County, Wisconsin. Created in 1851 from Brown County, it’s in northeastern Wisconsin, just west of Green Bay. The county seat is Appleton.1

The volumes start with wills probated in 1872. And the very first will — on page 1 of Will Book 1 — stopped me in my tracks.

Because it made me think, and it made me wonder…

What’s the story behind this?

The will was dated 1 May 1872, and in it John Colligan left his town lot in Appleton and all his personal property to his wife Julia, and split a 59-acre tract between his two sons John and Edward. Julia was to have the use of the farm until the younger boy reached full age.2

A perfectly ordinary will. Nothing worth looking into for a family history.

Except for one thing. One bequest. A horse, named Kate, to son John.

Doesn’t it make you think? Doesn’t it make you wonder? What’s the story behind this?

How many horses did the Colligans have? Did young John raise this horse? What was it about the bond of boy and horse that made it that important for the father to make this particular bequest in his will?

Then there was John S. Smith’s will, dated 5 June 1872. He left all his personal property to his wife Mary along with half of the income from a piece of land. The land itself and everything else he owned he left to his son Jacob “provided always that he has to work and farm the same as usual, and give half the income and proceeds to my wife, his mother… Jacob shall have the right of controll, use and sell said piece of land only with the consent of my wife…”3

Doesn’t it make you think? Doesn’t it make you wonder? What’s the story behind this?

It sure doesn’t sound to me like John trusted Jacob not to up and sell the farm right out from under his mother. What was Jacob like? And what happened to that farm, and to Jacob’s mother Mary, after John died?

And Thomas Callen of Outagamie County owned two equal-sized pieces of land. In his will, in February 1872, he left one of the parcels to his wife Ann and his “second son Thomas.” The other was to be divided between his “other two sons Andrew and John Edward.”4

Doesn’t it make you think? Doesn’t it make you wonder? What’s the story behind this?

Why was the second son Thomas singled out to be joined with his mother in that one parcel of land? Did the oldest and youngest sons not get along with this middle child? Was Thomas closer to his mother than either of the others? What happened to Ann’s interest in this parcel when she died? Did Thomas end up with it all?

Then there was the will of Melissa Burgess. She left all of her personal property to her “beloved husband.” He was also to get the income from the farm or from the sale of her real estate, but he had no right to cut or sell the timber, and her house was going to her parents who had the right to live in it until it was sold. The balance of the estate went to her brother, sisters, and one sister’s children, and her brother was the executor.5

Doesn’t it make you think? Doesn’t it make you wonder? What’s the story behind this?

Who the heck was that husband, whose first name never once appeared in that document? Clearly, she had the assets — so who was he and how did they come to be married in the first place? And why didn’t she trust him, not one little bit, with her property?

And clearly Francis Connolly, who wrote his will in 1873, didn’t like one of his son’s girlfriends either. After leaving only $10 to each of two daughters and $300 plus all his personal effects to a third because she had been “very kind” to him, he left two town lots to his son Andrew — but “if he and Alice Stillman ever go together again as man and wife he shall lose Lot 12.”6

Doesn’t it make you think? Doesn’t it make you wonder? What’s the story behind this?

Just what in the world had Alice Stillman done to make Francis name her like this in his will? Did she and Andrew ever make a go of it? What happened to these lots — and did the two daughters who got the $10 bequests ever talk to the daughter who got the $300 and the personal belongings… or was there a permanent rift because of the favoritism shown her?

In his 1872 will, Gunther Stroebe took great pains to instruct his son Reinold on his obligations to Gunther’s wife, Elisabeth. Reinold was to get just about everything under the will, except that he was to

give or cause to be given to my wife Elizabeth, after my death annually, in the month of October, forty dollars in money, two barrels of wheat flour at 200 lbs. each, twenty bushels of potatoes, one milch cow and fodder for the same, firewood already split for use enough to last her for her own use through the year, a room or dwelling on the above farm, and in case of sickness nurse and administer such needs as will help to alleviate her wants.7

Doesn’t it make you think? Doesn’t it make you wonder? What’s the story behind this?

From the will, we don’t even know if Elisabeth was Reinold’s mother. And did Gunther really think he needed to school Reinold in every little detail — or was he just being one of those careful methodical Germans? Did Elisabeth live long and well on her $40, wheat flour, potatoes, milk and firewood? Did Reinold care for her and alleviate her wants?

And perhaps my favorite of all is the simple and sweet will of Charles Pfening, who left everything he had to his “dearly beloved wife” Mena Pfening, “all of which I bequeath to my said beloved wife as a substantial evidence of my love and affection for her.”8

Doesn’t it make you think? Doesn’t it make you wonder? What’s the story behind this?

That kind of a love story wasn’t all that common. How did they meet? What kind of a life did they have together? What happened to Mena after Charles’ death?

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when these wills were being written… and even when they were fought over afterwards…

And oh what fun to go looking for the answers today… as long as we always, always, stop and think… and wonder…


  1. See “Outagamie County, Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Online ( : accessed 14 Feb 2013).
  2. Outagamie County, Wisconsin, Will Book 1: 1, will of John Colligan, 1 May 1872; County Court Clerk, Appleton, Wisconin; digital images, “Wisconsin, Outagamie County Records, 1825-1980,” ( : accessed 14 Feb 2013).
  3. Outagamie Co. Will Book 1: 5, will of John S. Smith, 5 June 1872.
  4. Outagamie Co. Will Book 1: 15, will of Thomas Callen, 7 February 1872.
  5. Outagamie Co. Will Book 1: 17, will of Melissa Burgess, 18 September 1870.
  6. Outagamie Co. Will Book 1: 29, will of Francis Connolly, 21 April 1873.
  7. Outagamie Co. Will Book 1: 35, will of Gunther Stroebe, 1 April 1872.
  8. Outagamie Co. Will Book 1: 51, will of Charles Pfening, 20 May 1867.
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11 Responses to Questions of will

  1. Rondina says:

    No, not really. The Francis Connolly one starring Alice Stillman is interesting. BTW, Mena married Charles’s brother. :)

  2. Keith Bouldin says:

    Yes, it does make me wonder … what’s the story is behind that … err those.
    For me, part of genealogy is finding out, if possible, who my ancestors were, what were they like …

  3. John D. Tew says:

    This was a delightful read! I enjoy your writing style and the way you choose topics and look at them with thoughtfulness and often a slight twist of humor. I tried commenting yesterday from my office, but it appears it did not send properly for some reason. I said in the failed comment that I am adding this and other posts from your blog to this week’s “Saturday Serendipity” post on The Prism.

  4. Pingback: Do successful genealogists need to have an insatiable curiosity? « Genealogy Certification: My Personal Journal

  5. Karla says:

    Two of my maternal pioneer ancestors left quite interesting wills of this sort. Fortunately, while we don’t know everything about the motivations, we have a pretty good idea.

    In one case my great-great-grandmother left similar (may even have been identical but I haven’t looked in awhile) inheritances to her youngest son and to his nephew, my grandfather, who had been brought up like brothers. Her son’s inheritance was in trust while grandpa’s wasn’t. Other children and grandchildren also inherited, but not as significantly. I’m pretty sure that this was largely in relation to the existence of Huntington’s Disease in the family. It wasn’t well understood in the 1920s but it looks like she thought her son might be at risk and supposed my grandfather wasn’t. Or that her son was getting to the age where her husband and some other children had shown symptoms, whereas Grandpa was younger and would have time to put his affairs in order first (neither one happened to inherit it, fortunately). The alternate explanation is that she didn’t get along so well with her daughter-in-law but did with my grandma. That’s iffier but certainly possible.

    In the other case it appears that one of my great-grandmothers felt she had given enough money to some of her children during her lifetime and thus didn’t need to leave them further money. She hadn’t been giving money to my grandma but did make her the executor.

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