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Why context matters

The cousins simply could not agree.

The story — told by one of the cousins, Cherie Mello — is compelling: William Bedford, a Missouri merchant, took his family from St. Joseph, Missouri, to head west on the Oregon Trail in April of 1852. About 120 miles out, somewhere in present day Kansas, the baby of the family died and Bedford — himself suffering from tuberculosis — wrote his own will. He gave it to a business partner who took the will back to Missouri along with the body of the baby, to be buried at home. The Bedfords made it as far as Wyoming but there, on 4 July 1852, Will died on the Hastings Cutoff. The will was later submitted for probate by the business partner back in Missouri.1

The disagreement is over that will, recorded in Buchanan County, Missouri, in 1854.2

Bedford will 1852

Looking at the digital image above, on Ancestry, Cherie was quite convinced the document had to be a copy of the original. The date of the probate — two years after Will died on the Oregon Trail in 1852 — and the appearance of the record convinced her it couldn’t be the will the testator himself had written. Among other things, the document didn’t start at the beginning of the page: “Who starts their will 1/3 down the page?” But her distant cousin was equally convinced: he was sure the will was the original, written by Bedford himself, because the handwriting was so similar to that in Will’s letters.

So… is the document we can see on Ancestry or FamilySearch today the original will?


And the context of the document tells us that for sure.

The first contextual element is the record set itself. We can see at the top of the document that this is a paginated record. So we need to go back to the start of the record to see exactly what it is. It’s easier to do on FamilySearch than on Ancestry, but both let us page back to the start — image 166 of the 444 images in this set — where we can see that this is a bound volume: Buchanan County’s Will Book B, covering the dates from September of 1849 to December of 1857.3

So… clue number 1: a bound volume, not a set of loose papers such as an original will.

The second contextual element is the form of the entry in the record. If this were an original, inserted into a bound volume, it would have to be fastened to the paper of the volume in some way. Typical fastenings in the 1800s would include pins or ribbons, to hold the external document in place. There are none here.

Clue number 2: no fastenings to suggest an external document inserted into the bound volume.

The third contextual element is the organization of the record. We can see, now, that it’s a handwritten entry, preceded and followed by other handwritten entries. Each entry is dated. Just above the Bedford will is the probate judge’s appointment of an administrator in a different estate case. It’s dated 29 May 1854. The will follows, and on the following page the probate judge’s records of the proving of the will, dated 5 June 1854. In other words, both before and after the will, we can see entries dated two years after Will Bedford’s death.

Clue number 3: the dates of the entries in the bound volume.

And the fourth contextual element, if we needed it, would be to examine the handwriting. All of the entries on both pages — and on many pages both before and after these — are in the same handwriting.

Clue number 4: one person wrote everything in the record book at this time.

Taking just the one paragraph of this record of Will Bedford’s will and laying it side-by-side with letters he may have written may well lead us to think the will was the original. Many literate people of the day were schooled in a standard handwritten form4 and it can be hard to distinguish between one careful hand — say, a merchant like Will Bedford — and another — say, the clerk of the Buchanan County probate court.

Looking at the record in its full context, however, makes it clear just what this is: a bound volume kept by the clerk of the court in which entries were written by the clerk at the direction of the judge and/or court.

The wills recorded in its pages are the clerk’s copies.



The context tells us so.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Original or not,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 3 Feb 2022).


  1. Email, “Recording a will after death,” Cherie Mello to the author, 2 Feb 2022.
  2. Buchanan County, Missouri, Will Book B: 279-280, will of William Bedford, dated 19 May 1852, recorded 5 June 1854; FamilySearch digital film 007631971, image 339, FamilySearch ( : accessed 3 Feb 2022). See also Buchanan Co. Will Book B: 279-280; digital images, “Missouri, U.S., Wills and Probate Records, 1766-1988,” ( : accessed 3 Feb 2022).
  3. Buchanan Co., Mo., Will Book B, spine, image 166, FamilySearch digital film 007631971.
  4. See generally William E. Henning, An Elegant Hand: The Golden Age of American Penmanship and Calligraphy (New Castle DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2012).
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