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Jane MacNamara holds a copy of her book. Photo: Lucy Martin
Jane MacNamara holds a copy of her book. Photo: Lucy Martin

Gene-o-rama: Tracking your family history through wills

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All sorts of people dabble in documenting family history. Some with a stronger interest attend conferences, like one held this March in Ottawa. Organized by the local branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society, "Gene-o-rama" was a weekend event featuring vendors and talks from specialized researchers with material of interest for that endeavor.

One of the featured speakers was Jane MacNamara, a Toronto-area author of a new book: "Inheritance in Ontario: Wills and Other Records for Family Historians." MacNamara spoke with Lucy Martin about how and why wills can provide a wealth of information.

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Jane MacNamara: Well you get family connection, for sure. They're tremendously rich records for following a family though history. Because normally people are leaving something to the family – whether they're doing it in a will, or whether they don't leave a will and the court has to decide who gets the property and so on. So, the relationships, you know, someone is named as a son or a father or a brother or a stepson, and as well they are court records. There's some impetus to be straight about them and not fudge the details. So they are great that way. And they're important because they pass along goods and so on, so they're an intact source from the 1790s on for Ontario.

Lucy Martin: How did you develop this interest?

JM: I guess just by doing it. And by looking at wills from my own family. A great-great aunt died without a will, so she died intestate. For her, estate file is the only source I've ever found to really tie her siblings - her Irish famine immigrant siblings, together – and give me their names, signatures and so on.

LM: Do you get a lot of extra details that are sort of unexpected and rich - not a dry legal document, but a real human picture – out of these explorations?

JM: Yeah, absolutely. I've recently been working on wills during the time period of the First World War. And I've found things like newspaper clippings. I've found personal letters, because soldiers sometimes didn't leave a will. But they may have written to the relatives and said, you know: 'If I don't come back, I want you to have my bank account' or something like that. So you actually get wills, letters and so on. And those letters may have more information. You know, they may talk about his experience in the war and so on. They're not just about what they wanted to happen.

LM: Considering the span of time that you looked at, were there sort of surprises at the ways things changed over the centuries in terms of, I don't know, the role of wives and women, or children, or inheritance changes?

JM: Yeah, until the 1880s - or a little bit earlier than that, the mid-1850s is when it started to change, married women – they could own property, but they couldn't do anything with it. It was all in the hands of their husband. So, to see that change through the years and to see the fact that women could leave things and their land, and that's how you knew that they sort of owned that land. So it's been very interesting to see that sort of thing.

LM: Have you come away with a sense of why a will is important and what people should think about when they prepare one?

JM: Oh, I mean, ideally, from a genealogist's perspective, everybody writing their will today should list all their relatives! But I don't think that's practical and I'm pretty sure the legal community wouldn't appreciate the whole thing! Wills are pretty accessible. For Ontario the actual wills are mostly at the Archives of Ontario, up until about 40 years ago. But they're really very accessible on microfilm. They can be inter-loaned to anyplace in Ontario. I think you'll find that certain libraries around the province will have the wills, or at least the indexes, for their own part of the world.

LM: And that would be generally true for any municipal area, wouldn't it? The U.S. states, or Ontario?

JM: Yeah, some inheritance records are now coming on line, and so on. Ontario isn't, at this point - at least not that I know of. But, yeah, they're very accessible. And I think if someone is doing family history, they need to do wills.

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