When Big Aaron Sharp died, he wanted to make sure his wife, Mary, was well taken care of.
His will left her things like "a sufficiency of spinning stuff to make her necessary clothing" and "two of milk cows with calves of her choice."
Big Aaron, my fifth great grandfather, wrote his will in 1820, two years before he died at the age of 72. I found his will on Ancestry. It has been transcribed from the Campbell County (Tennessee) Estate Book.
It is, to say the least, an interesting read. While the will itself is just a page long, it if followed up with five pages of who got what and what it was worth when he died in March 1922.
Wills, like Aaron's, are invaluable to genealogists. They give insight into the person's life. From reading Aaron's will, it seems he was pretty well off, had a good farm and a good life. He divided his 300 acres to his two sons, George (my fourth great grandfather) and Jacob. He made sure Mary would be taken care of, even though she ended up dying before he did.
While his sons got his land, his four daughters were bequeathed horses. Hmmm.
Anything else he hadn't accounted for - all the other stuff -- would be divided between the six children equally or sold.
It wasn't until I turned the page and saw the actual distribution of Aaron's belonging that I was taken somewhat aback.
His daughter, Molly and her husband Malachi Hatmaker, received their horses along with some harnesses and chains, an oven, a hog and a sheep and "one negrow girl" valued at $350.
His daughter Barbary was given "Phoeby a negrow woman" valued at $300 as her part of Aaron's estate.
In the end, my grandfather's estate included five slaves - three women and two men - who were divided between his children.
It made me a bit sad. As I started my journey into my family's history, knowing that many of my ancestors were from the south, I knew there was a great chance some would be slave owners.
One thing we learn as genealogists, is to not get upset about what you might uncover about your family. It is not a matter of condoning their behavior or cursing their existence.
It is a matter of understanding and accepting.
But, getting past that, the information I garnered from his will was helpful. It not only confirmed who his children were, but also the spouses of his daughters. I had only two children listed for Mary and Aaron, but now I get to add four more great-great-great-great aunts and uncles to my family tree.
In general wills are kept at the clerk's office in the county were the will was filed, most likely the county where the person lived and died. There aren't a lot of wills digitized. I was just lucky that some other relative of mine had found Aaron's and attached it to him in Ancestry.
To find wills, many libraries and/or historical societies or local museums may have indexes. That would be helpful if you know the book and the page and the date in which the will was filed with the county clerk.
According to the Family Search Wiki page, many county probate records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library, but may not have been digitized yet. Search the catalog at the Family Search site for the county where your ancestor died to find probate records on microfilm or in books. Beginning in November, 2015, microfilms are being digitized and listed in the FHL Catalog with a camera icon if they can be searched online.