Epilogue: August 21, 2014 – I have discovered additional examples of this ancestor’s signature and have updated the bottom of this post with ‘revised’ conclusions.
I love finding an original signature of an ancestor, especially when I know that I will never find a photograph of that ancestor. Even better than finding the signature is seeing and touching the original document that my ancestor signed, which gives me a unique connection to that ancestor.
While volunteering at the county archives in one of my home counties (Stewart County, Tennessee) a few years ago, helping to clean, folder and index the loose records of Circuit Court, I came across a court case contesting the probated will of my ancestor William Travis, who had died sometime prior to 1 July 1861, when his will was probated in Stewart County Court.
The original will would normally have remained in the County Court Clerk’s office after being probated, but because the will had been contested, first in the County Court and then on appeal in the Circuit Court, the original document ended up among the loose records of the Circuit Court. In this county, the loose records of the County Court did not survive, so had it not been for the suit contesting the will, and that suit being appealed to the Circuit Court, we wouldn’t have the original.
The suit was brought in 1869, eight years after William Travis died, by one of his granddaughters who thought that she had not received her fair share of the estate. The legal basis of her petition was that the will had not been properly witnessed, the signatures of the witness(es) having been blotted out. Here you can see the end of the will, including William’s original signature and the blotting where the witnesses should have signed:
This original will was included in the loose records of the court case, which began in 1869 and did not conclude until 1887, when the parties settled out of court and the granddaughter dropped her suit contesting the will.
Lucky for me as a descendant, I had the privilege of seeing and touching the original document, and added a photo of William Travis’ original signature to my collection. That photo became the primary photo of William in my Ancestry.com tree in 2010.
Flash forward to 2013 – during another volunteer day at the same county archives, I came across another original signature of William Travis – this one as an election judge in 1841 in his home district. I made a photo of this signature as well, filed it on my computer and added it to William’s Ancestry profile. Wow – two original signatures of the same ancestor – what luck!
And as if my luck couldn’t get any better, a couple of weeks ago on another volunteering trip at the same archives, I found a third original signature of my William, this one from an 1811 receipt for serving as a witness in a court case.
But then I ran into a surprise: I made a photo of this third signature and filed it on my computer in the folder with the other two signatures I had found. I casually happened to line up the three signatures to enjoy the fruits of my labor:
The first one is from the 1811 receipt, the second from the 1841 election returns, and the third from his contested 1854 will.
My Sesame Street skills kicked in and I immediately felt like “one of these things is not like the other.” I concluded that the will was a forgery. That granddaughter of William Travis sued because the will was not properly witnessed: did I just discover that there was an even bigger issue with the will?
A few days ago, I returned to the same Archives, looking for additional sample of William Travis’ signature. I was thrilled to find three more – here they are, juxtaposed with the signature on the will as the 4th image:
With six samples of his handwriting ranging from 1811 to 1854, I now conclude that the signature on the will is valid after all. While I would have been excited to have discovered a forged will, I’m even more excited to have found six documents that include an ancestor’s original signature. It’s a real treat to touch these documents and make a connection with an ancestor.
The signature on the will is only one of dozens of discoveries that I made in reviewing a single set of loose records from one court case. I could write a whole blog post on all of the genealogical facts about this family that are to be found only in the loose records. In this county, the loose records have never been microfilmed, so you wouldn’t even know about these treasures unless you had made the effort to contact that archives and do the research there (or order records by mail, which this archives supports).
Have you checked for surviving loose records in your counties of interest? If not, you’ll never know what family facts you might be able to prove – or disprove.