Prior to 1868, the procedure for proving and recording wills in North Carolina changed on a number of occasions. From the colony’s 17th-century beginnings until about 1795, a will could be proved before the county court of pleas, the quarter sessions, or the governor himself. After 1795, the probate business was left to the county court clerks; however, considerable variation existed among counties regarding how wills were recorded (in will books), how and where the original wills were preserved, and so forth. Owing to fires, natural disasters, war, or carelessness, many original wills from this period have not survived. After 1868, when the county courts were discontinued, the responsibility for probate was transferred to the county clerk of the superior court, sometimes referred to as “judge of probate.” From this point on, only transcriptions of wills and their probate documents were entered in the will books; the original wills were filed in the clerk’s office.
More than 25 years ago, in his capacity as North Carolina State Archivist, Thornton W. Mitchell set out to impose some order on this important body of genealogical and legal information and make it more accessible to the public. Mitchell’s goal was to create a master index to the entire body of wills in the state’s collection. Working over a 10-year period (1977-87), Dr. Mitchell examined all county will books–whether on microfilm at the State Archives or in the possession of the counties–as well as wills recorded in the office of the North Carolina Secretary of State, for the years 1665 through 1900. To achieve the greatest accuracy possible, he also compared the names of the testators in the will books to the signatures on the surviving original wills. Although he did not concern himself with wills in private manuscript collections, Dr. Mitchell ultimately published an index to some 75,000 North Carolina wills. Each entry in his Index gives the name of the testator, county of recording, date recorded, will book and page number of the recorded will, and location of the original will, if extant.
Researchers with North Carolina antecedents, will find Thornton Mitchell’s Index to North Carolina Wills to be a godsend in their investigations. Persons with Tar Heel ancestry should also consider the transcriptions of North Carolina wills found in the publications of J. Bryan Grimes and Fred A. Olds that are also listed below.
North Carolina Wills–A Testator Index, 1665-1900, by Thornton Mitchell
This book is an index to more than 75,000 persons who died and left wills in North Carolina between 1665 and 1900. In one alphabetical sequence it lists the names of the testators, the county in which their wills were proved, the date of probate, the precise location of the recorded copy of the will in each of the counties (by book and page number), and the location of the original will. Dr. Mitchell also provides a concise history of the probate records of all 107 North Carolina counties. View Book Details
Abstract of North Carolinia Wills [1663-1760]
This work contains abstracts of wills found in the office of the Secretary of State of North Carolina. While it covers the period 1663 to 1760, it does contain a few later wills. The work is arranged alphabetically according to the name of the testator. The abstracts give the name of the testator, place of residence, names of wife, children, legatees, witnesses, and probate officers, names of plantations mentioned, and remarkable items or noteworthy passages in wills. The extensive 200-page index contains all the names mentioned in the will abstracts–nearly 20,000! View Book Details
An Abstract of North Carolina Wills from About 1760 to About 1800, Supplementing Grimes’ Abstract of North Carolina Wills 1663 to 1760, by Fred Olds
Olds continued the earlier work of J. Bryan Grimes (see above) in abstracting the state wills, but he also included a good many wills before 1760 to which Grimes did not have access. The abstracts are arranged alphabetically under each county by the names of the testators, with the dates of the wills and the names of wives and children. View Book Details