What Wills Tell Us About Our Ancestors

Vital records – birth, marriage, and death certificates or registrations – provide us with valuable information and confirmation of information about our ancestors. Often these records will contain information that may provide a glimpse into the type of life our ancestors lead. For example, if the occupation of an ancestor is listed such as farm servant, we can logically surmise that they were not land owners but labourers on someone else’s land.

I’ve always wanted to see more of my ancestors lifestyle than the bare ‘bones’ that I usually encounter with vital records and so I discovered the importance of wills. This has been important not only in getting a better look at an ancestral family’s probable lifestyle but it has helped in determining the validity of family stories about individuals.
Finding a will was crucial in determining the validity of stories about my great grandfather, John Foley.
There are a number of documents that offer various birth dates for John – the 1861 Canada Census record indicates he was born around 1859 in the United States, the 1901 Canada Census record states he was born in April 1865 in Ontario, Canada, and finally the headstone on his grave gives his date of birth as February 16, 1864. Primary documentation confirming his actual date of birth has not yet been found – but I haven’t given up the search. What is known is that John married Mary Jane Fitzgerald on April 25, 1894 and that together they had three children – Louis Fitzgerald Foley, William Dorsey Foley and Gertrude Ellen Foley. Mary Jane died in 1899 and in 1903, John married Annie McElroy and they had one child, John Foley.
Stories in the family held that John, through many personal and professional ups and downs (see “Making Assumptions”, August 26, 2009), eventually acquired significant wealth. He was described as a man who couldn’t read nor write – other than having been taught to sign his name. In city directories, his occupation was originally listed as teamster and then after some time, as a sand and gravel contractor. While this is good information, on its own it does not confirm any wealth. This is where his will make a significant contribution to his life story.
Letters of probate for John Foley’s will were issued by the York County Surrogate Court on March 17th, 1927, about two months after his death. His estate was valued at $98,283 or the equivalent of about $1.2 million today. Clearly he died a wealthy man and his will confirms the family stories about this aspect of his life. But the will also shows a deeply religious side to John Foley. Rather than being an afterthought, he first directed that $1,800 be given to two Toronto east-end Catholic churches along with the Catholic Church Extension Society and the Community of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Eventually, he directed a gold watch be given to a son, that his wife be taken care from the proceeds of his estate and, that on his wife’s passing that his estate be distributed amongst his children. John Foley’s will provides a wonderful look into the life lived by my great grandfather and as such is a treasured document to possess.
Now, if only he had left something to his eldest great grandson!

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