More on the Life, Death, and Will of Robert G. Stephens

“Many of our readers will be surprised to learn of the death of Robert Stephens, of White Township, which took place Saturday last. He had just finished eating a hearty meal, and rising to his feet, stepped out on the porch of his residence when h…

“Many of our readers will be surprised to learn of the death of Robert Stephens, of White Township, which took place Saturday last.  He had just finished eating a hearty meal, and rising to his feet, stepped out on the porch of his residence when he fell dead.”[1]

Not a bad way to go at the age of 77.  But what happened after that was a little messy.

About a month ago, I posted a transcription of the Will of Robert G. Stephens.  What I didn’t mention was that the transcription was a homework assignment for an online genealogy study group in which I participate.  This month we followed up with an analysis of the will and a research plan for the next steps.  I spent most of my time this week on that; so once again, here’s my homework.  If you notice anything else I should explore, please feel free to comment!

Research Focus: the division of Stephens’ property as evidence of family relationships

Stephens was the father of nine children, five of whom predeceased him.  His wife, Martha Jones Stephens, also predeceased him.  He provided four children (or their heirs) a share of his estate prior to writing his will, explicitly excluding them from inheriting under the will.  Three children were completely excluded; they all died young with no issue. His two surviving daughters and their respective husbands were treated in starkly contrasting manners.

Analysis of Document

The will refers to a number of prior transactions and gifts:

  • James A., deceased:  full share of estate
  • John J.:  full share of estate
  • Samuel H.:  full share of estate
  • Unnamed daughter, deceased (married to George Simpson): land in Iowa as full share
  • Amanda (married to William J. Ray): $2,000 already given in farm purchase
  • Hulda (married to James A.C. Ruffner): unspecified amount of money        

Bequests under the will:

  • Daughter Amanda: all personal property and household items in and about the house at the time of his death
  • Daughter Hulda: $1,000, executors directed to invest the sum in such a way that she (and her children after her death) would have the benefit of it, free from interference by her husband
  • Grandson, Robert Stephens Simpson (or his guardian): $100 

The nature of “full share” is not specified.  It may have been cash, land, personal property, or any combination thereof.

Stephens included personal representatives in the residuary clause which would allow his son John, who had previously received his full share, and son-in-law William Ray, to inherit cash under the will – if any was left after debts and expenses were paid and bequests made. On its face, that provision conflicts with the statement excluding John from inheriting under the will. 

The age and residence of Robert Stephens Simpson are unknown at this time.  He might have been the oldest grandchild, or the only grandchild when the will was drawn, or perhaps singled out as a namesake or by virtue of a special relationship.  The last name of Simpson suggests that he was a resident of Iowa at some point.  Two years passed between the drafting of the will and the death of Stephens; he had time to consider and reconsider his bequests, if competent.

My previous transcription submission did not explictly include the following (revealing!) entries listed before and after the will (most important phrases are bolded):

Indiana County, Pennsylvania, “Will Books, 1807-1917, Vol. 5,” p. 65, 57, caveat and release filed in estate of Robert G. Stephens, 1881; Register of Wills, Indiana. FHL microfilm 1,288,595, item 2. Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. Transcribed by Malissa Ruffner,  23 May 2010. 

In the Matter of the estate of Robert G. Stephens late of White Township decd:

 And now February 8th 1881 Hulda Ruffner a daughter and heir at law of Same dec’d files a caveat protesting against the probating of any Last Will and Testament of Said decd or instrument in the nature thereof being or pretending to be the last Will and Testament of Said Robert  G. Stephens decd until examination thereof in the proper Court and  the decree of Said Court be thereon pronounced:

And now February 9th 1881, John J. Stephens and William J. Ray presented the following Instrument of writing purporting to be the Last Will and Testament of Said Robert G Stephens decd and demanded that the Same be admitted to probate.              

[WILL, to review the actual transcription, click on Stephens at the bottom of this post.]

 And now February ninth 1881 notice given to the executors and To the Said Hulda Ruffner to appear before the Register on Monday February 14 1881 at 10 Oclock AM for a hearing in this case. And now February 14th 1881 John J. Stephens and Wm. J. Ray Executors appear and bring unto  them J. T. Jamison & Loretta F. Sloan the witnesses to the above instrument of writing and ask that Same witnesses be Sworn & Same Instrument admitted to probate:  Same day Hulda Ruffner files her affidavit Alleging, want of Testamentary Capacity on the part of the Said Testator and that undue influence and duress were exercised in procuring Said Will and asking that a precept be issued to Court of Common Pleas to form An issue to try by Jury the Validity of Said Will. Same day precept issued as Prayed For.

Know All men by these presents that we James A. C. Ruffner and Hulda Ruffner wife of the said James A C. Ruffner and daughter and heir at law of Robert G. Stephens late of White Township Indiana County did for and in Consideration of the Sum of One Dollar unto us in hand paid and for and in Consideration of other Good and Valuable Consideration unto us paid by William J. Ray and John J. Stephens Executors of the Last Will and Testament of Robert G. Stephens aforesaid deceased do hereby Withdraw the Present Caveat filed by us to the Granting of Letters Testamentary upon Said Will and do hereby agree To and with the Said Executors that we will make no further Contest With reference to the Granting of Said Letters Testamentary and Will permit and Allow So Far as in us lies that the Same Will may be duly Admitted to Probate by the Register of Indiana County and that Letters Testamentary upon Said Will be Granted to the Said William J. Ray and John J. Stephens and for and in consideration of the Consideration aforementioned we do hereby release All right to Contest the Granting of Said Letters and we do hereby  Authorize And empower the Register of Indiana County to Strike off the present Caveat and Grant the Letters Testamentary to Said William J. Ray and John J. Stephens Witness Our hands and Seals this Twentieth day of August 1881.

[Emphasis added]

Research Plan 

1) Geographic Orientation generally

I will begin by consulting the The Source, the Red Book, and Greenwood’s The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy, and exploring the Family Search wiki, Indiana County genealogy websites, etc., to get an overview of unique record situations and a sense of county history.[2]  I also obtained Donna Munger’s Pennsylvania Land Records: A History and Guide for Research on a long-term library loan.[3]

The Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County Library has surname files for both Ruffner and Stephens.  It also has an excellent information page on records at the County Courthouse (more information than on the government page.)  The site also links to historical county maps.

Moving into Iowa will require a greater understanding of federal-land states and the methods by which land is acquired.  I have E. Wade Hone’s Land & Property Research in the United States on hand.[4]

2) Additional Census Research

This prong of the research can be done from home and is necessary to set the contextual stage for family transactions. Although I have tracked the Robert G. Stephens household in the federal census from 1850 to 1880 (by which time he was living with son-in-law William J. Ray and daughter Amanda), I have not yet traced other sons and daughters as they set up their own households. Amanda, age 20 in the 1860 census in her parents’ household, is listed with an occupation of housekeeper.[5] It’s unclear if that refers to a role in her parents’ household, but if it does, she may well have been promised (or felt entitled) to be the mistress of the house someday.

I will also attempt to locate the witnesses to the will, J. T. Jamison and Loretta F. Sloan, and establish the nature of their relationship to Robert G. Stephens. That will begin with the census work and continue in land research below.

Census research will be extended to Iowa, to locate the Simpson residence.

Nonpopulation census data (farming) has already been gathered on Robert G. Stephens for 1860 and 1870 and William J. Ray in 1880, but not for other family members. That can provide greater understanding of farm operation and relative value.

3) Court Case

Six months passed between the recording of the caveat filing, the order of a trial and the caveat release.  The release refers to consideration received by James and Hulda to secure it.  Negotiations may have remained private but if there was a trial, court papers will shed quite a bright light on the nature of the dispute, the relationships and competing claims among the parties.  The release seems very carefully drawn to withdraw only objections to the granting of the letters.  Court dockets (through 1881) have been microfilmed; court filings and papers have not.  I can determine, by requesting Family History Library microfilm at my local FHC, if there was a trial in 1881.  To see a case pleadings and file, I will need to travel to the Indiana County Courthouse.

4)  Administration of Estate – Accounts, etc.

According to the local society’s website, the probate record is on file in Indiana County Courthouse; that will be confirmed by telephone before travelling there. (It was not at the FHL, where I obtained the digital image of the will.) The inventory, accounts filed, and record of actual disbursement of funds, including the residuary amount, are critical.  Court oversight of the funds invested for Hulda may have continued for some time.  Later (than 1881) court records must be checked for ongoing disputes over the management/disbursement of the fund.  A guardian may have been appointed for grandson Robert Stephens Simpson. 

5) Land Records Research

a) Pennsylvania

Previous land transactions in Pennsylvania may help determine the scope of prior gifts to all offspring. Outright gifts of cash to aid the purchase of property will be more difficult to identify.  A broader examination of surrounding property values will help me compare the relative values of property. Microfilmed deed books, 1807-1892, and the deed index, 1803-1928, are available through my local FHC. I will need to check both grantor and grantee indices; I plan to do that locally.  However, it may be more efficient to save the substantive research for an onsite trip to the Family History Library, or the trip to Indiana County

An Indiana County history includes a brief biography of son Samuel Stephens and refers to his ownership of a number of pieces of property over the years, including in White and Rayne Townships, in Indiana County, and some in Armstrong County.[6]  Census research may add other counties to the list.

b) Iowa

The will suggests that Stephens helped  a daughter and her husband, George Simpson, purchase land in Iowa or that he acquired land for her and later transferred it.  Census research will identify the specific county.

6) Vital Records, Newspapers

Research into the marriages and deaths of offspring will determine (more specifically than the census research) the duration of relationships prior to the drafting of the will.  Further delving into newspapers may contain coverage of a family-dispute trial.  

Maybe it will even be lurid! 


[1] “Local Items.” Indiana (Pennsylvania) Progress, 10 February 1881, p. 5, col. 3; digital images, Newspaper Archive (http://www.newspaperarchive.com : accessed 25 May 2010).

[2] Eichholz, Alize, ed. Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County and Town Sources. 3rd edition. Provo, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2004. Szucs, Loretto D. and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking.  The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy. 3rd edition. Provo, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2006. Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. 3rd edition. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2000.  One of our first assignments was identifying (and planning our purchases) essential reference books.  Good news, I bought the Greenwood book at the Enoch Pratt December Book Sale for $2 about three years ago!  (Not the rest.)

[3] Munger, Donna Bingham.  Pennsylvania Land Records: A History and Guide for Research. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1991.

[4] Hone, E. Wade.  Land & Property Research in the United States. Provo, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 1997.

[5] 1860 U.S. Federal Census, Indiana County, pop. sched., White Township, Indiana post office, p. 31 (penned), p. 408 (stamped), dwelling 2114, family 2118, Amanda Stephens; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 25 May 2010); from National Archives microfilm publication M653, roll 1117.

[6] Stewart, J. T., compiler. Indiana County Pennsylvania: Her People, Past and Present, 2 vols.  Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co., 1913, 2: 1538.

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