Open to Interpretation

In my previous post I made mention of the Will of John Wood Jr. One of the sticking points with trying to prove the correct son of this patriot is the Will. More specifically the fact that the DAR genealogists claim that Will is open to interpretation. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out what they meant. It seemed clear-cut to me.

To get to the bottom of this, I asked an acquaintance who is unfamiliar with the family or the challenge to analyze the Will so I could get her unbiased thoughts on what it says. While I’m waiting for her to finish, I decided I wanted to try my hand at it myself, then see how our results compare. In part this is an exercise in critical thinking. Can I strip away as much of my bias as possible and see this Will as an uninterested by-stander?wood-john-jr-will-page-1

My first step is to deconstruct this Will by making a series of statements of fact about what I see. No assumptions allowed. I do get to correct for modern spelling to preserve my sanity.

  1. It appears to be a photocopy of the original Will (as opposed to a transcription from a Will Book)
  2. The handwriting on the signature differs from the body of the Will
  3. This is the Will for John Wood
  4. He states he is from Washington Township, Clermont County, Ohio
  5. He states he is infirm of body but of perfect memory and judgment
  6. This is his last Will and Testament
  7. He leaves his burial ‘in a Christian like manner’ up to the discretion of his Executors
  8. He does not name his Executors
  9. He does not name his wife
  10. He Wills and bequeaths the whole of his estate both real and personal property to his wife (Except what is hereinafter mentioned)
  11. 1st exception: “or until my youngest son becomes of age if she should live so long”. He does not indicate who this youngest son is.
  12. He allows for the provision that his wife is able to sell the land for the benefit of the family as she “may think most proper”.
  13. He wills that his wife is to retain this privilege for her lifetime with a reservation.
  14. 2nd exception: From that property he excludes the horses he had previously given to his sons named in this order: Joseph, Absalom, William and John. He means for them to have these horses as their own.
  15. He names a granddaughter, Marget, but does not indicate who are her parents.
  16. He bequeaths $25 to Marget when she reaches age 18.
  17. He specifies that the $25 can be paid from the sale of the land if that sale takes place.
  18. He makes a provision for the land and its proceeds if his wife dies. It is to be sold and equally divided between his sons and daughters.
  19. He mentions daughters, plural. There are more than one. They are not named.
  20. The Will was written on the 8th day of July, 1808.
  21. The Will is signed by John Wood with his ‘seal’
  22. The Will is witnessed by Joshua Manning and Lemuel Stephenson

Let’s leave the probate aside since it doesn’t speak to the issue of the Will being open to interpretation.

I wonder how many people would look at this Will and think item #11 was the sticking point? I certainly didn’t. Not until I did this exercise was I able to see what part of my argument the genealogists were refusing to accept.

William is the son who is in contention. I claimed that the son of the patriot they previously approved was a minor at the time this Will was written. We know from census records that ‘proven’ William was born in 1792. He was only 16 at the time of this Will was written. My William was born in July 1787 (from a Bible record). He either just turned 21 or was on the cusp of turning 21.

They are saying that this Will does not make it clear that the minor-aged son isn’t one of the four named sons: Joseph, Absalom, William and John. Here’s the thing: They’re right. Based solely on the Will, there is no proof that there is a 5th son.

This Will hints that John Wood Jr. considered the age of inheritance as 18. He does not indicate what age equals ‘of age’. I’ve found guardianship records in Clermont County, OH that show guardians remaining in place until heirs reached aged 21, so it is possible that anyone under the age of 21 could still be considered a minor. This Will wasn’t proven until October 1808. By then there would have been no question that my William was 21. It can be proven John (III) was 18. Joseph was already married for 3 years; it can only be surmised he was at least 21. It’s been speculated he was born in 1783, making him 27. There are specific dates for Absalom, but I don’t know their source. Taken at face value, he was 25 at the time of his father’s demise. If these ages are correct, then John Wood Jr. named his sons in birth order. Using the guardian until 21 argument, the minor-aged son would actually be John (III). Since one was never appointed, that issue is moot. The ‘of age’ qualifier relies on popular and accepted belief at the time. This Will is maddeningly non-specific; it relies on the people who witnessed, proved and administered it to already know the identities of the wife, son and daughters. In the rugged frontier, guardianship laws don’t appear to have been rigidly enforced.

My argument was based on my belief that there is a 5th son. And indeed there is a 5th son. His name is David and he was born in the year 1799; making him about 9 years old at the time of the Will. We know his birth year from the mortality schedule, where he is listed as having died of rabies in 1849.1 It remains incumbent upon me to prove this. I think I can, even in the absence of direct evidence (no guardian was appointed to him). Doing so requires its own proof.

While frustrating, they are right to question my assumptions about this Will without proof that my argument is valid. I’m learning a lot from this process. Wills don’t always say what we think they say, or want them to say. Documents in general don’t always say what we think they say. I like this exercise. It forced me to look at this document and all its components with a more critical eye.

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1 Non-population Census Schedules for Illinois, 1850-1880; Census Year: 1849; Census Place: District 19, Edgar, Illinois; Page: 213

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3 thoughts on “Open to Interpretation

  1. When was the land sold? I have seen cases in Ohio as late as the 1850s where no guardian was appointed until the property was actually sold.

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    1. I have no idea when or if it was ever sold. It was in dispute for at least another 15-20 years before they were granted a patent by the Van Buren administration. It’s an on-going investigation. The guardianship book for Clermont does not list this family.

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