Old property wills can make fascinating reading

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Old wills, and I mean really old wills, are fascinating to read. They’re a way to learn about how our ancestors lived, as well as seeing what worldly goods were important to them.

I found a few ancient wills that are recorded in the records of the clerk of courts in Salem, Mass., from 1646, nearly 500 years ago. The way words were spelled and the lack of punctuation in those days make the documents a little tough to decipher, but I think I’ve come close except in a couple of cases.

Here is the will of Joseph Morse, who apparently was a more or less wealthy planter from Ipswich, Mass., an old, old town in the northeast corner of the state.

Founded in 1633, Ipswich is right along the coast where grass was often cut from salt marshes for cattle feed, thus the reference in the will to a marsh. Today Ipswich is said to have more preserved 17th century houses than any other New England town.

Will of Joseph Morse

The will of Joseph Morse of Ipswich in Essex County, Massachusetts was proved in court at Ipswich on July 29, 1646. The four and twentieth of the second month Anno Domini 1646, I, Joseph Morse, planter, of Ipswich in New England, do make and ordain this my last will and testament (revoking all other form wills by me made).

Item: I give unto Dorothy, my loving wife, my house and lot and outhouses bought of Thomas Dorman. Also my house and lot of about five acres bought of the widow Perkins, one cow, and also the whole bed and bedding that I lie upon standing in the hall.

Item: I give unto my son, Joseph Morse, my best cloak. Item: I give to my daughter, Hannah, my great Bible which I use.

Item: I give to my wife Doctor Preston’s works and Mr. Dyke’s besides her own Bibles the one greater and the one smaller, and one felling axe and one broad hoe.

Item: I give unto my son, John Morse, my other house and out-housing, with the lot containing about two acres; and also to, John, my son, a lot of six acres toward the Northwest and to my son, John, my lot of 10 acres near Egipt (sic) River and to John one yearling heifer.

Item: I give unto John Morse all my apparel ungiven and one yard of musk coloured broad cloth.

Item: I give unto John Morse the whole bed and all the bedding he lyeth on standing in the parlour and one pair of sheets and a pillow beere (Old English term for a pillow case).

More items

Item: I give all my tools ungiven to my son John Morse.

Item: I give to my son, John, my barn with the ground thereto belonging bought of Francis Jordan. I give to my son, John, all my marsh containing about five acres only allowing unto my wife the one-half of the grass growing upon it from year to year during her life.

My will is also that John shall have half of the grass from year to year that may be mown upon the lot given to my wife, only providing that this shall not hinder her either from selling it or breaking it up. Also my will is likewise that the crop that shall arise of all of my ground planted or sown this year shall be equally divided between my wife and my son John, the charges of the same equally born by them.

Item: I give to my wife the two first payments for keeping the herd. Item: I give to my son, John, the last pay for the herd keeping. (It’s unclear what these two items mean). I appoint Dorothy, my wife, to be sole executrix to this, my last will. And in witness that this is my last deed I have hereunto set my hand and seal in the presence of these witnesses here under written. //S// Joseph Morse Witnesses: //S// Roger Lancton //X// the mark of William Gudderfon //S// James Chute.

What they were given

Son Joseph had to content himself with his father’s “best cloak,” and daughter Hannah with the old man’s “great bible,” while son John got all sorts of stuff.
Joseph did provide for wife Dorothy pretty well, but I found it interesting that he felt it necessary to will her “her own bibles” and the bedding, and even specified a pair of sheets and a pillow case be left to his son John.

Primogeniture, or the practice of leaving everything to the eldest son, had been widespread in England until the 16th or early 17th century when it began to be supplanted by wills, and the practice was often followed in the American Colonies.

This might explain son John getting most everything except what was left to his mother, although there’s no indication of which son was the oldest. Or son Joseph may have been a black sheep, or maybe had been given his inheritance earlier.

Anyway, I thought Morse’s will was interesting; especially the fact that he left Dorothy a felling axe and a broad hoe; one wonders if the lady was proficient at chopping down trees.

Then too, the only livestock Mr. Morse mentions is one yearling heifer; surely the seemingly prosperous farmer would have had a horse to ride and more cattle than that, especially since he referred to a herd.

With farming the amount of acreage he had you’d think he’d have had a yoke of oxen — curious.

About the Author

Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules. More Stories by Sam Moore

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