Wills and Deeds: before 1850
County and town records may be your best bet for documenting family relationships and dates prior to the 1850 census. While the originals are filed in county courthouses or record centers, it is often easier and more efficient to look at the indices and abstracts (and often the microfilm copies) that are available at county or state history or genealogical libraries and local college libraries. Many of these are becoming available through the Internet or on CD-databases. Libraries are now collecting these CD-databases and making them available to the public. It's a whole lot easier to do genealogical research now than twenty years ago.
DEEDS document land transfers and document whether the participant was alive or dead ("for the estate of"). Originals are generally filed with the county, but books of abstracts and microfilm of the originals may be more widely available. They may note a chain of inheritance and death dates in reciting the history of the tract, or indicate a nominal price for a sale within the family (essentially a bequest prior to death or an exchange for lifetime support of an elder family member). They may also indicate the use of land as security for in intra-family loan. Even if it does not note a family relationship it serves to document a name and location and that a person was alive at the time. The deed is not helpful for documenting a family relationship if the relationship is not stated, but it can serve as circumstantial proof of such a relationship.
NOTE: When you copy a page, note on the back of the copy where you got it -- the name of the book (and publisher and date). You may make a pencil mark (ON THE COPY ONLY) to help the reader find your ancestor's name.
PROBATE FILES contain the copy of the will (along with the date it was written) that was filed after a person's death. The will generally names the wife (if living) and all living children, and it may name grandchildren (especially if the parent has died), siblings, nephews, and nieces. A disinherited child may be left out of the will, but that child may show up in another relative's will. Originals are filed with the county, but books of abstracts and microfilm of the originals may be more widely available.
ORPHANS' COURT RECORDS cover cases where a person died intestate, a minor child was orphaned and had to be assigned to foster parents, or a will was contested. Letters of administration may be issued to appoint someone to settle the estate, a valuation of the estate may be filed, and finally a court order for dividing the estate among the heirs.
NOTE: When you copy a page, note on the back of the copy where you got it -- the name of the book (and publisher and date).
LISTS OF TOMBSTONE INSCRIPTIONS (many recorded in the 1930s) may provide information about family cemeteries that no longer exist, before cemeteries kept good records, or in case the cemetery information was lost. WARNING: Mis-reading of dates and names is common, so if it looks wrong, it may be wrong.
NOTE: When you copy a page, note on the back of the copy where you got it -- the name of the book (and publisher and date). You may make a pencil mark (ON THE COPY ONLY) to help the reader find your ancestor's name. In case of suspected error you may note ON THE COPY next to (for example) "1747" your comment, "other sources support 1774".