Another Cousin Connection, and Two Wills

Carson Family Group Sheet (Pt. 5.)

This fifth installment in a series brings the story up to the mid-2003 time frame when I was first corresponding with two other descendants of Charles and Caroline Carson of Mercer County, New Jersey who were also researching the couple.

While I was beginning to flesh out and execute my research plan to determine the date of death of my ancestor, Charles Carson (detailed here), I was also beginning to correspond with a cousin, Jean (Carson) Owens.

As I alluded to in the prior post, we crossed paths initially on GenForum, an early online message board system. Message boards were the next iteration of the ubiquitous printed query sections found in many genealogy society newsletters and in some newspapers with columns dedicated to genealogy. As precursors to modern social media applications, message boards were a popular way to learn of and correspond with other people who shared your interests on any of a variety of topics. GenForum was a genealogy message board where genealogists connected with others researching the same surnames or geographic areas or similar broader topics, such as the Civil War or a particular genealogy software program. As a formerly vendor-neutral site, GenForum was my message board of choice, one that I preferred and continued to use long after Ancestry.com got in on the action and started their own separate system.

And so it was that cousin Jean and I found one another in the fall of 2002, each of us posting about our respective connections to Charles and Caroline Carson of Trenton, New Jersey. The couple lived in the area before and during the American Civil War. Then, Charles Carson disappeared from the family, while Caroline Carson continued to live in the area at least until 1881. I would later discover that Caroline lived in the south Trenton area as a widow for more than fifty years, until her death in 1915, but that is a story for another day.

On the other hand, Jean had compiled information from her own research and correspondence with several others who had shared family bible records, charts and photographs with her over the years. They had reached altogether different conclusions about the family history than I had, believing that our common ancestor was named Charles C. Carson, born September 1824, in either New Jersey or Indiana, died in 1896 in Washington Twp., Mercer Co., New Jersey, was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery and that he was the son of Eli and Hannah Carson. I did not dispute that a man with this basic information may have existed. I simply did not believe that he was the father of my ancestor, Andrew Carson, b. 11 May 1855 or, by extension, his brother, Jean’s ancestor, Charles Henry Carson, b. 10 Sep 1852.

In those early days, we communicated with one another almost daily via email, sharing the latest tidbit of information that bolstered our respective pet theories about the identity of Charles Carson and his wife Caroline. The more research I did, the more certain I became that records belonging to another man or men named Charles Carson had been incorrectly linked to my Charles, who had likely died 24 May 1863, not as a casualty of the Civil War, but in Trenton, New Jersey following a sawmill accident. Now I just needed to prove my hypothesis.

Probate records survive for this time and place, so I consulted New Jersey Index of Wills, Inventories, Etc. where I found this entry among the Mercer County items:

     Carson, Charles, 1421K.  W. 1863. Inv. 1863.1

Decoding this told me that probate packet no. 1421 for Mercer Co., New Jersey existed as of 1901, and it contained both a will and an inventory from 1863. Bingo. My next task was to learn where the probate packet was in 2003. I did not have to look far for it.

It was late spring of that year when cousin Jean introduced me (via email) to another cousin, Mona Carson, also a descendant of Charles through his son Charles Henry Carson. I learned she already had a copy of the will which she mailed to me. I was on cloud nine, that is, until I actually saw and read it for myself. Confusion set in when I read that this man’s will was dated 28 May 1863. How could that be? My man had died four days earlier, so would not have been alive to have signed a will on that date. And, yet, this was the only probate file in Mercer County for a man named Charles Carson who died in 1863. What were the chances of two men with the same name, dying in the same month in the same county with one of them having a probate file and the other with no apparent surviving probate record? Of course, I knew it was theoretically possible, but what were the odds? There had to be another explanation for the four day discrepancy between the purported death date and the creation of this will.

carson-charles-1863-will-snippet-clerks-copy
A portion of the clerk’s copy of the will of Charles Carson, with the date 28 May 1863 emphasized. The right edge of the image shows this copy came from a book.

Analysis of this record revealed that this was the clerk’s copy of the will. It was not the original. When the will was brought into court to be probated, the clerk recorded what should have been a faithful copy into a register that stayed in the local office. Perhaps that was true here, but the only way to know for sure would be to obtain a copy of the original probate packet. After much discussion with said cousins about the meaning of this find, cousin Mona reached out to the New Jersey State Archives to see it they could locate the original will.

This is where my memory is a bit hazy and my “paper trail” runs out. All my email correspondence from this time is missing to cross-check the exact chain of events. Suffice it to say, cousin Mona was able to get a copy of both the original will and the estate inventory. She sent a photocopy of both items to me and to cousin Jean for our review and input. Although I was uncertain of the exact origin of the photocopies, this certainly looked more like what I expected to see, with what appeared to be original signatures, and even a fragment of blotting paper to cover an ink spill.

photocopy of original 1863 will of charles carsonBottom portion of the second copy of the Charles Carson will showing that it was drawn 23 May 1863, the day before his death. The will was proved 31 Jul 1863.

Clearly, the clerk simply recorded the date the will was written and witnessed incorrectly into his register. In the photocopy of the original shown above, the date reads: The 23d day of May AD 1863 — the day before Charles died. It may seem to be a small point, but the discrepancy had to be resolved if I was to meet professional genealogy standards.2

Now that I had determined that the date the will was drawn and proved aligned with the timeline I had established from other direct and indirect sources, I was able to move forward with a closer reading of the contents of the will.

The will was relatively brief. I imagine they hastily gathered witnesses and quickly had Charles Carson recite his wishes as to his earthly estate, suspecting he might succumb from his grievous injuries at any moment. In his will he made two provisions beyond the usual directive to discharge debts and funeral expenses. They were:

Item 1. “I give bequeath unto my beloved wife Caroline Carson the use of all my household Goods and furniture of every kind and description empowering her to distribute the same or any part thereof to such of my children as she shall Think proper…
Item 2. “I give and bequeath unto my wife Caroline Carson all the ballance of my Estate[.]”3,

Carson appointed his “loving friend” William G. Bergen, Esq. as his executor. John D. Rue, James Carson, and Henry C. Kittinger witnessed the will. It was unclear then, and frankly, is unclear now, whether this witness James Carson was his brother-in-law or possibly even a sibling or half-sibling. More research is needed to establish that connection with any certainty.

These facts can be gleaned from a careful reading of the will:
1.  Charles Carson stated he was a resident of the city of Trenton, New Jersey.
2.  He was a married man with a wife named Caroline Carson.
3.  Since he refers to “children” he clearly had more than one child living at the time, although he failed to give any of their names.
4. He apparently owned no real property, as the term bequeath refers only to personal property.

All facts align with my earlier hypothesis, and there are no discrepancies. Having the will and probate packet allows me to say definitively that my 3rd great-grandfather Charles Carson died after 23 May 1863 (will written) and before 31 Jul 1863 (will proved). However, due to the nature of his death, it was noted in the local newspaper and reportedly occurred 24 May 1863. Thus, online references to this Charles Carson with a death date of 1896 are false and trees with that information should only be used with healthy skepticism.

I wish to thank my cousins Jean and Mona here formally for their friendship, and for continuing to motivate me to solve the mystery surrounding the origins of our mutual ancestors, Charles and Caroline Carson of Trenton, New Jersey. 


1 New Jersey. Department of State. Index of wills, inventories, etc. in the Office of the Secretary of State prior to 1901, vol. 2. (Trenton, 1913), p. 780.
2 For an excellent overview of some of these standards see Judy Kellar Fox, “Ten-Minute Methodology: “Reasonably Exhaustive”—How Do We Know We’re There?,” Board for Certification of Genealogists SpringBoard (http://bcgcertification.org/blog/2015/09/10-minute-methodology-reasonably-exhaustive-how-do-we-know-were-there/) : posted 17 Sep 2015.
3Mercer County, New Jersey, probate file 1421K, Charles Carson; “Wills and Inventories ca. 1670-1900” roll no. 826, New Jersey State Archives, Trenton. A photocopy of the original will was supplied by Mona Carson [ADDRESS FOR PRIVATE USE], to Dawn Bingaman, Renton, WA, 2003.

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