Another Will, Another Surprise

After the success of obtaining the probate record of my 3rd great grandfather and the court case that decided his estate, I thought while I had a contact at the courthouse there, I would just go ahead and search for other probate files of ancestors who lived and died in that county. Of all of them, only one would have a file and as it turned out, it was even larger than my 3rd great grandfather's file, clocking in at a whopping 130 pages!

Stephen Cogswell, above, is also a 3rd great grandfather whose family were long time citizens of the state of New York after immigrating here in the early 1600's. In fact, they actually were ship wrecked on the shores of Maine and only after walking days/weeks to the south were they able to find transportation to take back up to Maine, salvage what they could of their personal belongings, pick up the remainder of the family and make their way to New York. That is another story in itself. 

I don't know the reasons Stephen' father Simeon and his family immigrated to Iowa but I suspect like most other families, Simeon came from large families that had subdivided farms from generation to generation to the point where there just wasn't room for a family to make a living and so they went west in search of land. They landed in Iowa and son Stephen would become quite the successful farmer whose real estate holdings were valued at $13,000 and personal possessions at $5000 at the time of his death in October of 1906. According to one calculator, assuming 4% return for inflation, that would equal a cool $1.7 million in today's dollars. Not to shabby.

But it wasn't so simple. First, in the months leading up to his death, his children had Stephen declared legally insane so that an independent guardian could be named to see over his estate.  The 41 page file doesn't really go into specifics only to say that the insane declaration was made legal and several male husbands of Stephen's daughters were put in charge of the estate while Stephen was alive. He died just a little over a month after the legal ruling.

If that wasn't enough, Stephen's will caused some issues too. It had been written 5  years before his death and left everything to his wife Frances for the duration of her life and then divided among his three surviving daughters equally. (They had a fourth son who died of scarlet fever in his childhood.) The rub was that wife Frances had died a year after the will was written, Stephen had remarried a year after that to a woman named Anna, and of course never saw fit to update his will. 

It is hard for me to decipher but it appears that the probate courts declared the three sisters as heirs and widowed wife Anna as a legatee and that all four were entitled to an equal share of the estate. The three Guardians of Stephen's estate (due to him being declared insane) ratified this decision and thus the estate was divided up in four equal shares. 

As with most genealogy research, I don't think I have ever discovered new information without also discovering a new mystery. In the middle of the legal document declaring my 3rd great grandfather insane was a document that I really don't know how to describe. There are a few legible words on the top and after that it looks like an alien code for all I can tell. The other 40 pages all have fairly legible handwriting or typing and this one page is just bizarre. I welcome anyone who can decipher it or at least hazard a believable guess. The only rational one I can come up with is this is something Stephen wrote and was used as proof to declare him insane.


  1. Hello! I don't know if you ever figured out what the writing is in this document, but it looks like shorthand to me. I took a shorthand class in high school back when they used to teach it, but can't help you decipher it since I haven't used it in 40 years. But I do recognize it. (I recently came across your blog and have been reading it backwards in case you're wondering how I came across this old post. Enjoyable reading!)

    1. Thanks for your response. Yes, someone did point out it was shorthand and I actually did find a translation for it. Unfortunately after I posted this originally, I removed all the posts and lost all the comments. I am in the process of going back and reposting some of the genealogy related posts as I have gotten a lot of help from others on them over the years.


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