Monday, July 23, 2012

Mystery Monday - Betsey Armstrong Probate Mystery

My great aunt has written up a short history of the Armstrong family.  One of the more interesting items was that she stated that the Armstrong's had received their original land grant in Cape Elizabeth, Maine from the King of France back in 1747.  She stated that she had seen the original land grant document, but it was destroyed by accident in a fire.

It is likely that the land grant was issued by the King of England as Maine was part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1747.  This is prior to the colonies winning their independence from England, which would mean all deeds would have stated that they were grants issued in the name of the King of England.  At this time the King of England used a title which stated he was King of England, Scotland, Ireland and France.  So I could see where some confusion may have occurred.

Another mystery has been the fact that my 3rd great grandmother, Betsey Woodbury Armstrong died April 26, 1876, but the Will land division wasn't executed until 1897.  The explanation for the long period between her death and resolution of her estate was blamed on the fact that the Will needed to be probated in England for some reason.   This is what I have been told as the reason why it took over 20 years to complete probate.

I recently found Betsey's Will which was proved November 7, 1877, which appears to shed some light on this family mystery.

Betsey Armstrong's Will states the following:
First:  I give and bequeath all my property real-or-estate or personal, to my son George P. Armstrong, in order that its income may be applied by the means below named, that may be used for his subsistence and comfort which on account of his infirmities of body and mind, I fear cannot be well provided for by his own labor.
Second:  My will is that upon the death of said George, what then remains of my property shall be distributed among my own legal heirs and Mary Sawyer of Chelsea, Massachusetts, if said Mary is then living, giving said Mary a distributed share equal to that of my heirs in the nearest degree of kindred.
Thirdly:  I hereby institute and appoint Ebenezer (Eben) Armstrong of Portland and Israel Armstrong of Cape Elizabeth, who are my sons, (and in case of their non-acceptance, death, resignation or incapacity to hold and exercise the trust, then my other sons, John and Arthur or such kind and discreet persons as the Judge of Probate may appoint if said John and Arthur do not act) Executors of this my last Will and Testament and appoint them as trustee to hold, manage, or invest said property or estate, during the life of said, George, for his benefit and to apply its income for his subsistence and comfort in the manner most likely to be for his permanent advantage, and if said income is not sufficient for subsistence and comfort to spend the principal part of said property as may be prudent for his comfort and benefit.
As you can see above, Betsey Armstrong's Will is predominantly focused on providing for the support of George P Armstrong.  My research has uncovered that it appears that George had some form of mental retardation.  He must have not had the capacity to take care of himself and his mother was very concerned what would happen to him after her death.  Betsey died in 1876 and it appears that George continued to live in the family home with his brother, John B Armstrong (according to the 1880 US Census).

George P. Armstrong died September 16, 1884.  He was only 51 years old.

I have to say from reading the Betsey's Will it isn't entirely clear how her estate should be distributed.  It seems reasonable to imply that there should be an equal distribution of the assets to all of her children, plus an equal share to Mary Sawyer (Israel Armstrong's wife).  So there may have been some questions about how it should be executed.   This would be something the named executors would need to work out.  Eben and Israel were named executors.  However, Eben died March 18, 1884 and Israel had moved with his family to Salem, NH.  Salem is about 90 miles from Portland, Maine.  What today is only an 1 hour and 30 minute drive probably would have taken at least a whole days travel in the 1880s.  At that time there were no cars and no highways.  This may have impacted his ability to act as  executor.   His wife, Mary Sawyer Armstrong, had passed away in 1875.  

My 2nd great grandfather, John B Armstrong, became the executor of the estate.

It is important to note that Betsey Woodbury Armstrong had been married prior to her marriage to John Armstrong.  She had been married to William Dyer.  Together they had at least three children:  Woodbury Dryer, Benjamin and William.  Only Benjamin was still alive in 1884.  Benjamin is not mentioned in the Will, but he is one of Betsey's sons and may have contested the Will if the executors may have been reluctant to provide him an equal share.  Also, the land that Betsey references has been in the Armstrong family for over 100 years and none of the land was from the Dyer family. It is almost certain had Betsey's husband, John Armstrong, outlived her, that none of the Dyer children would have been included in distribution of the family lands.

The theory of a contested Will seems to be the most likely reason for the delay in the final distribution of the estate.  The final property distribution took place in 1897 and is the subject of my post "Armstrong Family Land Division - 1897".  

Check out that post for the final details.

When conducting this research around land records and probate records on the Armstrong family, I found an invaluable online resource, the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds Online.  They have records from 1855 to present day, with original records available for viewing online by clicking on the "view images" tab.  If you have relatives who lived in Cumberland County, Maine this is a great source for more information about them and their land transactions and possibly find a copy of their Wills.


  1. This is incredible! Thank you so much for posting your research. I myself come from Arthur's line, and just discovered John and Betsey. Your blog is really helping me fill in some of the gaps.

    1. Hi Breonna, Glad you have found this so useful. I always enjoy getting into contact with distant relatives. I don't know that much about Arthur's family. I would be interested in sharing with you what I have compiled that I haven't yet included on my blog. You can contract me direct at Pilgrimage1620 @