By James McGinnis Staff writer
The last will and testament Thomas Crosdale circa 1684 is one of the oldest records kept by Bucks County.
The slowly fading pages kept at the Bucks County Courthouse chronicle one final act of charity by a Catholic saint and the 15-percent inheritance tax collected by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
The last will and testament of St. Katharine Drexel bequeathed to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in Bensalem: $109,998, or $973,092 when adjusted for inflation.
The commonwealth took $15,092 of Drexel’s savings after she died on March 3, 1955. The records are locked in a safe at the Register of Wills Office in Doylestown.
One of 34,600 historic documents kept by the office, it could be available for download someday via a searchable directory.
Register of Wills Don Petrille has contracted with the firm IMR Digital, of Cumberland County, to create an online database of every will and marriage license processed by Bucks County government before 1932. Later phases of the project could include records processed after 1932.
The final wishes of thousands of long dead residents now rest together in manila folders on the shelves of a county office at 55 E. Court Street.
The oldest estate processed was of Alexander Giles, circa 1684. The flowing cursive penmanship, testament to a bygone era, is slowly turning orange as iron in the ink oxidizes.
Many of the files contain inventories of items owned and debts owed during the time of a person’s death.
Among them, chosen at random, John VanArtsdale, who died in 1891 in Langhorne while owing $1.90 to his baker, Henry Afferbuch. VanArtsdale’s debts to others included $1.90 for meat and $7.10 for coal. Estates from that time period ranged in value from $586 to $2,700, according to county records.
“A lot of these might seem mundane, but to me it’s a peek into someone’s life at another time in the past,” said Petrille. “You can look up, for example, a blacksmith, and see all the tools he used and the people he may have owed money.”
“You have records of a farmer and one can find out how much sausage was in his larder,” Petrille continued.
Some of the records also contain the names of slaves emancipated by their owners prior to the Civil War.
IMR Digital is contracted to receive no more than $450,000 under the agreement approved by the Bucks County Commissioners at a recent meeting. The funds would not come from county taxpayers but from fees charged by the Recorder of Deeds office, Petrille said.
Currently, Recorder of Deeds staff provide some genealogical research services, for a price. Name searches cost $25, even if no records are found. Copies of index records, including names of the deceased and years of death, are then provided at a cost of $1 per page.
The online database could begin operating with some records this winter, Petrille said. The entire scanning process could take three to four years. When finished, visitors to the website would pay no charge for a records search, but 25 cents per page for each record downloaded from the website.
More information about available genealogical records is posted on the Register of Wills Web page at www.BucksCounty.org along with the contact information for historical societies in Bucks County.