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Wills prompt smiles and sadness

Preservation work continues within the Washington County Tennessee Archive building located on Main Street.


Associate Editor

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A will provision providing for a grave marker reading “DUMMY,” a soldier’s will dated Jan. 7, 1918 mailed to his mother from France, a 30-page instrument listing every item in the household including the “mayonnaise bowl” and the bequeath of a dog are among the 7,500 wills stored in the Washington County, Tennessee Archive.

The wills in the collection are dated from 1773 until 1992. “Our project to process the wills was a lengthy one,’ said Donna Cox Briggs, Archive Assistant at the Department of Records Management and Archives, in a recent interview after a meeting of the Friends of the Washington County, Tennessee Archives. She continued, “Our volunteers were sometimes laughing at what they read and sometimes they were sad.”

“The project of flat-folding, removing staples and organizing took almost ten months, with as many as six volunteers involved.” Briggs said the group is in the final stages of getting the list of wills ready to post online at the Archive’s website:

The Archive Assistant said, “We saw wills written on the back of notepads, a small piece of paper the size of a ‘Post-it’ note, on the inside of a savings passbook, fill-in-the-blank wills, and wills with only one sentence. “ She continued, “One will was pieced together to make one four-foot long piece of paper, one will was 30 pages long and there was a will on the letterhead from the John Sevier Hotel. A greeting card served as paper for another will while an envelope from a lawyer’s office was used to write a will.” The will provisions printed in this article are being published “as written” with an occasional addition of punctuation to assist in reading the material.

The will that made the volunteers smile the most read, “I do want a small stone at my feet lettered ‘DUMMY’ so my friends can find me.” His headstone actually has “Dummy” on the upper right hand corner.


A will written by a young man 100-years ago during World War I is dated Jan. 7, 1018 reading: “To Whom It May Concern – In case of my death I wish all of my property to be transferred to my mother, Ida Potter Harris. In case of my mother’s death before mine, I wish my property divided equally between Florence Harris Wofford and Allen Harris, my sister and brother, respectively…”

The will caught the attention of the Archive’s staff because inside the file was the envelope in which the will was mailed to his mother and the return address bore his military address in France. Lester P. Harris was an ambulance driver and died when his ambulance was bombed on July 4, 1918. He died from his wounds five days later on July 9th and was buried in France. There is a memorial marker for him in Monte Vista Cemetery in Johnson City. There is also a street in Johnson City named for him – Lester Harris Road. For additional information go to

Another soldier’s will written Dec. 12, 1812 by John Smith stated: “Being about to leave home to join the troops under Col. Williams and as that expedition may eventuate in my death, I wish my affairs disposed of thus – Mr. Anderson will find debts and property of mine more than sufficient to pay all my debts. The furniture I have in Jonesborough I wish him to present from me to his Lady; some of this is at the house of Mr. Deadericks.

“As I have never received any part of my father’s estate, I wish such part as shall fall to my share to be Divided Equally between My Mother and Sister Mary Smith, if my sister is single. If married [then] to My Mother and Brothers William M. & Casper Smith in either case the share to my Mother or so much as may remain of the principal unexpended at the time of her death to go to said brothers…”

A Civil War veteran in 1918 wrote his will providing, “My name is Marion C. Welton, a civil war veteran, seventy-six years old, a member of the national Soldiers Home Tenn.” He goes on to say how he wished his earthly goods divided and writes, “To my son …$187.50…to my daughter …$187.50. I think [daughter] married, but I have never known the name of her husband; I do not know the whereabouts of either of my children; they cast me aside years ago; I have freely forgiven them.”


The most detailed will found by the volunteers was a 30-page instrument listing every item the woman who wrote the will owned – every piece of glassware, the “mayonnaise bowl,” and “my electric Sharp Calculator.” There were 13-pages of items that were to go with her house when it was sold.

Another lady who divided up her possessions in a 1986 will piece-by-piece wrote: “…my large set ring…the Cameo brooch…the small diamond right…my watch…the beads to Sarah Anne…” At the end of the document she wrote, “I talk like it’s a fortune but it is a little bit of love Granddaddy and I leave to all.”

The dog’s disposition by will read, “I bequeath my Boston Terrier to H. K., Jonesborough, Tennessee.”


Many of the early wills mentioned slaves and some testators freed their slaves in their wills. In 1827 Elizabeth Webb wrote, “First of all my Black Woman Named Hannah It Becomes my Wish and Will when it is the will of God to take me out of this world that she, the said Hannah, shall be and Remain free from the service of any other person; that she be her own guardian to act and to transact Business for herself and Independent of the aid and interest of any other person to come in and go out when and where she may think proper so long as she may live…”

In 1914, a Mr. Thomas in his will wrote, “When I die, I want to be put away nice with a fifty dollar casket and I want my grave mark(ed) with a one hundred monument…”            

I. W. M. Landreth wrote, “It is my desire …that my burial be plain and simple…that my body be put to its resting place by my brother Masons. It is my desire that my body be wrapped in a white burial shroud; that the coffin for my body be a neat plain wooden coffin covered with alpaca or other suitable goods and properly, not gaudily trimmed; and it is my desire that my neighbor and long-time friend, H. H. Crouch make my coffin; my executor will pay Mr. Crouch the sum of fifteen dollars for making said coffin and will also pay for the coffin material.”

T. T. Young wrote on December 14, 1906, “I would suggest that I be buried in a plain wooden coffin & only a sheet wrapped around me.”

There were both positive and negative provisions when church matters were mentioned in wills. One testator in 1957 wrote “none of my land cannot ever be given or sold to [a local] Baptist Church under no circumstances” while in 1959 another person said “…if there is any money left from what I have, give it to my church.”


Families sometimes found provisions in wills that continued grievances, limited bequests, or expressed sentiments of loving appreciation.  Some examples follow beginning with the will of a long-married husband who left all his worldly goods to his wife and wrote, “My wife has nothing to do with the writing of this will. She has been a darling to me and I love her.”

A wife in 1968 wrote, “I will to my husband …the sum of one dollar ($1.00). The reason of this is [husband] has in his own right a sizable estate and is not in need of my puny sum.”

Bitterness is contained in this 1983 will indicating he’s not the husabnd’s son. The will stated, “I hereby give and bequeath unto to a Mr. [X] aka [X], whereabouts unknown, the sum of two (2) dollars and state the following regarding this award. Mr. [X] aka [X] IS NOT MY SON. He was awarded my name shortly after his birth in Harlan, Kentucky in 1935, under my strongest, but failing protest. I denied paternity at that time; I vehemently do so at this time, and I shall deny paternity for all time. I make this statement of my own free will and accord, in the presence of Almighty God and these witnesses, and intend it to stand as fact forever.”

Also bitter was a mother who in 1969 similarly wrote, “I was the mother of 13 children, SOME of whom are deceased, and I have no knowledge of the whereabouts of any of my children or their heirs. In the event any of my children or any other person should make any claim to any part of my estate, I hereby will and bequeath such person or persons making claim the sum of $1.”


The “apology will” expressed what the testator was unable to tell relatives during his lifetime. This heart-breaking will was written in 1990. It provided: “To all my friends and relatives I give my apology. I am sorry I did not learn how to care or love. I am sorry that I could not express my feelings or my faith. I am sorry for being a failure, for being slow, lazy, stubborn [and] silent. I am very sorry for not having courage; I am sorry for not enjoying life; I am sorry for being consumed with self-hatered [hatred] (sic). If any of my actions or lack of actions, words or lack of words, feelings or lack of feelings has offended anyone, I ask for their forgiveness. I never meant to hurt anyone or anything — May God have mercy on my soul.”