I recently transcribed my gggrandfather John W. Holt’s will. He lived in Hardin County, Tennessee. He spent his childhood enslaved by Giles Holt, along with his mother Malinda and other family.
By the early 20th century, John W. Holt was one of the wealthiest black man in the county. He owned hundreds of acres of land. He served as Postmaster at the town and school bearing his name (Holtsville).
John was a merchant and owned his own country store. This is a photo of John and his wife Mary Garrett:
How often he was named executor in people’s wills shows John’s high standing in the community. He also served as security in numerous land records. He first purchased over 200 acres of land with his kinfolk only six years after the end of the Civil War.
John Holt’s 1911 will is one of the most detailed I have ever seen. He died in 1925 and his will included 15 individual items across six written pages. The level of specificity is what is most notable. John clearly was well-educated in estate and legal matters.
John appointed his son Troy as executor but wisely placed his vast estate within a twenty-five year trust:
“Out of the rents and income of the estate, the trustee will,
during the said period of twenty years, pay all taxes assessed
against the estate, will keep the real estate in reason-
Troy was also the trustee. The proceeds from the trust were used to care for his mother Mary and other siblings. John even detailed the meaning of his words, so there was no doubt as to the purpose of his trust:
“…My object being to provide first, from the
income of my estate, a support for my widow and
minor children, that is for my widow as long as she
lives and my minor children as long as they or any
one of them are minors (whenever the word support is
used it is intended to embrace and include all necessary
food and clothing)…”
The trustee could not:
“sell, mortgage or otherwise dispose of any of the real estate for any purpose, and any such attempted disposition shall be void.”
The repercussions were clear for disobeying this directive:
“…None of the beneficiaries under this will shall
possess the power or authority to dispose of any part
of my estate, herein willed and devised within said
period of twenty years.
No deed or bargain and sale
can be made by either of them, no mortgage deed
of trust or other transfer can be made, and no
conveyance or alienation of any kind in anticipation
can be made by either, but such power is expressly
withheld, and any attempt on the part of
either to so dispose of the same will operate as an
immediate forfeiture of the interest in my estate.”
An “Outside” Child
John W. Holt had a bout with infidelity that produced a son named Hundley. Hundley was mentioned throughout the will, however, his inheritance was only one half of what the other siblings would receive:
“…the remainder of said rents, profits and
income in his hands be distributed by him annually
amongst all of my children, equally, except that Hundley
Holt shall be paid only one half of a child’s share in
said annual disbursements during said period of twenty
Hundley’s birth was not his fault so his smaller inheritance is confounding. Still, it’s pretty rare to see an “outside” child acknowledged in a will. From a genealogical standpoint, I’m thankful for it.
What happened to John’s land? More research in the land, probate and court records will uncover what happened to the land.
This remains an extraordinary example of the heights some of our ancestors were able to reach because of education, industry and their own will to succeed.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.