Who is considered an orphan? Someone with no living parents? Not until the late 1800s. In this article we’ll explain what guardianship really means.
Genealogists may encounter references to orphans in guardianship or probate records. However, researchers shouldn’t assume both parents were deceased. Those who had lost only one parent, especially a father, were termed “social orphans.” In colonial times, children were considered assets in which their fathers had property rights. Widows could even lose their children to a guardian named by their father in his will.
What Does Guardianship Really Mean?
Many times, a guardian’s responsibility focused more on an orphan’s property than on the orphan herself or himself. Guardianship had little to do with physical custody of the child. Its primary purpose was to manage the orphan’s estate, preserve any inherited property, and use the estate for maintenance and education of the child until he was old enough to manage it. The guardian was required to submit an accounting of the estate’s income and expenses each year and could be replaced by the court if he or she neglected their duties. They were also personally liable for any loss of the child’s property.
How Was Guardianship Determined?
All colonies had an Orphans Court of some type, many of which continued on in a variety of later courts, such as probate and common pleas. The courts’ responsibilities included:
• supervising the management of the orphan’s estate by the guardian;
• overseeing management of orphan-owned real estate;
• appointing or removing guardians as needed;
• overseeing orphans’ apprenticeships.
A father’s will could leave a life estate to his widow, with possession going to a child when she was of age. This, in effect, made the mother the guardian. If a mother was the one giving consent for a marriage, this is a sign there was no other guardian. However, the court also assumed a mother’s remarriage meant she was unable to protect the child’s estate from the new stepfather, and the court typically appointed a replacement guardian, such as a neighbor or a relative with no interest in the estate. When a child reached the age of 14, he could choose his own guardian or could apprentice himself, although he was still considered a minor until reaching the age of 21.
What If There Was No Inheritance?
Orphans who did not inherit estates did not need guardians, as there was no property to protect. The courts assumed such orphans would live with their mother. If she was dead or unable to care for them, they were bound out as apprentices by the court. Most apprentices were boys; however, girls could be apprenticed as well. Their “master” became responsible for their food, shelter, clothing, and education.
How Do I Find Guardianship Records?
Online is a great place to start your search for guardianship records. Ancestry’s records relating to guardianship are primarily indexes, but some original records are in their holdings. Search in “Wills & Probates, Estates & Guardian Records.” Many county court records also have been digitized by FamilySearch; however, they are not always indexed.
Legacy Tree Genealogists’ team of experts will be happy to help you explore and preserve your family history, and will review every possible record to find the details of your ancestors’ lives . Contact us for a free quote.