Thursday, April 3, 2014

Of Orphans and Widows

After I learned that John Froman died between 1870 and 1880, I learned that his children had been assigned a guardian through the court even though their mother was alive.  I was new to family history at the time and wondered if their mother, Catherine (Saylor) Froman, was unfit to care for her children for some reason:  perhaps she had a physical handicap, emotional problems, or some medical condition that prevented it.

I recently obtained the Orphan's Court files for all of John's children which caused me to further question the reasons behind assigning a guardian to children whose mother was still alive.  When I wrote about Tressa Froman's petition for guardianship I mused about this situation.  Thank you to my brother, Bob, for his insight that women in that time period essentially had no rights and, therefore, could not guard the rights of her children.  An adult male would need to become their legal guardian.  I had not thought in legal terms, only in terms of the modern dictionary definition of the word orphan:  a child who has lost both parents.  Knowing the standing of a widow in the late 1800s and the legal definition of orphan changed my understanding of the situation of both Catherine and her children.

Wendy of Jollette, Etc. also responded and provided a link to Orphans and Guardians at Bob Baird's Bob's Genealogy Filing Cabinet.  Thank you, Wendy. 

Bob gives a history of the legal aspect of an orphan, discusses the role of guardian, guardianship versus custody, and the rights of orphans.

Several of his statements added insight and answered questions:
  • The "guardian's responsibility was focused on the property of the orphan "rather than on the orphan himself."  His primary purpose "was to provide for management of the orphan's estate...."
  • "The guardian’s primary role was management and preservation of the inherited property until the child reached majority and could manage it themselves."
  • "It should be noted that guardians could be at considerable financial risk, for they were personally liable for loss of the child’s property.  (That was the purpose of the guardian bond.)"
All of those statements helped me understand the situation of Tressa Froman and her siblings after the death of their father.  It's true their father died with property but considering other circumstances it seems to have been essential for them to have a guardian.  All things considered, $100.00 does not seem as large a sum of money for bond as I originally thought.

If you're interested in this topic, I encourage you to read Bob Baird's post, Orphans and Guardians.



  1. Amazing how things have changed for the better! It really helps to understand the times our ancestors lived in when it comes to figuring out what they were up to and why.

    1. You're so right, Ellie, about how important it is to be aware of the environment (in so many ways - political, social, climate, etc.) at the time of our ancestors. Things were different in many ways, probably the same in some ways, but if we don't know the differences we may deeply misunderstand an event or action.

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.

  2. It seems legal guardianship was risky business if you had to guarantee the child's property would maintain its value. Who can guarantee that?


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