Orphaned children were, unfortunately, a daily fact of life through the ages. In early U.S. colonial days, a child was considered an orphan if his or her father died, regardless of whether or not the mother was still living.
By the 1800s, a more formal process for guardianship was in place. Where past practice involved the court choosing and/or approving guardians and even giving approval to binding out these children, care of orphaned children was more likely to have been decided by adult family members, sometimes with and sometimes without formal court approval.
If a court was involved, guardian bonds were often required to be posted. These bonds are usually found in probate papers at the county level. FamilySearch has been digitizing probate records in many states, eliminating the need to contact the county court.
What do guardian bonds tell us? Well, they are usually pre-printed, fill-in-the-blank forms, so the information included is standardized and somewhat limited.
Guardian Bond for “Maryn” L. Cary
Maryn was actually Marion L. Cary, born c1846, who was about 12 years old when his father, Lockey (aka Loak) Cary died, before 13 May 1858. The family was living in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky at the time. Lockey and wife Quinney (Bass) were the parents of at least ten children based on the 1850 census.
In this particular case, because there were Cary children already of legal age in 1858, Marion’s guardian was his brother William R. Cary. Another brother, James, was one of the sureties.
When I checked the 1860 census, his mother, Quiney, was head of household with nine children at home, including Marion and James. In spite of the fact that the home remained intact after father and husband Lockey died, a bond formalizing guardianship was required and posted.
This particular guardian bond didn’t reveal any difficult-to-discover information about Marion’s family.
In other guardianship cases, the legally appointed guardian or the sureties might be a member of the mother’s family. I had long had a brick wall involving my Oliver Shepley and his wife, Mary, of Groton, Massachusetts, who were in their 20s when both died within a few days of each other in 1758. They had one daughter, Sibbel, who had a guardian, Ambrose Lakin, who was the administrator of her father’s estate. Sibbel was barely two years old when her father died, yet Ambrose took on the responsibility of the Shepley estate, which had little value, for years until Sibbel finally married in 1775 and she received the small legacy from her father’s estate.
Why would Ambrose Lakin take on that responsibility? No marriage record has been found for Oliver Shepley to Mary, but the Lakin family history includes a sister, Mary, for Ambrose, whose fate is left as unknown. This Mary was a few months older than Oliver Shepley and the death record of Mary Shepley, wife of Oliver, notes her age to be a few months older than that of her husband. It appears that Oliver Shepley married Mary Lakin and a guardianship record is the only clue to her maiden name.
Guardian bonds that haven’t survived may be mentioned in court minutes, especially in 18th and very early 19th century records. They might give you clues to unidentified family members.