Guardianship File for “An Idler and his Family”

I’ve been researching the family tree now for 40 years and I have to say this is the first and only time I’ve seen a “guardianship” file like this one. It’s 127 pages long.

While working on all the Bucknam posts and updating my facts, I came across guardianship (File #3380) for Ebenezer Bucknam Jr.  in Stoneham, Middlesex County, Massachusetts in 1805. I initially took a look because I thought it was possible he was a son of one of my Ebenezers (the one born in 1762 in Malden, MA to James Bucknam and Mary Goddard), for whom I have no death date.

Not so, but I stumbled upon what I think was a very unusual situation.

Are you familiar with the term “warning out”? Warnings out were issued for many years by various Massachusetts towns to a person/people or family who were not residents and who either couldn’t or wouldn’t support themselves through honest work.

Such people were “warned out” to return to their home town, who would then be responsible for their care. It was the colonial and early American way of avoiding welfare costs that the town would have to cover. I believe that warnings out went out of style after the 18th century.

At first glance at the guardianship file of Ebenezer Bucknam, I wondered what in the world could have happened for a file to be that long, even if Ebenezer was an infant when orphaned.

First, we need to know who Ebenezer Bucknam Jr. was. One Ebenezer Bucknam was born in Stoneham on 29 January 1743/44, the son of Edward and Sarah Bucknam. If this is the correct Ebenezer, then he married Mary Hay on 11 November 1762, in Stoneham, two months shy of his 19th birthday. Mary was born 12 October 1741, the daughter of Peter Hay (1696-1790) and his second wife, Isabel Green. Most males married around age 25, so an 18 year old marrying in that time period in New England is quite unusual.

In any case, Ebenezer Bucknam and wife Mary became the parents of Ebenezer Bucknam Jr., born 7 February 1766, also in Stoneham. By trade, Ebenezer Jr. became a cordwainer, a shoe maker who makes shoes from new leather.

Ebenezer Jr. married Rachel Lovejoy, likely soon after intentions were filed on 16 March 1786 in Stoneham. Rachel died, aged 67, on 8 January 1836, also in Stoneham.

Ebenezer and Rachel had the following children, all born in Stoneham:

1. Sarah, baptized 3 July 1791
2. Lusa (Lucy?), born 19 December 1791
3. William, baptized 9 September 1792
4. William, born 9 August 1798
5. Jesse, born 1 October 1800; died 4 April 1801
6. Rebecca, born 1 October 1801
7. Jesse, born 6 February 1804
8. Rachel, born 7 July 1808

The very first item in Ebenezer’s guardianship packet is a bond for Jabez Lynde, guardian of Ebenezer Bucknam, dated 20 June 1806. The reason for the guardianship is immediately clear:

Ebenezer, “an idler”

The second document, a complaint by the Stoneham town selectman, dated 10 April 1805 (the documents are not in chronological order) shed more light on Ebenezer’s problems:

His excessive drinking and lack of productive work were putting himself and his family in danger of destitution and therefore becoming a welfare charge to the town, who would have to support the family.

Even if warnings out had still been issued in the 1800s, Ebenezer and his family were residents of Stoneham, so could not have been warned out anyway. They were Stoneham’s problem.

Many of the documents in this file are lists of debts and creditors’ claims against Ebenezer Jr. Why would the judge decide appoint a guardian for him rather than sentencing him to jail?

This is just speculation on my part, but the Hay family was very powerful in Stoneham. Peter Hay, Ebenezer’s grandfather, was very wealthy and the family held many town positions through the years. Ebenezer was likely a great embarrassment to his family and it was probably hoped that a guardian could keep him under control and keep the family out of the poorhouse.

The judge issued an order to Ebenezer to appear in court to show cause why he should not have a guardian appointed:

Whereas the Selection of Stoneham aforesaid have represented to me the subscriber Judge of Probate for said County that by excessive drinking and idleness you to spend waste and lessen your estate as thereby to expose yourself and family to want and suffering circumstances and also to endanger the said town of Stoneham to charge and expense for your and their maintenance and support.

Mr. Lynde carried out his responsibilities until 13 January 1809, with Ebenezer’s cash on hand at one point being $191.09 with debts amounting to $882.37. At that point, he asked that Mr. peter Hay Jr. be appointed to take on guardianship of “the spendthrift.” to put these amounts in perspective, $191 is worth about $3900 today, while $882 is the equivalent of about $18,000.

The probate judge approved the appointment of Peter Hay as the new guardian. The lists of income and expenses continued on as Mr. Hay carried out his job. By February 1815, Peter Hay had had enough:

“but now finding it verry disagreable and troublesome to act any longer in Said capacity of guardian to the Said Bucknam”

The judge must have decided that caring for Ebenezer Bucknam was a two-man job, as in 1816, Aaron Stone and Nathaniel Richardson were appointed guardians. They added yet another uncomplimentary term to Ebenezer’s behavior:

“excessive drinking, idleness and debauchery”

After 25 years of guardianship, a petition from Ebenezer himself appears on 11 January 1830, stating that he can care for himself and asks the court to dismiss his guardians:

However, the judge wasn’t having any of that and Ebenezer’s petition was denied in April 1830. Several months later, on 17 August 1830, Stone and Richardson stepped down and Jesse Green was appointed to serve as Ebenezer’s latest guardian.

Ebenezer made another petition to the court on 28 April 1835, again asking to be released from guardianship. This time, Selectmen Peter Hay and Ira Gerry came out in favor of dismissal.

This is the most recent date found in the probate file of Ebenezer Bucknam. He was apparently set free from his guardianship. However, there is no death date entered for him in the Stoneham town records, nor in any other town records in Massachusetts for that matter.

What a sad life he and his family led, having belongings appraised and sold off to pay debts with the same cycle repeating itself year after year after year.





3 thoughts on “Guardianship File for “An Idler and his Family””

  1. this was very interesting! I am thinking that Peter Hay Jr was probably his uncle, and by 1835 his children had reached the age where they could take care of themselves. I wonder what happened to his wife though

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