Probate records: Part Seven

[Editor’s note: Alicia’s probate series began here.]

Guardianship Joseph RequestGuardianships

Guardians were appointed for children under the age of 21 and for adults who were not able to handle their own affairs. Children over age 14 could choose their guardians. The surviving parent would usually be the first choice, but a guardian could also be a grandparent, older sibling, uncle, step-parent, etc.

In our example from the estate of Joseph Alden of Middleborough, there were no minor children, but Joseph was the administrator of his son Ebenezer’s estate.[1] When Ebenezer died in 1773 at the age of 30, he left behind six minor children: Hannah, age 8; Orpha, 7; Polly, 6; Ruth, 5; Ebenezer, six months; and Joseph, “on the way.” Little wonder that Ebenezer’s widow, Ruth, declined administration in favor of her father-in-law.[2] However, no guardian was appointed for these children in 1773, and since Joseph as grandfather and administrator would have had responsibility for the family, anyway, no official paperwork was thought necessary. Joseph conducted the administration of Ebenezer’s estate until his own death in 1787. The estate was declared insolvent and Joseph was given permission to sell the real estate to pay some of the debts.

In 1788, after Joseph’s death, official guardians were needed for those of Ebenezer’s children who were still minors – Ruth and Ebenezer, ages 20 and 16, chose Joshua Fobes of Bridgewater (their maternal uncle),[3]  and Joseph, 15, chose Abner Alden of Middleborough (his paternal uncle) – in order to execute the 1789 deed of the heirs of Joseph Alden mentioned in the previous installment of this series.

Ben Faunce GuardianshipAdult guardianships

Adult guardianships can put a lot of human flesh on our ancestors’ bones, since they often involve depositions explaining why the person was not competent. In the case of Benjamin Faunce of Kingston, his “friends and connections” petitioned the court in 1802 stating that “for Eighteen monthes past [he] has neglected his Business, takes no Care to provide for himself or family, not a furor [furrow] plowed on his farme this year, his fences all Down … his Wife and Children have Left him and gon to her fathers who is a poor man not able to afford them any Reliefe, he is troublesum to his nighbours and a plague to himself….”[4]

Now, who could resist the temptation to learn more about what happened to Benjamin and his family! If you find out, let me know.


[1] For further information on the family of Ebenezer5 Alden, see Esther Littleford Woodworth-Barnes, comp., Alicia Crane Williams, ed., Mayflower Families Through Five Generations…, Volume 16, Part 3, Family of John Alden Fifth Generation Descendants of his sons John,2 Joseph,2 and Jonathan2 (Plymouth, Mass, 2004), 247-48.

[2] Plymouth County Probate File, #82, copy books 21: 222, 224, 236, 360, 25: 306, 28: 99, 100, and File #84, copy books 26: 454-55. See the first installment of this series for discussion about accessing Plymouth County probate files and copy books.

[3] Note my error in Part 6 of this series taken from Mayflower Families, 16: 1: 380, in which I identified the guardian as their maternal grandfather, who died in 1787 – remember to verify, verify, verify!

[4] Plymouth County Probate File, #7499.

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia Crane Williams, FASG, Lead Genealogist of Early Families of New England Study Project, has compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant and the Alden Family “Silver Book” Five Generations project of the Mayflower Society. Most recently, she is the author of the 2017 edition of The Babson Genealogy, 1606-2017, Descendants of Thomas and Isabel Babson who first arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1637. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University.

10 thoughts on “Probate records: Part Seven

  1. Was it normal to sometimes have the court appointed as guardians? My great grandfather and his two brothers were made wards of the court after both of there parents died. They lived with there maternal grandparents, however the court records show that the court was appointed there guardian. They were receiving a civil war pension at the time and I wondered if this was the reason for the courts to intervene.

    1. Nancy, yes, the pension would have triggered a guardianship. In this case, the court deemed that there were no relatives capable of or willing to take on that guardianship (possibly even requested by the maternal grandparents who felt the task was over their heads).

      1. Regarding your initial paragraph, would this be true (that a Guardian would be appointed to those under 14) even if the mother was still alive?

  2. Another good example of guardianships established at time of probate is documented in “Emmanuel Williams of Taunton, Massachusetts: A Genealogy of some of his Descendents.” Emmanuel died c. 1719, and his wife, Abigail (Makepeace) Williams c. 1724. The grandfather William Makepeace, was appointed administrator, and evidently assumed responsibility for the minor children. By 1729/30, no division had been made of the estate. First son, John (b. 1704) had assumed control of his father’s land, and after second son, Gershom, (b. 1706) came of age, he brought an action on 2 Feb. 1729/30 to settle his father’s estate, claiming misuse of the estate lands by brother John. In the settlement of the estate, the court named John guardian of a third son, Simeon (b. 1716), who was under 14 at the time. Being over 14, two daughters were allowed to select their guardians — Phebe (b. 1712) selected brother John, and Lydia (b. 1710) selected William Barney, her brother-in-law and husband of a third daughter Anna (b. 1708), who was of age.

    1. Ross, yes. The court was there to see that individuals did not make their own decisions about how the estate should be handled and that the law was followed. Got really messy sometimes.

  3. Alica, you note that a maternal uncle of Ebenezer and Ruth Alden, Joshua Fobes, was chosen as a guardian in your example. This underlines the importance of tracking relationships of ancestors we are studying. I have another example among my ancestors. The guardian appointed in 1676 for John Peirse (1659-1750), the youngest son of Capt. Michael Peirse, was John Jacob (1629/30-1693). Jacob was the husband of Margery Eames who was the sister of Michael Pierce’s wife, Persis. But, Margery had died in 1659, and Jacob married 2nd Mary Russell. [PCR Court Orders, 5:213; and Hingham VR]

    Without looking broadly, one might have not known the relationships given the Jacob surname. I am no doubt preaching to the choir here, as I would guess we all have loads of examples of finding critical information by tracking family relationships. Again – great series – we all look forward to more of your most interesting posts.

    1. Carole, exactly. It is always well worth the effort to find out who the people are who witness the wills and deeds, become guardians, co-sign bonds, etc.

  4. Hello. Many thanks for this article. I waited a long time for just such an essay. My family’s history is covered in a book that has lots of names dates or places. Many times there References to large numbers of adopted children It never says with the list of children includes the adopted children or is limited to natural There never seems to be a list of the adopted children For the purposes of tracking a family history it would be nice to know how that information is separated When children were adopted into families during colonial times in New England did they keep their own last names ? This is of great interest to me because my family’s history in North America starts with the birth of a child and does not list his parents That has led me to wonder if he was adopted and that’s why his parents aren’t listed. Many thanks

    1. Sam, in Early New England there were few official adoptions. Someone would care for the child, if not a relative, then the town might pay for a neighbor to take it in. Tell me more about when and where your child was born.

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