The researcher was becoming frustrated by her inability to discover the maiden name of her ancestor Mary, the wife of Anthony KELLER.
"All I have been able to find out," she lamented on a surname mailing list, "is that Anthony's second wife made life so miserable for Mary's two boys that they were forced to go back to Ohio to live with their Uncle Bill."
When someone asked how she was able to learn that, here is the story she told:
Anthony's wife Mary died, leaving two small boys, Philip, age five, and George, age three. About a year later, in 1847, Anthony remarried to a woman named Sally and the following spring the family moved from Ohio to Indiana. Our researcher discovered that in February of 1850, Anthony's brother William, who remained in Ohio, had been made the guardian of Philip and George, "children of Anthony KELLER" (the word "orphans" had been crossed out and "children" inserted in the record). "That second wife actually drove them out of the house!," our researcher declared.
When another family researcher pointed out that Philip and George were enumerated with their father and stepmother in Indiana in both 1850 and 1860, our researcher wrote this off by saying the boys were "probably just visiting" in the summer.
We all know guardianship bonds are important genealogical sources. Often, in the case of the early death of a parent, they provide the only proof of the link from one generation to the next. As important, an understanding of the reason for such records can help solve other knotty genealogical mysteries.
One of the perplexing things for many researchers is that a family might exist without one of the parents for a considerable period -- even several years -- and then, suddenly, the names of the children appear in the guardianship bond book and they now have a court-appointed legal guardian.
Why? Why the long delay? Why suddenly is there a need for a guardian for the orphans of a man or a woman who has been dead for a half dozen years? Was the surviving spouse just too busy to get around to doing a required legal chore? Or were the children actually being maltreated by the surviving parent? What is going on?
An important thing to understand is that when a person was appointed the guardian of a minor child (generally any child under age 21), the reason is not to place the guardian in charge of rearing the child. "Bound boys and girls" are the ones who are placed in the care of others. Guardians have a different responsibility, that of protecting the material assets of their wards.
Therein lies the answer to the question, "Why now?" What a guardianship bond silently tells us is that some recent event has triggered the need for a guardian. Some new event may mean the children are about to acquire some property.
For example, one reason for the sudden need to have a guardian for the children might be that a widow has decided to remarry. Now it has become necessary to protect the children's property rights in their father's estate from the "clutches" of their new stepfather. So one of the first things you should do is check the marriage bonds for that time frame. If the widow did remarry, knowing who she married might enable you to track the family's later moves, for example.
It gets better.
Let us consider the case of "The Unwanted Stepchildren" who were "adopted by their Uncle Bill." Our researcher saw the record and thought of it in terms of an adoption proceeding, thus missing the real message in the record.
The reason for a guardian surely had to be that some outside event had made it necessary. It is this triggering event that might have told our researcher how to solve the mystery of the maiden name of Anthony's wife Mary.
For, you see, Philip and George were about to come into some money. Therefore, they needed a guardian to look after their interests. The family was way off in Indiana, so it was decided that Anthony's brother William back in Ohio was the one to look after things -- because he was where "the action" was.
"The action" was this: Mary's father had died intestate (without a will). Since Mary's mother was already deceased, this meant that Mary and her siblings were each entitled to an equal share of their father's estate. Because Mary also was deceased, her two sons were, by law, each entitled to half of her share.
So, while the guardianship record didn't actually say that Uncle William was going to be keeping track of how Mary's father's estate was being administered, it should have alerted our researcher to the fact that something recently happened to trigger this action. And what triggered the activity probably was not the "wicked stepmother" at all.
Once you have this clue, then it is time to start looking at the other county records for the "trigger" -- in particular, the contemporary estate records. You can now focus your search, making it relatively easy to discover that among the heirs of Alexander WILEY, who died in late 1849, is "Mary KELLER, deceased, leaving two sons in Indiana."
There are still other clues in guardianship records and these, too, must be properly interpreted.
Sometimes, for example, you will encounter a record that says, "George Jones, age 14, orphan of Samuel Jones, chose Adam Jones as his guardian."
In most jurisdictions, once a child reached age 14, he or she had the legal right to choose his or her own guardian. Thus, in the absence of a specified age, a person who has chosen his or her own guardian can be presumed to be at least 14 years old. However, the words "age 14" in such a record may not mean that the child was age 14 at the time. What they often mean is that he or she is at least age 14 and thus is entitled to choose his or her own guardian.
As you become more experienced, your eye will discover even more hidden messages in guardianship records. What, for instance, could be the reason one of the children in the family is not mentioned in any of the guardianship records? When the mother is made the guardian is it relevant when the record says "the orphans of her deceased husband" and DOES NOT say something like "her minor children"? Is there a story behind why the bond says "orphan and sole heir" rather than just "orphan"? (There sure can be!)
The lesson is that even a supposedly brief and direct record such as a guardianship bond can contain within it the answer to a completely different puzzle.
[Copyright 2002, Richard A. Pence. This article first appeared in MISSING LINKS: A Magazine for Genealogists, Vol. 7, No. 22, 2 June 2002.]