What is an Orphan? - by Gail M. Walczyk and Wayne Stith

Orphans and Guardians

Today we consider a child an orphan only if both parents are dead, but two hundred years ago the word was treated differently.  An orphan was a minor, or "infant in the eyes of the court", who had lost one or both parents.  Males came of age at 21, and hence were no longer minors; females came of age at 18.

An orphan might have inherited an estate through his deceased parent's will, or perhaps via the legal mechanism of being the "heir-at-law".  The latter term usually meant that the first-born would receive the entire estate unless a will provided otherwise.  Naturally, such a mechanism did not sit well with those children who were not the first-born.  Through the efforts of Thomas Jefferson this policy was eventually changed.

A child who had inherited property from the deceased parent presented a problem to the court.  He or she, being underage, could not legally administer the inherited property.  The court then appointed a guardian for the child's interests who had to keep copious records of expenses paid from the child's account and of receipts in the account of monies collected from sales, rents, etc.  These records were then reported to the court, yielding in some cases very detailed information about the orphan and his or her family.  Often the names of slaves owned by the child were recorded.  Orphans' accounts were filed only for those orphaned children who had inherited an estate of some sort.

Although it seems odd to us now, the guardian for a child whose father had died was sometimes the mother.  And sometimes the mother's new husband would become the guardian.  Could a child choose his or her own guardian?  Yes, a girl who had reached the age of 14 was allowed to choose her own guardian; boys had to wait until they were 16.

© Copyright 2005-2012 by Gail M. Walczyk and Wayne Stith

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