Monday, March 15, 2021

On Guardians


There are certain set procedures with which a family historian is most familiar, mainly by reason of frequent use. To go through the process to find a death record or a census entry, most of us experience no problems. We know the routine. But to find any record of court-appointed guardianships may be a different issue.

Guardianships, according to the Florida courts website—hopefully the repository of the very document I am seeking—involve court-appointed "surrogate decision-makers" who act on behalf of minors for personal and/or financial decisions.

In the case of Emma, Frances, and Benjamin Charles, minors left without their parents some time before 1860, someone needed to attend to their care. Not just because of their ages—barely emerging into their teenage years—but because of their parents' financial condition, there surely was a paper trail to indicate how to properly oversee the transfer of property as well as parental care. The challenge: how to find a document outlining such a plan.

For one thing, each state has its own procedures to follow for the recording and filing of such documents. Beyond that—and here, especially, is the rub—each state has its own policy for how to preserve such records from centuries past. The question becomes one of access, especially if we are fortunate enough to discover that the records in question happen to have been digitized and made available at repositories in addition to the county courthouse.

So here I sit, stuck in California in the midst of a pandemic, right at the time when I would otherwise have been visiting Florida and looking up records on what became of my third great-grandmother Delaney Townsend Charles. More to the point, since I'm wondering what became of her children when she and her husband disappeared from sight before the 1860 census, I'd be thinking about what legal procedures might have taken place to assure continued care for her three orphaned children.

Surely, someone would have drawn up records designating who the guardian was to be—especially considering that Delaney's husband, Andrew Charles, had claimed real estate in the Madison County, Florida, 1850 census valued at four thousand dollars. Considering a Townsend family member's claim that Delaney's brother had taken in the children—and a contradicting record in the 1860 census showed Delaney's sister-in-law and her husband to be the ones actually housing the children—it was time to look for some court documentation to provide directions on who would be responsible for the orphans.

Time to look for those guardianship records. However, when we, as family historians, repeat such searches only infrequently, it helps to have guidance, such as the FamilySearch Wiki for finding general records in Florida—even more so for drilling down to the specific state's probate records or other court records. Of course, there are sometimes other resources for finding court cases, though none will be so thorough as the county's (or state's) own archiving system for local records.

In the end, having the current limitation on travel, I resorted to the FamilySearch catalog, checking the box for online resources only. Fortunately, there was indeed a collection of Letters of Guardianship for Madison County, the last place where I found Delaney and Andrew Charles in 1850. Unfortunately, the microfilmed collection was browse-only—worse, buried behind mortgage records. But I did find the index for the specific guardianship court cases.

Once locating the indexed names, the first stumbling block was discovering that the alphabetical listing was not for the surname of the minors, but for the guardian. That left open three possible choices. Any record filed on behalf of the Charles orphans could have been drawn up by Light Townsend, Delaney's brother. Or they could have been filed by the husband of Andrew Charles' sister Drucilla.

That led to a secondary problem, because I don't yet know the date—or dates—of Andrew and Delaney's passing. You see, Drucilla was married to Thomas Hughs Hines up until about 1858, and to Melburn Odum from about that year onward. Depending on when Drucilla's brother and his wife died, the guardianship papers could have been drawn up listing Thomas Hines, or Melburn Odum.

While there were no guardianship entries for Townsend or Odum, there was one line entered for a man by the name of Hines. However, no matter how abysmal the handwriting of the court clerk, it would take more imagination than I could muster to morph the given name of that Hines gentleman into Thomas, leaving me with a null set for my search efforts.

Of course, given that the Odums lived in a different county by the time of the 1860 census, it is possible that the guardianship records could have been filed—or amended—in that county, rather than in the 1850 home of the now-deceased Charles couple. There are far too many other details which could impact that legal process, leading me through a guessing game to determine where to pick up this cold trail. In the meantime, that doesn't mean all other research possibilities have dried up. There's always another resource to help lead us to answers, even with our mystery ancestors.  


  1. I hate to add this, but the guardian might not be a family member. He could be a prominent friend or neighbor. Even though the index is arranged by the guardian's name (I hate when that happens!), are the orphans mentioned by name by the guardian's name? If that's the case, you could try going through the whole index looking for them. I know that's awful, but it beats reading the whole book page by page. The other strategy you could use is going into the guardianship book at about the date where you think the parents were deceased and reading it backward until you hit the guardianship. I know that's not fun, but it works.

    I'm just sitting here this morning, thinking that my own next move needs to be searching for a guardianship record. Sort of, blah!

    1. That's a good point, Kathy! And yes, it seems like drudgery, when thinking of reading through the names in an entire index. (At least there's the index!)

      During the recent SLIG course I attended, there were a few class members who were from FamilySearch. In discussion with them, it was mentioned that FamilySearch might consider re-working the search mechanism to also be able to search for the names of others in a legal document. Thus, for instance, not only could we search through guardianship documents for the name of the guardian, but for the name of the ward--in our case, a very helpful improvement!


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