Jade: “Every event has its context”
So a comment came in to the blog this morning that’s simply too good to just sit in the comments section, where oftentimes folks who’ve already read a blog post won’t see it.
Reader Jade was looking at this week’s posts on guardianships.
You may recall the post Monday about the man who was named as guardian for his sister’s children even though his sister was still alive 1 and the post Tuesday about the cases where the mother, or another female relative, might have been named guardian even though the usual legal default was to name a male rather than a female.2
When Jade read them, she realized that there was one key point that was missing in the discussion so far.
So, she noted:
One possibly-neglected feature of a guardianship record is timing. The appointment is a hint that something happened: most likely that a propertied male parent died. But it could be a signal that something was about to happen, such as heirs to an intestate estate could be about to sell land and minor heirs needed to have an adult representative in the transaction. I have also seen a case where a guardian was appointed in order for there to be an accountable party to receive a minor’s portion of his paternal grandfather’s estate distribution.
Every event has its context, which needs to be closely questioned as to possible chain of events.3
In general, courts didn’t just step in and name a guardian, any more than it would step in and force a family to probate an estate if nobody ever brought it to the court’s attention. In general, there had to be a specific reason why somebody went to the court and asked it to get involved. There are a whole host of possible triggering events that could have led to the appointment of a guardian long after the event we would usually think of: the death of that propertied parent.
• The mother — or stepmother — may have remarried and her new husband wanted to have her dower land (a life estate of the widow in some portion, usually a third, of her late husband’s lands4) set aside for her use.
• An older sibling may have come of age and petitioned the court to partition the estate so he, or she, could have the benefit of his or her share rather than leaving it in the joint control of all of the heirs.
• Some financial issue in the family may have led the heirs to conclude that they needed to sell some or all of the land or other property, and a guardian would be needed to sign off on behalf of the minors.
• A governmental benefit, like a military pension or entitlement to bounty land, may not have been available until long after a parent’s death, but a minor child’s share of that after-the-fact benefit might still require a guardian.
• And, very commonly, the death that served as the triggering event wasn’t a parent’s death at all. Children were often named as heirs in the wills of grandparents, aunts and uncles, even siblings.
And it’s that same issue of timing that may explain why a guardian wasn’t appointed in a given case. In a 2012 blog post, for example, we reviewed reader Margie Beldin’s McHugh family and a probate in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, where there were no guardianship records. That seemed to be puzzling until the timing was considered: by the time the widow needed the help of the probate court, the children were all of age.5
So timing — what specific event triggered the need for a court to get involved at all — is a critical element.
And I couldn’t agree more with Jade’s final point in her comment: “Every event has its context.”
Whether it’s the context of the law — what the law was at that time and place — or the context of local customs, or even the context of a particular family and its ways, context matters.
That’s why context is given such emphasis in Genealogy Standards, the best practices of our field as adopted by the Board for Certification of Genealogists.6 The standards include one aimed particularly at research:
12. Broad context. When planning research, genealogists consider historical boundaries and their changes, migration patterns and routes, and sources available for potentially relevant times and places. They also consider economic, ethnic, genetic, governmental, historical, legal, linguistic, military, paleographic, religious, social, and other factors that could affect the research plan and scope.7
They also include one to consider when we write our conclusions:
57. Background information. Assembled research results provide sufficient background information for readers to understand both what an information item says and what it means in the context of each source’s place and time and in the context of the written presentation. Background information may include concepts from economics, ethnic studies, genetics, geography, government, history, law, religion, sociology, and other fields.8
Jade is right on the money here, so let’s repeat it one more time.
“Every event has its context.”
Image Open Clip Art Library user rihard.
- Judy G. Russell, “The avuncular guardian,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 2 Mar 2015 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 5 Mar 2015). ↩
- Ibid., “The exceptions,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 3 Mar 2015. ↩
- Jade, Comment to “The exceptions,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 5 Mar 2015. ↩
- Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 393, “dower.” ↩
- Judy G. Russell, “Guardians for the kids,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 1 Mar 2012 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 5 Mar 2015). ↩
- Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville, Tenn. : Ancestry, 2014). ↩
- Ibid. at 12. ↩
- Ibid. at 34-35. ↩