Mon, 21 Feb 2000
...a rundown of the (Delaware) Orphans Courts:
In seventeenth and eighteenth century Delaware, the justices of the Orphans Court were usually the same individuals as those who presided over the other courts. Orphans was a "sitting" of the county court, which met on different days for different business.
In the early records, we find matters that ordinarily would be seen by one court in the records of another. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the records of the various courts gradually became separate. After the Revolution, Delaware organized a court system with separate equity and criminal jurisdictions and professional judges. For a while, Chancery was a sitting of Common Pleas, so we find some Orphans Court and other land records in Common Pleas for a few decades.
It's important when using any court records to first consult the histories of the courts. In the Delaware archives, agency histories are an integral part of the catalogue system, known as the "record group" system. Records are organized according to the court's organization as it existed at a particular time. Record group cataloguing, based as it is on agency history, requires the user to understand the functioning of government, but it also provides access to the unsorted materials that represent the vast majority of old records. Your key will be the docket books, which then lead to individual records, especially in very busy courts like Common Pleas and Oyer and Terminer.
Orphans Court and Chancery case files are generally, in Delaware, being sorted and foldered by the names of the parties. This is being done by the archives, not by the county offices. I went to the Sussex County Register in Chancery office once, and was told that there were no Sussex chancery loose papers, even though there are thousands of items in the state archives. In order to effectively make use of the records, you must first make yourself an expert on the workings of government at the time you are researching.
Tue, 22 Feb 2000
...Maryland (Orphans' Court records).
Prior to the Revolution, probate matters were recorded in one court, the same court where land causes, suits, bastardies, etc., were held. In 1778, the Orphans' Court was created and in this court all matters pertaining to probate were heard and recorded.
Perhaps the single most important factor to remember about probate law post Revolution is that the English law of primogeniture ended. For the first time, an intestate's estate was equally inherited among all the children, boys and girls, alike.
Among the records filed in the Orphans Court were estate bonds, inventories, wills, administration accounts, guardian bonds, indenture bonds for orphans and property appraisals for orphans. An orphan is a child without a father [the mother is often living]. Boys were "infants" [minors] until age 21, married or not but girls were of age at 18 or earlier if married [their husbands received their property].
Aside from these documents, some of which most people have familiarity, minutes of the actual Orphans Court were taken and recorded. The court minutes involve cases such as where there was a will and it was contested, testimony concerning the validity, etc. My favorite case is one where the will was contested because the disinherited children claimed their father was a drunk, had several witnesses to this and said the child who inherited everything got the father drunk before he wrote the will. The will was not probated (meaning not recorded so we don't get to see it) and all the children inherited equally.
The Orphan's Court in Somerset County still exists and in the office of the Register of Wills the above documents are housed at the courthouse in Princess Anne, the county seat of Somerset [Salisbury is the county seat of Wicomico; Snow Hill for Worcester; Cambridge for Dorchester]. [Most of the originals have been sent to the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis and are available on film from there and at the Nabb Research Center.] The current Orphans Court consists of three elected judges who are in session on Tuesday afternoons. The court appears to have met quarterly in the historical records.
Only about 30% of deceased Somerset Countians left wills. That leaves a lot of persons with no wills! One then has to look at other records and the Orphans' Court (prior to that, judicial) Records are prime material.
I have abstracted and published several books of records from the Somerset County Orphans' Court. The only ones available on film are Orphans' Court Proceedings EB, Accounts EB16 and Will Book SCL5. I chose these records to abstract because they were not indexed at the source and it was much easier just to read the whole book and make my own index rather than stand for hours on end flipping pages looking for someone.
The Bond Book 1805-1815 turned out to be a personal bonanza as the main proof to my White line is in that book. I think there is one other Bond Book left at the Orphans Court; the others were sent to Annapolis years ago and have not been filmed. Sometimes the ONLY indication a person has died is an estate bond is taken out. There will be no further record: no inventory or accounting.
The "original originals" were loose papers from which the "original" courthouse libers were made. If possible, the loose papers should be consulted, also. They are housed at the Halls of Records in Annapolis. For instance, on two of the accountings in EB16, I have learned that in the loose papers of those records, the ages of the orphans were given. Esme Bayly, the Register of Wills, apparently didn't think that was important to include in his official record.
EB ORPHANS' COURT PROCEEDINGS 1778-1792. 550+ entries indexed by entry, primarily guardian and apprentice bonds, a companion to EB16. 50 pp.
EB16 ADMINISTRATIVE ACCOUNTS 1779-1796. Abstracted accounts from courthouse original; 222 testators, 187 intestates with estate distributions (names heirs). Contains all names in the liber including those to whom estate payments made, inventory date and amount. Indexed by folio number.
EB19 INVENTORIES 1791-1797. 225 inventories abstracted from courthouse original, not on microfilm; preface contains probate process and definition of legal terms. 42 pp. indexed with annotated will references for the testates. BOND BOOK EB28 1805-1815. Abstracted from courthouse original; 1192 entries, incl. 213 apprentice bonds (ages), 225 intestate bonds, 97 property appraisals & more. 81 pp. alpha indexed per entry.
EB30 RECEIPT BOOK 1808-1830. Abstracted from courthouse original, not on microfilm; indicates guardianships, info on intestates, including children, marriages. 31 pp. indexed.
JP10 RECEIPTS, RELEASES & POWERS OF ATTORNEY 1830-1842. Abstracted from courthouse original, not on microfilm; guardianships, info on intestates; unrecorded marriages. 49 pp. indexed.
WILL BOOK SCL5 1859-1890: Part I - 1859-1880. Abstracted from courthouse original; names all persons mentioned in will, tract names and acquisition; 330 wills, 25% by women, plus census annotations, indexed, 77 pp.
WILL BOOK SCL5 1859-1890: Part II - 1880-1890. Abstracted from courthouse original; names all persons mentioned in will, tract names and acquisition; 133 wills, 27% by women, indexed, 37 pp.