A sad, tattered scrap of paper in our archives lets us see the effect on families of the colonial era’s high mortality rate–here the untimely passing first of a father and then of a child.
Sarah Humphrey was 32 years old and the mother of six living children (aged 11, 10, 8, 5, 2, and 4 months) when her husband Ebenezer died in 1745 at age 41. Ebenezer Humphrey had been a weaver and a descendent of Hingham’s first settlers. The family lived on High Street and appears to have been fairly well off (the inventory of his estate listed real and personal property worth £494).
The document is Sarah’s sworn statement discharging John Thaxter from any further obligations as the court-appointed guardian of her daughter Rachel. Rachel had died at the age of 17 and John Thaxter had returned to Sarah the property which he had held on Rachel’s behalf. Sarah provided Thaxter a receipt acknowledging his full performance of his obligations:
Rec’d of Captain John Thaxter the sum of six pounds four shillings and three pence. He was guardian to my daughter Rachel Humphrey a minor dec’d which sum is the whole of the money in His Hands belonging to s’d dec’d minor. Rec’d of him all s’d Rachel dec’d wearing appearell and what of Household Stuff or Goods that were in his possession and I do hereby for my self my Heirs acquit and discharge Him the s’d John his Heirs from s’d dec’d Estate having rec’d the whole of s’d dec’d Estate that was committed to his trust & care. In testimony whereof I have sett my Hand & Seal this twenty second day of June A.D. 1758.
£6:4:3. Sarah Humphrey (Her Mark)
Signed sealed in presence of
/s/ Welcome Lincoln
/s/ Hannah Barker
Why was Thaxter named Rachel’s guardian (and the guardian of her younger siblings Mary and Ebenezer)? The answer lies in colonial laws of property and inheritance that are very different than those with which we are familiar today. Although Ebenezer Humphrey’s estate was relatively large, he did not leave a will. Under Massachusetts law at that time, Ebenezer’s six children—not his wife—were his heirs. Sarah was afforded a “dower share,” that is, the right to the use of one-third of her husband’s estate during her widowhood, but she did not own any of it. It was very common, then, to appoint a guardian to take charge of the childrens’ inheritance during the years of their minority.
As administratrix of Ebenezer’s estate, Sarah accounted to the Probate Court in 1746 for amounts she had paid out of the estate, including the payment of Ebenezer’s debts, the “many implements of household allowed the widow,” and the expense of “maintaining and cloathing of three children . . . one of them 5 years, one 2 years, and one 4 months” for a year after her husband’s death. Why just the younger three? Perhaps her older children had been “put out” to work or learn a trade. Perhaps they lived with relatives. Probate records confirm that John Thaxter was appointed guardian of the three younger children in 1757, 12 years after Ebenezer’s death, for the express purpose of safeguarding what each of them had inherited from their father. Why such a delay? Had money started to run short? The eldest child, Benjamin, had turned 21 the year before and Rachel’s big sisters, Hannah and Susanna, had just married. Perhaps Benjamin, who was entitled to his share of the estate upon his majority, or Hannah’s or Susanna’s new husbands had raised questions about Sarah’s stewardship of her childrens’ inheritance.
We do not have any written discharge of John Thaxter as guardian of Rachel’s younger siblings, but his role as guardian was almost complete. Ebenezer died in 1762 and Mary married in 1764. Sarah Humphrey never remarried. Having survived three of her seven children, she died, aged 70, in 1784.