The Legal Status of Orphans in Colonial Maryland


The story of colonial Maryland orphans is reflected in the traditions of England and in the realities of building a new society in an unfamiliar and unforgiving land. Children were primarily orphaned due to the high mortality rate (particularly among fathers) and because of the “spiriting” away of children of the poor in England as forced indentured servants in America. Financial strains and the prospect of an early death made families keenly aware of the need to find both cheap labor - sometimes in the form of teenage servants - and to secure whatever inheritance may have existed to their heirs. As such, the early history of Maryland contains a series of developments aimed at creating a legal system to deal with inheritances for orphaned children whose fathers had died, and guardianship for those who came to the colony either without parents or who had subsequently lost both before maturity. These early laws establishing the status of orphans, their estates, the rights of parents and guardians, as well as the creation of an Orphan’s Court, remain reflected in the treatment of orphans in modern Maryland.

SOURCES: Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives and “The Development of the Maryland Orphans’ Court, 1654-1715.”

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 2: Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763)

Standard 2: How political, religious, and social institutions emerged in the English colonies

Standard 2A: The student understands the roots of representative government and how political rights were defined.
5-12: Compare how early colonies were established and governed.

Standard 2C: The student understands social and cultural change in British America. 
5-12: Explain how and why family and community life differed in various regions of colonial North America.

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: An Act for Succession to Goods
    SOURCE: Archives of Maryland, Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly January 1637/8-September 1664 in Archives of Maryland Online
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  2. DESCRIPTION: [An Act] Concerning Orphan’s Estates
    SOURCE: Archives of Maryland, Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly January 1637/8-September 1664 in Archives of Maryland Online
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  3. DESCRIPTION: [Laws relating to] Wills and Administration
    SOURCE:  Archives of Maryland, An Abridgement of the Laws in Force and Use in Her Majesty’s Plantations, 1704 in Archives of Maryland Online
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  4. DESCRIPTION: An ACT for the more effectual securing of Orphans Estates
    SOURCE:  Bacon’s Laws of Maryland in Archives of Maryland Online
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  5. DESCRIPTION: An ACT for the better Administration o Justice in Testamentary Affairs, granting Administrations, Recovery of Legacies, securing Filial Portions, and Distribution of Intestates Estates
    SOURCE: Bacon’s Laws of Maryland in Archives of Maryland Online
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  6. DESCRIPTION: Directions for Executors and Administrators [as they relate to orphans]
    SOURCE: Deputy Commissary’s Guide within the Province of Maryland, 1774 in Archives of Maryland Online
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

  7. DESCRIPTION: CHAP. VIII. An ACT to establish orphans courts in the several counties of this state
    SOURCE: Hanson’s Laws of Maryland 1763-1784 in Archives of Maryland Online
    REPOSITORY: Maryland State Archives

Additional Media Resources

Land Office and Prerogative Court Records of Colonial Maryland.” Archives of Maryland Online. Provides background summary text on pages 81-92 of the history of orphans in Prerogative Court and evolution of the court and the records.

Thomas Bacon’s Life.” Archives of Maryland Online summary of Thomas Bacon and the Bacon’s Laws online record.

Secondary Resources

Ashby, LeRoy. Endangered Children: Dependency, Neglect, and Abuse in American History. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997.

Askland, Lori ed.  Children and Youth in Adoption, Orphanages, and Foster Care: A Historical Handbook and Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.

Carp, E. Wayne, ed. Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Carp, E. Wayne. Family Matters: Secrecy and Disclosure in the History of Adoption. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,  1988.

Carr, Lois Green. “The Development of the Maryland Orphans’ Court, 1654-1715.” In Law, Society, and Politics in Early Maryland: Proceedings of the First Conference on Maryland History, June 14-15, 1974, edited by Aubrey Land, Lois Green Carr, and Edward C. Papenfuse, pp 41-62. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

______. County Government in Maryland, 1689-1709. New York: Garland, 1987.

Geiger, Marilyn. The Administration of Justice in Colonial Maryland, 1632-1689. New York: Garland, 1987.

Mason, Mary Ann. The History of Child Custody in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Melosh, Barbara. Strangers and Kin: the American Way of Adoption. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Peden, Henry C. Orphans and Indentured Children of Baltimore County, Maryland, 1777-1797. Lewes, DE: Colonial Roots, 2005.

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Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Bill Vincent.


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