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Jul 01

A Tale of Two Orphans: Children’s Lives as Told in County Records

Posted on July 1, 2019 at 10:19 AM by Chester County Archives

Understanding the plight of children in the nineteenth century can illuminate the values and priorities of previous generations. Through public records the lives of two girls, bound together by place but separated by social standing, can be sketched from infancy to adulthood. Poorhouse records, orphans’ court proceedings, taxes and commissioner’s minutes reveal the stories of Chester County’s most vulnerable residents. These sources highlight the precarious and often tragic nature of childhood in the 1800s.

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Image courtesy of the Chester County Historical Society. 

On April 9, 1817, on a prosperous farm near Downingtown, Benjamin Hoopes died at age 37. The son of John and Jane Pratt Hoopes, Benjamin had married Mary Ann Downing, daughter of Thomas Downing Esq., at the Sadsbury Friends Meeting in 1811. In their short life together, Mary Ann gave birth to three children: Thomas, Sarah, and Jane.

When Benjamin died, Mary Ann gave up her right to administer his estate to Benjamin’s brother John Hoopes Jr. Benjamin’s personal estate was valued at $12,528.20, a considerable sum, especially since Benjamin leased property from his father and did not own land. In many cases, an estate of this size prompted the family to petition the Orphans’ Court to appoint guardians to protect the financial interests of the children. In this instance, the family did not appear concerned.

After Benjamin’s death, Mary Ann moved with her children to Uwchlan Township to be near her relatives. By winter 1824, Mary Ann became fatally ill. Having already lost her husband and son Thomas, Mary Ann left most of her estate to her daughters Sarah and Jane. She appointed her brother George Downing to be the guardian of their financial estates. Both Sarah and Jane were now orphaned, left to the concern of their extended relations.

The substantial wealth inherited by Sarah and Jane Hoopes insulated them from the hardships most children in similar situations had to endure. While children were considered the “property” of their fathers, much like their mothers were considered the property of their husbands, once bereft of a father’s protection the State had mechanisms in place to protect their wealth. In Sarah and Jane’s case, they were taken in by their maternal grandmother Sarah Downing.

For several years after Mary Ann’s death, the family let the girls financial matters stand as they were. Sarah Hoopes died by 1826, leaving Jane D. Hoopes as the sole heir to both parents’ estates. Her mother’s estate was already under the guardianship of her uncle George, but concerns began to grow over her father’s estate.

OCM - Hoopes 1826 Acct
1826 account of George Downing, guardian of the minor Jane Hoopes. 

Petitioning the Orphans’ Court in May of 1826, George Downing requested that a guardian be appointed for Jane’s father’s estate. The court appointed Jane’s paternal uncle Joseph Hoopes as guardian.  Jane was under age fourteen, which meant she had no say in the court’s appointment. Within a few years, Jane would gain the right to petition the court directly, a right she would exercise immediately.

Joseph Hoopes, Benjamin’s brother and Jane’s uncle, was a prosperous tanner and land owner. His choice as Jane’s guardian seemed logical until his habits began to change.  According to the testimony of his brother Davis Hoopes, Joseph began “purchasing property to a large amount at a price much above real value … that he has abandoned his former quiet and cautious habits… in the way of business [he] is wild and speculative in his bargains to the injury of his own interests.” Davis detailed how Joseph bought large quantities of “fat cattle” at inflated prices and was unable to sell them for a profit. In sum, these were not the qualities sought after in a financial guardian. Jane, reaching age fourteen in 1829, asked the court for a new guardian, which she was granted.

Jane’s life from this point forward was summarized in regular accounts submitted by her new guardian, John Malin. Guardianship accounts vary in detail but can provide a glimpse into the lives of upper-middle class and wealthy children. The accounts can detail anything, such as the cost of clothing, shoe repairs, traveling expenses, schooling, tuition and trips to the dentist. In Jane’s case, it is clear from the accounts that she remained with her grandmother, Sarah Downing, who provided her with clothing and schooling until she reached age twenty-one in August 1833.

Upon reaching adulthood Jane Hoopes became dangerously ill. She wrote her will on August 12, 1833 and appointed her uncle Davis Hoopes, who had helped her change guardians in 1829, as her executor. On September 20, 1833 her will was taken to the Register of Wills Office where it was proved. Jane Hoopes was dead. For a full sixteen years, Jane’s short life was documented through the estate files of her immediate and extended family. Wills, accounts, inventories, petitions, court filings, all provide insight into her brief and ill-fated life.

In August of 1819, another story unfolded. John Hoopes Jr., Jane’s uncle, was asked to transport two young girls to the Chester County Poorhouse.  Rebecca Howard, aged seven, and Temperance Howard, aged four, were the daughters of Elizabeth Howard, a poor woman who recently died. Elizabeth had been in and out of the poorhouse since 1815 but had often returned to the area around Downingtown where she passed away in 1819. East Caln Township officials, concerned that the two young girls would become a charge on the local community, had orders drawn up by the local justice of the peace declaring them paupers. By doing so, they could then legally commit them to the care of the poorhouse.

The State recognized that the poorhouse was not healthy for young children. Once Temperance and Rebecca arrived, the steward actively sought to bind them out into apprenticeships. On August 24, 1819 Temperance Howard was bound to Isaac Carpenter of West Bradford Township where she was to be taught the skill of housewifery for the term of thirteen years, seven months and ten days. She was to receive two years of school and “freedom dues” upon completion of the apprenticeship. Freedom dues were often one or two new suits of clothing. Her sister Rebecca, Temperance’s only remaining family, was apprenticed the same day to William Corbett of West Chester, to be taught the same trade. 

Apprentice Contract - Poorhouse Adm Vol 1
Chester County Poorhouse Admissions book, 1800-1826. Access an enlarged version here. 

Temperance Howard’s fortunes deteriorated as she grew towards adulthood. While working in the Carpenter household, Temperance became lame. Having no use for a lame apprentice, Isaac returned Temperance to the poorhouse on December 28, 1824. Her condition worsened and on April 5, 1825 Dr. Isaac Taylor, the poorhouse physician, amputated her leg.

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Image courtesy of the Chester County Historical Society. 

With only one good leg, Temperance’s chance of being permanently bound out to another family was significantly diminished. For the next two years she remained in the poorhouse among the sickly, elderly, and poor. She was likely required to help the poorhouse matron where she could, in duties such as cleaning, kitchen work, spinning or weaving. 

In June 1827, Issachar and Hannah Mann of London Grove Township decided to take in an apprentice. Hannah had given birth to a daughter the year before and likely needed help around the house. Issachar made the trip to the poorhouse in West Bradford where he agreed to take Temperance Howard out for a one-month trial. However, just two days after she left, Temperance was returned to the poorhouse on June 28, 1827. She told the steward that “her mistress was a quaker woman and could not bare the noise of her wooden leg on the floor.”    

Temperance remained in the poorhouse until September 26, 1827 when she obtained permission to leave. Over the next eight years she entered and left the poorhouse several times. Where Temperance went and what she did is unknown, as is her ultimate fate. The last reference to her is on October 1835, when Otho B. Hilton was paid to bring her into the poorhouse from West Bradford Township. 

The lives of Jane Hoopes and Temperance Howard were marked by tragedy and misfortune but their experiences were vastly different. Jane Hoopes could rely on her extended family for support. Because of her wealth, laws were in place to protect her financial interests. Temperance Howard, on the other hand, had no such protections. Without money or resources, the State took little interest in her plight. The law’s primary concern was that she should never become a charge on her immediate neighbors. Her greater community – Chester County and Pennsylvania – ultimately supplied her with little beyond the barest necessities.


This write up originally appeared in the Chester County Historical Society's 2019 Antiques Show program.

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