sarah parce deland
MYSTERY — The history of DeLand is strangely devoid of accounts about Sarah Parce DeLand. Court records show, however, that she was declared “legally insane” and was removed from any share in ownership of her husband’s property, and a judge appointed a Joseph Parce as her “special guardian.” PHOTO COURTESY FLORIDA MEMORY PROJECT

Information is scarce about the town founder’s wife

Most town scandals managed to make their way into DeLand’s historical record, but there is one glaring omission in all the letters and oral history accountings of the city’s beginnings, and that is the absence of nearly all mention of Sarah Parce DeLand, wife of the founder of the city.

A single line on the back of a photograph of the Parce family on the grounds of the Parceland Hotel is the sole reference that includes a woman who is identified as Sarah.

Karen Ryder
Editor’s note: This is the latest installment
of our feature Better Country Beyond, with excerpts from DeLandite
Karen Ryder’s, pictured, book about the early days of the founding of the city of DeLand.
The Beacon is indebted to Donna Jean Flood, a DeLand financial adviser
with Edward Jones, for the idea for this series, part of our ongoing West Volusia Memories series by community writers.

Even Helen DeLand’s book on the city’s history contains not a single mention of her mother.

In the portions of the Parce family genealogical records that Helen DeLand wrote, she discusses in extensive detail her widowed grandmother, Betsey Parce, who lived for many years with Helen and her family in their Fairport, New York, residence. Of her mother, however, there are only two brief mentions.

In one of these, Helen has been unwilling to apologize to her grandmother for some unnamed childhood “lack of courtesy.”

Rather than attempting to shame her daughter into compliance, Sarah uses a more thoughtful parenting approach and tells her daughter, “When I look at your grandmother’s hands, I wonder at all the work they have done for me.”

This response evidently had its desired effect, as it caused Helen to recall for herself the many ways her grandmother had been an actively devoted supporter to her.

Despite being in her 80s (and old enough to have memories of seeing “mourning bands on men’s sleeves at the time of George Washington’s death”), Betsey started her busy day at 5 o’clock each morning when she made “little round fried cakes for me. She darned great holes in my stockings. … She knit me mittens with gay borders and little bows.”

The other reference Helen makes to her mother in the Parce family genealogy is a five-word snippet tacked at the end of a sentence, again about her grandmother.

Helen states that Betsey had to leave their home and go to live with another one of her daughters, Henry DeLand’s brother Daniel’s widow, Minerva Parce DeLand, also of Fairport, “when my mother’s health failed.”

The work on the Fairport house that Helen composed also alludes to her mother’s ill health as being the reason Sarah had to “give up the care of the house and family” to one of her husband Henry DeLand’s older sisters, Eliza Marring.

So what actually is known about the apparently hush-hush nature of Sarah Parce DeLand’s “failed health”?

The only documented facts to be found in the West Volusia Historical Society’s archives are from a May 1885 court action where a judge in Monroe County, New York, declared Sarah to be “legally insane.”

Later that month, there is a second mention of her in the court records where a judge acquitted Sarah from any interest in lands owned by her husband.

In that same document, Joseph Parce was appointed as “special guardian” for his sister Sarah. Since any mention of insanity carried an even greater stigma in that day than it does now, Helen’s silence regarding her mother can now be viewed as a means of protecting the family’s privacy.


CHANGING VIEWS OF MENTAL HEALTH — Facilities like the Willard Asylum in New York, above, once were a common solution for families with members who were mentally ill. The Willard Asylum operated 1869-1995 and, by some reports, was a happy place for its residents. There’s no evidence Sarah Parce DeLand was institutionalized, but the sparse historical record does indicate she had a mental-health problem.


In the 19th century, “insanity” was a catchall diagnosis applied to a vastly diverse number of mental dysfunctions that today might be labeled as types of such disorders as schizophrenia, depressive psychosis or dementia.

In the 21st century, the word has completely disappeared from the medical and psychiatric lexicon and is reserved for legal determinations of an alleged criminal’s ability to understand the rightness or wrongness of his or her actions.

Given the combined effect of scant detail in the historical record and the evolution of psychiatric diagnosis over the intervening years, it is difficult for contemporary readers to gain much understanding about the nature of Sarah’s condition.

Because her “insanity” was deemed severe enough that she needed to have a legal guardian appointed, all that can be said is that her mental impairments were of a chronic nature and not expected to remit over time.

— Ryder and her husband, Bob Wetton, live in DeLand and are active members of the West Volusia Historical Society. For information about obtaining a copy of her book Better Country Beyond, call the Historical Society at 386-740- 6813, or email All proceeds from the sale of this book go to the West Volusia Historical Society’s Bill Dreggors Fund, which helps finance the printing of books about West Volusia history.


  1. Our property in Lake Helen was once owned by Henry DeLand and his “insane wife Sarah” according to the abstract.


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