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Widows of Virginia

Widows of Virginia

But the unusually large role played by physicians in the colony was the least important consequence of Virginia’s continuing high death rate. More significant was the effect on the role of women. In a society where men died early, the relatively small number of women could expect to wear widow’s weeds and to wear them often, though not for long. Women were too rare in Virginia to be left for long without husbands. The case of Jane Sparrow in 1660 was doubtless extreme. She was sick, and her husband called in a doctor. The cure was successful, but the husband died, leaving the doctor to collect 1,200 pounds of tobacco from his estate. The recovered wife remarried five days later. 25
Most Virginia women waited a couple of months; but they were, in the records at least, a singularly unlovely lot. Given their small numbers, they account for a high proportion of the cases of
slander heard by the courts, and they were also in court too often for abusing their servants. In three cases where servants died after abusive treatment, women were defendants. 26 In none of these cases was the woman found guilty, but one, Anne Charlton (widow of Stephen Charlton, a Northampton commissioner), was required to give bond for good behavior in the future. The commissioners had had trouble with her before, when she was the widow of Anthony West. At that time, she had gone after her overseer with a club. 27 Another commissioner, Henry Woodhouse, of Norfolk, had to be given protection from the unkind usage of his wife while he was sick. His fellow commissioners ordered that the neighbors should “have free libertie to resorte to the house of Mr. Woodhouse to see that hee have what shalbe both sufficient and necessarie for him dureinge his sickness, and according to his quallitye.” At the same session the court placed in the sheriff’s custody for protection a maidservant of Mrs. Woodhouse who had been “Most unchristianlike used by her mistress.” But the court’s efforts were not enough. By the next session both Woodhouse and the maid were dead. Within the year Mrs. Woodhouse had remarried. 28
If an awareness of their scarcity value induced an imperiousness or even downright tyranny in Virginia’s women, it also gave them greater economic advantages than they enjoyed in England. By Virginia’s law, as by England’s, a widow was entitled to a life interest in one-third of her husband’s estate, 29 and in Virginia the annual usufruct of an estate was likely to amount to a larger proportion of its value than in England. Furthermore, men of property generally favored their wives with more than the law required. It was common to give specific bequests to the children and everything else to the wife, 30 but there was great variety in wills. John Valentine gave his widow one-third of the estate as her own and the use of the rest of it while she remained a widow. 31 Rowland Burnham gave his wife half the servants, half the cattle, all the furniture, but non of them
land. 32 Abraham Peirsey gave his widow one-third plus one-twelfth. 33 Adam Thorowgood gave his widow a mare and a foal, one of the best cows in the pen, half a dozen goats, four sows, and part of his plantation for life, “all which I give her as a memorial of my love— not any ways intending to cut her off from a equal share in my estate with my children.” 34
Besides getting a large share of the estate, the widow was often appointed administrator. This meant that claimants against the estate had to make their claims to her, and she, by delaying payment, might continue to enjoy the whole for some time. Captain John Sibsey left most of his land, his servants, his plate, and two-thirds of everything else to his widow, one-third to his daughter. But the daughter’s husband had to sue her mother in order to get what was given her. 35 If a widow had a jointure (which excluded a part of the estate as belonging to her before any inventory was taken), she was in a particularly advantageous position. Whether she had a jointure or not, she was not responsible for her husband’s debts beyond the value of his estate. 36
The wealthy widow has always had an edge on competitors in the marriage market. In Virginia the death rate produced such a rapid turnover of husbands and wives that widowhood became a principal means for the concentration of wealth. It has been suggested that the men who made their way to the top in the I620s and I630s in Virginia were unable to perpetuate their family lines; the famous first families of Virginia came to the colony later. 37 In a patrilineal sense this was the case. But while the high mortality lasted, with women apparently resisting it more successfully than men, Virginia was on the way to becoming an economic matriarchy, or rather a widowarchy. The man who needed capital could get it most easily by marrying a widow. And she was likely to get it back again, with whatever return he had added to it, when he died. The next husband would have an even larger base to build on.