Sunday, April 21, 2019

Plymouth Colony Widows - Estate & Inheritance Rules (1636)

Plymouth established in the 1636 laws, that it would adopt the inheritance rules of a particular "hold" in Kent County, England: "That Inheritance do descend according to the co[mm]endable custome of Engl. [and] hold of E[as]t Greenw[ich]." This jurisdiction, like several others in England, had earlier established the rule that a widow should receive a life estate with a 1/3 share of the lands possessed by her deceased husband during their marriage. This interest is known as a "dower." Plymouth Colony further provided that the widow would receive an absolute interest (not just a life estate) in a one-third share of all the deceased husband's goods & chattels (all his personal property). As stated in the 1636 laws, "[i]f the husband die the wife shal haue a third p[ar]t of his land[s] during her life & a 3[rd] of his good[s] to be at her owne disposeing." 

By law, widows were due 1/3 of the estate of their deceased husband, but children had no rights to their father's property. Consequently, if a widow remarried, her new husband had the power to take over any property left to her beyond the original 1/3 of her previous husband's estate, leaving her children penniless. To prevent this occurrence, the wills of men often provided for the distribution of money & other resources to their children, payable when they reached a certain age or were married. This act, can be seen in the case of Grace Halloway, who was provided a sum of money in her father's will to ensure her future welfare. Likewise, after the death of her husband Peter, Mary Browne received her third of his estate & successfully petitioned the court for extra money from the estate to help raise their children.

After the death of a husband, the role of a woman in Plymouth society changed drastically, as she could no longer depend on her husband for her welfare. In these cases, widows assumed the role of father, mother, husband, & wife, which allowed them more control over their own lives, as well as those of their children. This is evident in the references to widows in the Plymouth Court Records. Widows, unlike single or married women, could be taxed, hold land, execute the will of their late husbands, & make their own wills to provide for the well being of their children, particularly daughters. Widows fulfilled a completely distinct gender role from their married & single female counterparts. As the references to women in the first four volumes of the Plymouth Colony Court Records show, the role of women & widows grew more distinct over time, further demonstrating that women played an important, though somewhat less visible role in the early society of the Plymouth Colony.

Plymouth Colony Court Records record women acting as the executrix or beneficiary of wills. Most of these references are fairly simple & straightforward, such as one on June 3, 1662, which states "Lres of adminnestration is graunted vnto Mirriam Wormal to adminnester on the estate of Josepth Wormall, deceased." As executrix, the widow settled debts, & provided for the distribution of her late husband's estate, which usually went to their children. In such cases, widows were granted power over land & other property, that she could not have held as a married woman. During married life, a woman's husband exclusively controlled their property, but the unclear gender role of a widow allowed her to gain & keep control over property & other resources. Sometimes, the power of a widow over her late husband's estate was reduced, if a son, brother, or court appointed official was made joint executor with a widow. Such is the case with Widow Abell, who was made joint executrix along with Captain Willett over the estate of her late husband, Robert Abell. This often occurred because both men & women colonists did not feel that a woman could adequately handle economic affairs without assistance. Thus, although some widows controlled the disposal of the estate of their late husband, often this control was reduced by the appointment of a male figure of authority.

When a woman died in the Plymouth Colony, generally the husband or son of the deceased woman was appointed to administer her estate. For the most part, this involved the presentation of an inventory of the woman's "goodes & chattels" to the court, which were then disposed of to sons, daughters, or other family members. Only if the woman was a widow when she died, did she leave a will to provide for the distribution of her estate to her children, especially unmarried daughters. Widows were the only women who left wills, as they were the only women that could own property. 

Eventually, the inheritance rule for children provided shares going to all surviving children, & rejected the older English rule of primogeniture, in which only the eldest son would inherit the estate. Instead, the eldest son received a double share, & the others received equal shares of the remainder. The earliest evidence of this practice in the Colony appears in a 1627 letter from Isaak de Rasieres, Acting-Secretary of New Netherland, who visited Plymouth Colony in that year. He observed of the Plymouth colonists that "'in inheritances they place all the children in one degree, only the eldest son has an acknowledgement for his seniority of birth'."

Edited from The Plymouth Colony Archive Project. Created by James Deetz (1930–2000), Patricia Scott Deetz, & maintained by Christopher Fennell at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.