Many elements of The Smuggler’s Gambit were inspired by real incidents that I uncovered while doing genealogical research—from the idea of forced apprenticeships, to the truth about Blackbeard, and many other bits and pieces of information.
In the book, there is a reference to one of the female characters being an heiress, but being bound to some key restrictions that had been placed upon her in her father’s will.
While I have never seen anything quite like the exact scenario in the book, I have found various other legal maneuvers throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that were employed to protect women’s property and interests. This is the first in a series of articles that will cover three very different kinds of circumstances:
- A prohibition to marry
- A refusal to marry
- A promise of freedom
I should point out, that with the exception of one of these situations—the woman who refused to marry—that the individuals discussed in the articles in this series are not my ancestors, however, I did find their records while doing genealogy research.
Prohibition to marry — Sally Handley (Born about 1786 in Wayne County, NC)
How did I find this record?: I was searching in various eastern North Carolina records for a family that could be connected to my 4th-great-grandfather, Laban Morris. Laban was not a Morris by birth, but apparently had the last name “Henby” until he had his named legally changed to Morris in 1810. As such, I was looking for any families within that particular region of the state that might have a name that sounded anything like Henby. One name I came upon was “Handley.” Ok, so it doesn’t sound much like “Henby”—it was a long shot—but I wanted to leave no stone unturned.
What kind of record is it?: Last Will and Testament of James Handley, 1823 (Wayne Co., NC)
What does the record say?: This is the will of a man who was clearly quite wealthy. He bequeaths a great deal of real estate and divides up several slaves among his children. What struck me was something I had never before seen in a will. It is this item:
ITEM 2nd I lend unto my daughter Salley Handley one hundred acres of Land where Milley Head now lives joining Henry Roberts line as long as She continues to live without marriage also I lend my daughter Salley Handley during her Natural Life two Negroes named Cloe and Sabo and after her death it is my will that they and their increase should be equally divided between her five children to wit Washington, Penelope, Jackson, James and John Rasmus Handley. I give to my daughter Salley Handley my riding mare bridle and saddle one cow and calf one feather bed and furniture one flax wheel one woolen wheel one dish half dozzen (sic) plates one case knives & forks one table one flat iron one iron pot rack and pot and as much provisions of all kind as may be necessary for the support of herself and family one year from my death.
What does it mean? While I’ve yet to uncover any detailed biographical information about Salley Handley, I think we can assume from this part of her father’s will that she had given birth to five children outside of wedlock, otherwise, she’d have had her husband’s last name. Now, realistically, considering the time frame of this will, we can probably guess that one of two scenarios was likely: either she was mentally challenged in some way and had been taken advantage of multiple times, or she was exceedingly promiscuous. Regardless of what the circumstances might have been, her father was clearly trying to protect her interests. He wanted to make sure that she had land and slaves, as well as transportation (‘my riding mare bridle and saddle’), sustenance (‘one cow and calf’), a comfortable place to sleep (‘one feather bed and furniture’), a way to be productive (‘one flax wheel one woolen wheel’) and various household necessities.
The most striking part of the property he bequeaths to her is the land that he ‘lends’ to her “as long as She continues to live without marriage.”
Why would he say that? Again, we’re back to making certain assumptions, but I think it would be fair to say that he knew enough about his daughter that she would not likely make good decisions about what kind of man would make a virtuous husband and father. As such, he wouldn’t want some man coming in off the street to marry her just for the sake of getting his hands on her property. We must remember that in those days, if a woman married, through the legal concept of coverture, her property became marital property and her husband would have control of it. By lending her the property during her natural life unless she marries, he is making sure she has what she needs, but it will also deter potential gold-diggers who might want to marry her to acquire her property. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, coverture began to be, “disassembled in the United States through legislation at the state level beginning in Mississippi in 1839 and continuing into the 1880s.”
The next article in this series will be about my 4th-great-grandmother, who was married once, but then apparently said, “never again.”