In our search for ancestors who were once slaves, let’s not forget that they were often named in pre-marital agreements. This is one record that is often neglected in our research.
I have mentioned before the need to research the slaveholder’s wife, since we know that this was often how men gained ownership of slaves. This post explains how these agreements changed that.
Enslaved people were considered personal property. Because of the legal concept of coverture, an antebellum married woman became a feme covert at the time of her marriage. Feme covert is a legal status that translates into “covered woman.”
Essentially, it meant that married women had no legal identity apart from their husbands. They were generally not free to enter into contracts, own and dispose of property, earn money, serve as guardians of their own underage children, etc.
Coverture had ramifications for any property a woman owned before her marriage since many men gained substantial property when they married.
Women often owned property in the form of land and/or slaves given to them by their fathers or previous husbands.
For example, upon his marriage Thomas Jefferson became the owner of his wife Martha Wayles’ enslaved property. He gained legal title to Betty Hemings, mother of Sally, and the rest of her children.
Keeping Their Property
Savvy women could secure their property before their marriage. Typically called marriage contracts, I have used the more modern terminology of “pre-marital agreements” in this post because that is the function they served. I don’t want people to confuse them with all the other types of marriage records.
These agreements can provide us with the names and possible ages of our ancestors. The agreement may also suggest or explicitly state family relationships.
It can be very difficult to find connecting information between slaveholders and their enslaved property when the slaveholder survived past 1865.
Maria Porter’s Agreement
The document that heads this post is an example of one such agreement. The agreement was dated 26 March 1850 between Maria Porter and her soon-to-be husband, Richard Polk.
Below is a rough transcription of the contract and as you can see it named Maria’s enslaved property:
Since this document is dated 1850, there’s a good chance that you might be able to find Major, Jesse, Amanda or Martha in the 1870 census.
They may be living in close proximity to Richard and Maria. I also notice they are strange assortment of ages which is not suggestive of a family.
In researching this, we would also want to discover whether Maria inherited them from her father or a prior husband. In those records may lie the family relationships.
Why Were These Agreements Important for Women?
Let’s say a woman named Mary inherited land and enslaved property from her father before her marriage. She married John, without a premarital agreement, and had two children, Timothy and Sarah. Then she died. But John, at their wedding, now owns all the land and enslaved property his wife brought to the marriage.
John married a woman named Ann and they together had three children. John dies. He leaves his land and property to the three children he had with second wife Ann. Can he really do that? Of course! John can bequeath his property as he wishes.
Mary’s two children can be left out of an inheritance that originally belonged to their biological mother.
In terms of the land, as part of her dower, the second wife Ann is entitled as the widow to 1/3 of her husband’s land during her lifetime. Her husband can also bequeath other property to Ann if he wishes. Men, especially slaveholding men, sat atop the social order in the south.
Of course, exactly what happens is dependent upon the laws in place at the time and place of the marriage. So you need to understand the specific laws.
The value of pre-marital agreements to white antebellum women cannot be under estimated. Considering the rules of coverture and the generally poor rights of women overall, they were at a significant disadvantage in society. These agreements provided some protection for women’s property.
You’ll often see the phrase “heirs of her body” in these documents. Women wanted to ensure that children they birthed inherited what was rightfully theirs.
These records are especially valuable for those of us trying to glean precious details about our enslaved ancestors. Look for these agreements anytime you identify a slaveholding couple. They might be found in mixed in with deed records, court records or probate records of a county.
Has anyone used this records in their research?
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.