THE INVISIBLE PEOPLE: Early Nineteenth-Century Women in Ontario County Records

Mary Jo Lanphear

In the predominantly agricultural society of the early 1800s, a wife's role was taken for granted. Society assumed that she was a helpmate for her husband; law and custom excluded married women from political office, legal independence, and family authority. Unmarried women and widows had greater legal autonomy, but most lacked the economic and educational resources to be truly independent. The nature of farm life, which predominated in the early days of Ontario County, tended to blur the divisions of labor: wives worked in the barn, garden, and workshop; men took an active role in the raising of the children. This division of labor did not result in a corresponding division of power, however. Wives and children worked for the male head of the household, as well as with him.

Women experienced profound disadvantage in education. Based on signatures, in the eighteenth century an estimated 40% of the female population was illiterate. While this figure declined in the early years of the nineteenth century, we find that many deeds and wills still bear the legend "her mark" above an X. Because women's intellect was considered inferior to men's, extensive learning for women was considered inappropriate and even dangerous.

The religious revival movement of the 1830s put new emphasis on roles for women outside the home. Women were exhorted to do good works in their communities, to elevate the lives of the less fortunate, to form Bible societies and prayer groups among their peers. This widespread participation in religious life helped to bring about a new era in women's education. Never before had so many women belonged to groups or institutions with an interest in social affairs. Churches supported female seminaries that gave girls a sound religious education. This in turn produced a host of educated women who began to displace men as teachers, although at a much lower rate of pay due to women's inferior social status. These early strides into public life produced a gradual change in the status of women and began to alter the character of American culture.

In the process of sorting and arranging a multitude of early Ontario County records, we have seen this gradual change in the lives of Ontario County women. As women achieved status in their communities, their names are seen more often in official documents. Although there are more records about women than those initiated by them, those that have survived present an interesting picture of women's lives in the early years of the County. They include the U.S. census, deeds and mortgages, probate records, naturalizations, and court records.

The census, for example, listed the heads of household only from 1790 to 1850. In the 1790 census, the categories included men over 16, men under 16, and females. In 1810 and 1820 women were enumerated as "females under 10, 10-16, 16-26, 26-45, and 45 and older." A more detailed breakdown occurred in 1830 and 1840, but a woman's name appeared only if widowed and the head of her household. By 1850, wives and children's names were added to the enumerations.

Deeds required a wife's name if her husband was selling property; this provision was unnecessary for a deed of purchase. Surprisingly, a few women held mortgages in their own names: Mary Higgins of Geneva loaned twenty-three hundred dollars to Geneva industrialist William DeZeng in 1816 which he had repaid by 1823. Martha Barker of Pittsford loaned Cephas Hawks of Phelps nineteen hundred and seventy-four dollars in 1817, but found it necessary to foreclose on the loan. On the other hand, in 1807 Mary Aldrich of Farmington bought one hundred fifty-nine acres from William Dillon for $1646, the latter holding a mortgage of $746. There is no record of the discharge of this loan. In 1818 Sarah Bigelow bought fifty-five acres of land in Avon from Anthony and Rebecca Case for $1153. In the corresponding mortgage, Anthony Case alone is listed as the sole lender to Sarah of $679, which she repaid in 1823.

The probate records indicate that wives received the use of, but not the title to, their husband's property after his death, to keep the land from leaving the family. Sons, but not daughters, received the inheritance after their mother's death. Dower laws entitled a woman to a life interest in one-third of her husband's estate after his death. In 1841, John Hall of South Bristol left his wife, Lydia, the life use of his saw mill and fifty acres of property, so long as she remained a widow, to provide support for herself and John Hall's daughter, Esther Ann, then three years old. He also bequeathed to Lydia the property she brought to their marriage consisting of a "good table, bed, bedstead and bedding, bureau and stand."

Even wills executed by women show a tendency to leave real property to sons, personal property to daughters. For example, in 1813 Susannah Crum of Seneca left her five sisters her wearing apparel, bed and bedding, and her seven brothers, her real estate. Mary Hickox of Bloomfield willed 81 acres to her sons Benjamin and Elijah, a gold necklace to daughter Sarah, and all the rest of her "movable estate" to daughters, Mary, Abigail, and Phoebe. Phebe Allen, in 1827, left her brothers-in-law her land in Connecticut, her sister, sisters-in-law, and niece, her wearing apparel, furniture, and linens.

In the nineteenth century an immigrant woman became a naturalized citizen when her father or husband received his final papers. Of the 2200 existing naturalization records for the years 1803-1906, only four women declared their intent to become citizens. Two of the four, Ann Potter and Amelia Gerhart, appear in census records subsequent to their declarations of intent: Ann in 1860 as a single woman living with a Geneva family, and Amelia in 1855 listed as the wife of Phillip Gerhardt and the mother of four children.

It is in the court records that women are listed by full name and description but these records pertain to a very small segment of the female population. In many cases they are the plaintiffs but a few involve women as defendants in misdemeanor and/or felony cases. Women could not serve on juries, become attorneys or judges, serve as bailiffs or court clerks or jailers. The justice system of the nineteenth century was probably rather intimidating for most women, surrounded by an all-male court system.

Clarissa Chapin, for example, petitioned the Court of Common Pleas in 1808 with a charge of trespass, assault and battery against Beriah Finney. Because she was a minor, she also petitioned for a court-appointed guardian to prosecute the action against Finney.

More serious crimes were prosecuted in the Court of Oyer and Terminer which tried cases of murder, rape, bigamy, etc. In 1824 Elizabeth Sly, "other wise known as Elizabeth Compton," was tried for bigamy. After the testimony of four prosecution witnesses (two men and two women), a jury of twelve men declared her not guilty. In 1815 Ann Chester was tried for murder, with eight witnesses for the people. "Without retiring," the jury found her not guilty.

Mehitable Walton was indicted for having counterfeit money. Eight male witnesses spoke for the prosecution, one woman served as the defendant's witness. The jury retired to consider the charge and found Mehitable guilty.

Cassie Waters, described as a slave belonging to James Brooks of Farmington, was arrested and tried for the murder of her infant child in 1809. Found guilty, she was sentenced to be hanged. Reprieves by the governor delayed the execution. She died before the final date set for the hanging.

Women's participation in the court system as jurors began in the 1930s, over ten years after they received the right to vote. The law admitted a few women to practice in the late nineteenth century, but full participation by women in the legal profession has been a late twentieth century phenomenon.

The seventy-fifth anniversary of the passage of the constitutional amendment permitting women to vote has encouraged both men and women to focus on the strides made by women for equality in American life. Our glimpse into women's lives as seen through the early County records shows us how far women have come.

We invite you to visit the Archives and look further into this topic and the other fascinating records of Ontario County.