In 18th century Virginia, widows had to pay a tax in order to remain in their homes

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

Above: This is the beginning section of a three page appraisal by the Probate Court of Shenandoah County, Virginia for the estate of the late Phillip Werner. After buying my former Shenandoah Valley Farm in 1792, he died in 1796, leaving behind a widow, named Sophie, and five children. Sophie did something quite unusual for the times. She converted the house into an inn for stage coach passengers and livestock drovers . . . soon having enough money to pay the estate tax.

Coming next is an article that describes the steps I went through to determine the real history of an architectural ghost on the Shenandoah Valley landscape. When Phillip Werner died, there were a series of laws that often forced women to either quit their farm or quickly marry a man. Theoretically, women could not own property in Virginia. Even such feminine items as scissors, looms and spinning wheels were owned solely by the husband.

Note that in the upper right hand corner of the appraisal above, Phillip Werner’s assets are evaluated in Pounds-Shillings-Pence. Even though Congress adopted the dollar as the USA’s official currency in 1792. Courts and local governments continued to use the British currency system for several more decades.

Among more affluent families, the probate judge would appoint trustees to administer the estate. One-third of the income from a property was the widow’s dower, or support income. Upon her death, the dower would be distributed to all the children. Two-thirds of the property were held in trust by the trustees until any children turned 18.

Marrying a widow was the quickest way for an ambitious young man to climb up the socio-economic ladder. When George Washington married the widow, Martha Custis, he acquired 17,500 acres of land and 300 enslaved persons. 

Moral standards!

A primary justification of keeping women always under the control of a father or a trustee was that financially-self-sufficient widows and divorcees were viewed as a moral threat to the community, since they did not have to worry about “losing their virtue.” Indeed, Benjamin Franklin urged young men to take widows as lovers, because they were both “experienced and grateful.”

Enforcement of the medieval status of women in English Common Law became almost impossible to enforce on the American frontier, because of the sparsity of both law enforcement officers and clergy. Once having experienced living with a man, frontier women in the South tended to enter a pattern of serial male companions, throughout their life.

Below is the full list on the first page of the Probate court’s appraisal of Phillip Warner’s real estate and professional property.

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