Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

His Slaves or Hers?: Customary Claims, a Planter Marriage, and a Community Verdict in Lancaster County, 1793

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

His Slaves or Hers?: Customary Claims, a Planter Marriage, and a Community Verdict in Lancaster County, 1793

Article excerpt

In 1791, after two years of marriage, Elizabeth Yerby left her husband's plantation but remained in or around Lancaster County. Her husband, George Woodbridge Yerby, wanted her back. Neighbors played an important role in this family drama, acting both as observers and participants. One of them,William Brown, reported that George Yerby had no clean shirts or fresh bed linen and that his slaves were not receiving rations. Local men and women knew the smallest details about George Yerby's smooth-talking attempts to win back his wife. Sometimes he succeeded, other times not. Finally, in 1792 Elizabeth Yerby left him for good, filing for a separation plus stipend in the Lancaster County Chancery Court.1

Both Elizabeth (Pinckard) Yerby and George Woodbridge Yerby came from reasonably well-off planter families facing uncertain financial futures in post-Revolutionary Virginia. George had lost his grandfather in 1765, but his grandmother lived until late 1786, with an ample fortune that included sixty slaves. A division of her estate permitted George's father, John Yerby, to receive an inheritance of twelve slaves.2 When George set up housekeeping with his bride in 1789, he brought some slaves with him, who when combined with the four slaves Elizabeth inherited in 1790, constituted taxable property of nine slaves in 1791. Perhaps this was a humbling moment for Elizabeth, who had grown up in a more prosperous household of fourteen slaves and family assets valued at £416.3

This case vividly illuminates an eighteenth-century rural world in which large slaveholders no longer held sway. In a county where staple-crop production was on the way out and large planters had almost disappeared, one young wife faced farm duties and a violent husband-an unexpected fate considering her position as a propertied bride. Unlike most studies of gentry women, which focus on family, kin networks, and the boundaries of polite society, this account of Elizabeth Yerby's chancery suit demonstrates the undoing of customary class entitlement-in a time and place of declining planter fortunes.4 In this story, yeoman farmers and propertyless neighbors had decisive influence on defining gender expectations; they made their judgments as spectators, participants, and enforcers of community standards regarding wifely conduct.

Partible inheritance was a recipe for downward mobility, and Elizabeth Yerby possessed genteel sensibilities ill-suited for so modest a household, positioned as it was barely a step above the local yeomanry.5 This was the context in which this new wife's marital drama unfolded. In her suit of complaint, she invoked the customary privileges of a gentry woman for the return of her property. George Yerby, with wounded pride, had offered bonded promises to keep this dispute out of court. This sorry tale of errant household government unfolded as a community drama in which marital expectations jockeyed on a neighborhood stage of public opinion, an alternative forum for redress and resolution. What distinguished this story from other studies of gentry families was the role of yeomen and near-poor neighbors in passing judgment on the gender roles of a gentry couple sliding into the yeoman class.6

Elizabeth Yerby clung to the perceived privileges of elite women, including relief from housework and having an affectionate, non-violent husband. Maintaining class status was difficult in an old Tidewater neighborhood marked by decades of economic decline and filled with numerous hardscrabble yeoman farmers. The noticeable absence of wealthier allies or wellheeled kin connections in this county-and in this lawsuit-made it difficult for Elizabeth to maintain the persona of a gentry woman down on her luck and trapped in a violent marriage. Although she sought sympathetic ears among her poor and middling neighbors, this strategy backfired. Her public tactics of provoking her husband, slandering him on the community stage, and neglecting household duties did not gain her favor from local whites, a group left behind when smart money started moving west to the Piedmont during the 1760s. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.