I was finishing up some deed research in the Grant County, Oregon, courthouse one day, tired from handling the heavy deed record books, when I decided to take a look at a few miscellaneous record books the clerk had on a small dusty bookcase. One of those was a small ledger titled Register of Married Womens Personal Property Book “A”. Hmmm – looked interesting. Leafing through the book I found that, of the few pages of entries, one page actually listed a Robbins family member: Nancy C. Hinton.
Prior to 1839 in the United States, a woman’s property, her wages, her ability to enter into contracts, and more, was considered to be subsumed under her husband’s control. This system came down to us through British common law. Wikipedia quotes an Illinois Supreme court decision which stated: “It is simply impossible that a married woman should be able to control and enjoy her property as if she were sole, without practically leaving her at liberty to annul the marriage.”
As the nineteenth-century progressed this idea came under increased scrutiny and was considered, rightly, oppressive to women. In 1839, Mississippi, not considered particularly progressive today, was the first state then to allow women to own property. Other states followed suit and the western states, just as later they were among the first to give women the right to vote, began to pass laws allowing women to own property in their own right.
In Oregon there was a debate during the 1857 Constitutional Convention as to whether a married woman’s property act should be among its provisions. Matthew Deady, later a conservative federal judge, was against the idea. He said the act made “two persons of the husband and wife,” and caused “family alienation.” Delazon Smith retorted that it was not ownership of property that led to divorce, it “was the want of affection—the want of marriage of the heart.” The best response was Frederick Waymire who said “If we should legislate for any class it should be for the women of this [Oregon] country. They worked harder than anybody else in it.” The upshot was that the provision protecting women’s property was included in the constitution.
Unfortunately, it took a while, and a number of court cases, for the intent of the provision to become permanent in law. In fact, in 1866, the legislature passed a new law that said women could only register personal property, not real estate. A woman was encouraged to register her personal property and if she didn’t, in the event of a dispute, the property would be considered her husbands.
Which leads us to Nancy Hinton’s registration of her personal property in 1895. Why it took her 22 years after her marriage to register her property is unknown, but on 16 April 1895 she appeared before M. M. Brierly, Justice of the Peace in Grant County, and listed horses and cattle that she owned prior to her marriage to her husband John J. Hinton.
Further she made the following statement:
I Nancy C. Hinton being duly sworn, depose and say, that the foregoing list of personal property is a true list and description of the cattle and horses owned by me
That the cattle therein described were owned by me prior to and at the time of my marriage with J J Hinton
That the horses therein described were acquired by purchase of A. C. Frink and that I am now the owner of all of the above described personal property.
Nancy was the daughter of John H. and Mary Jane (Robbins) Hamilton, pioneers of Grant County, and a granddaughter of Nathaniel and Nancy Robbins. Since Nathaniel served on Oregon’s Constitutional Convention, one might ask what his view was on the question of women’s ownership of property. Would he have supported his granddaughter’s property rights or not? We have no way of knowing today for sure, but it might be noted that Nathaniel was a Democrat and a probable supporter of fellow southern-leaning Democrat Matthew Deady – the opponent of women’s property rights.
Thus, a little-known record source, while not answering any particular genealogical question, does provide a look into the property owned and registered by a frontier woman in the 19th century.
This post relied upon an article entitled “Late Nineteenth Century Married Women ‘ s Property Law: Reception of the Early Married Women ‘s Property Acts by Courts and Legislatures” by Richard H. Chused, which appeared in The American Journal of Legal History 29 (1), 1985.
(Jacob Robbins-William Robbins/Absalom Robbins-Nathaniel Robbins/Nancy Robbins-Mary Jane (Robbins) Hamilton-Nancy Catherine (Hamilton) Hinton)