Note: This article originally appeared in the Ancestry Daily News on 20 March 2002.
The Reality of Sarah’s Realty
The 1760 Orange County, Virginia, will of Sarah Turbervile has probably generated more discussion in 2002 than it ever did when it was probated in 1761. For the past two weeks, I’ve discussed in this column various aspects of Sarah’s will and what those items could mean. I have also tried to stress the importance of working with assumptions and remembering that assumptions have been made.
When one researches across state lines and centuries, laws and customs change. Our research procedure must change as well. One of Sarah’s many descendants was Nancy Rampley, who died owning property in Illinois in 1923. My assumptions and research procedure for Nancy’s estate and the transfer of her property is significantly different than it should be for the estate of her ancestor Sarah who wrote her will in 1760 Virginia.
The truth of the matter is that Sarah likely did not own any real property in her name. Any real estate she might have brought to any of her marriages would have automatically transferred to her husband, either at her marriage or at the time of the inheritance if the inheritance took place after Sarah’s marriage. The end result is that the husband could then transfer the property as he chose, either by deed or by will. If her husband still owned the property at his death then, generally speaking during that time period (Virginia 1760s), the oldest son of Sarah’s husband would have inherited two-thirds of the property and would not necessarily been specifically mentioned in the will. This system of inheritance is called primogeniture. Sarah would have had the use and income of the remaining one-third of the property during her lifetime. Sarah’s will would only have disposed of personal property and not real estate (as it did).
Sarah’s husbands could have sold any inherited property as well, even if it was obtained via Sarah’s family. Sarah would have been required to relinquish her dower interest in any property owned by her husband and “approve the sale” by acknowledging her relinquishment of dower rights to the property. This relinquishment should be recorded along with the deed. Sarah’s right of dower applies to all the property owned by the husband, not just any that might have been obtained via his marriage to Sarah. Sarah would have had a “dower right” to the real estate owned by her husband, regardless of how he obtained it. The “dower right” was intended to protect the widow from being left penniless by her husband’s children upon her husband’s demise. How well this worked in practice frequently is another matter entirely. And how many wives actually stopped a land sale by refusing to relinquish their dower is something we’ll probably never know either. I doubt if the number is very high and some may reasonably consider the release a token gesture.
Consequently land records are still going to be a significant part of the research on Sarah’s family, as are will or probate records for each of her husbands. While I hopefully don’t descend from each of Sarah’s husbands (although it would make for an interesting story), research will have to be conducted on all of her spouses (not just my direct ancestor) in order to sort out as much of the situation as possible. This broad type of searching will be necessary in order to track property ownership as completely as possible. If Sarah did inherit property, any one of her husbands could have sold the property. The deed does not have to clearly state how the husband obtained the property.
However, some land records will give a brief history of the property being transferred, potentially listing previous owners and neighbors. Relationships will occasionally be mentioned in these records, but such specifics should not be expected as they were not required. Establishing the chain of ownership is not a simple, five-minute process and the researcher should not expect to quickly and easily analyze the series of documents that may be uncovered in this case. Property sold by one of Sarah’s husbands could have been obtained through an inheritance from the husband’s family, an inheritance through Sarah’s family, or by direct purchase by the husband. It will take research into other records to potentially determine how the husband obtained the property. Even then, how the husband obtained property may be left open to varying interpretations. Research in Virginia during this time period is not simply “point-and-click” genealogy.
Additionally, because the oldest son automatically inherited two- thirds of the father’s property there will be no deed from Sarah’s husbands to his oldest son showing the transfer. One will have to search for potential land records when these sons potentially sold property on the hope that the land description provides some details on the previous owners of the property and that the land was obtained through an inheritance and not a purchase from outside the family. Primogeniture was abolished in Virginia on 1 January 1786. Had any son who heired property from Sarah’s husband died before that date, two-thirds of Sarah’s son’s property would have automatically passed to his oldest son in the same fashion–potentially without any document to “prove” the transfer. I may have to actually track down when a grandchild transfers property, hoping that the deed’s description of the property provides information regarding previous owners. This may not be for decades (or even longer) after Sarah’s death.
Witness Benjamin Hawkins?
One of the witnesses to the will of Sarah Turbervile is Benjamin Hawkins, Junr. This Benjamin Hawkins is likely related to Sarah’s own daughter Sarah Hawkins. Witnesses were not supposed to be potential heirs of the estate, however. In this case, Sarah Hawkins’ inheritance from her mother consisted of the mother’s clothes and a book of sermons by William Beveridge. Sarah Hawkins’ husband would have “control” over any property she heired during their marriage. However, a book of sermons might not have been high on his list of priorities. And hopefully the use of women’s clothing was low on his priority list also. So there is the potential that the inheritance his wife received from her mother might not have been considered material enough to cause concern.
The Benjamin Hawkins, Junr. could easily have been a grandchild of Sarah Turbervile. My working hypothesis is that Sarah is at least sixty at her death. Even if she had been as young as her fifties, Sarah could easily have had grandchildren in their mid-twenties, easily old enough to qualify as a witness to a legal document.
However, I’m going to work on the assumption that the witness is not the husband of Sarah Hawkins, but perhaps is somehow related to her. Remember witnesses solely witnessed a person sign or make their mark on the document. That and nothing more. I won’t ignore the names of the witnesses on this document. I’ll keep them and pay attention to those who witness other documents located on Sarah’s family. It may be that the witnesses had been friends of the family for a long time. If Sarah’s family had not lived their whole life in Orange County, perhaps Sarah’s family had known some of the witnesses in areas where they had lived before moving to Orange County.
Later columns will return to Sarah, her husbands, and her children. For now, we’ll leave her in Orange County, Virginia, where her final resting place is unknown.