A Life Estate in They Were Her Property”

I’m reading “They Were Her Property” by Stephanie Jones-Rogers. The 2019 release by Yale University Press discusses white women’s involvement in the US slave trade and covers the period before and after the US Civil War. It contains an in-depth discussion of white women slaveowners in the 18th and 19th centuries. The portion of the book after the Civil War focuses on the adjustments these women had to make after slavery was abolished. It is an interesting and enlightening piece of historical writing from a perspective one does not usually see and it provides an eye-opening documentation of white women’s active involvement in slave ownership in the United States.

Jones-Rogers uses a variety of documents familiar to genealogists: probate files, court records, deeds, manumissions, and other local court records as a rich source upon which to draw examples. While the book’s message and main point is about white women’s involvement in slavery, it also provides the reader with insight into how women’s property rights–at least in some families–were preserved even after their marriage using the legal maneuverings available in the 18th and 19th century. Families with the means (or the knowledge) were able to structure property ownership in such ways as to “keep in the family,” “give the women some autonomy financially,” and shield it from creditors of a husband with poor financial skills.

I’m only about one-third of the way through the book and this is not meant to be a review. There was a phrase on page thirty that caught my attention:

They also imposed limits on the amount of time their female kin could hold property, usually granting them “life estates” that accorded them ownership for their lifetime after which the estates passed on to their children.

Jones-Rogers, Stephanie E., They Were Her Property, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2019, page 30.

Jones-Roger’s book is not a legal dictionary or a legal work and genealogists reading it to get some insight into their own family’s legal documents need to remember that. Historians generally are writing about macro trends and patterns while genealogy is history and the law at the micro level. The historian necessarily summarizes details to garner a larger picture. That large perspective is good for the genealogist to have, but the researcher needs to bear in mind that family history research is about the minor details of the larger historical narrative that are major details in the life of the individuals genealogists research.

A life estate granted to a female actually is not so much about the “time” a female could own property. It is about what she could do with that property in which she had been granted a life estate. She could use it and receive income from it, but selling, mortgaging, transferring it, etc. could not be done. The “life” nature of the life estate means that she had the use and income rights during her life time.

Whether it went to her children after her death would depend upon the document that granted her the life estate in the property. The grantor (original owner) of the property in cases such as these typically did indicate that after the recipient of the life estate died it was to go to her children. But they did not have to do that. The remaindermen (one who receives property after the person to whom the life estate was granted dies) could be anyone the original grantor chose.

Jones-Rogers book is an engaging read intended to shed light on an aspect of slavery in the United States that is not often discussed. Because of its subject matter, it is also an engaging read for those with female ancestors–particularly in the southern United States–even if those ancestors were not slave owners. Families that did not hold slaves also occasionally performed legal maneuverings to prevent an errant son-in-law from squandering his wife’s inheritance.

They Were Her Property” is giving me additional perspective in the life of my Southern ancestors.


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