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Dower Slaves

When I was in fifth grade, our class was given a homework assignment to write down as many homonyms as we could each think of, and a week later, our teacher combined our efforts on the blackboard. As a class, we produced over one-hundred different homonyms. The list was impressive, containing words (some with obvious parental help) such as “jeans” and “genes.” One pair of homonyms none of us had come up with was “dour” and “dower."

We’re all familiar with the term “dowry,” which means, “a transfer of property or money, by parents to their daughter, at the time of the daughter’s marriage.” This practice was common in  Ancient Babylonia, Greece, Rome, India, China, Europe, and The Americas, and is still widely practiced throughout South Asia (e.g. India), the Middle East (Serbia et al), and North Africa (Egypt). 

There’s also dowery’s extension: “dowager,” which means, “a widow owning property from her deceased husband,” as in, “She was a wealthy dowager,” or “queen dowager” such as Mary, Queen of Scots, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and even the character Clarisse, played by Julie Andrews in the 2001 film, “The Princess Diaries.”

The word “dower” means, “a widow’s share, for life, of her husband’s estate.” It is provided for in the marital contract, by law, or both. The property a widow inherits is her dower. “Black’s Law Dictionary” (1891-) is the most widely read legal dictionary in the USA, often cited by The Supreme Court as a second legal authority in their decisions. It details numerous types of “dower,” seemingly ad infinitum and certainly ad nauseam, making me thankful I never went to law school.

All of these words discussed so far have been nouns; “dower” is also an adjective - which brings us to Martha Custis, the future Martha Washington, who married George Washington in 1759. 

Custis’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis (1711-1757), owned 27-acres of property, and 285 slaves - men, women, and children - making him one of the wealthiest men in the Virginia Colony. Since Daniel Custis died without a will, Martha received a “dower share” of his estate by law: one-third of the property and slaves, termed “dower slaves” (the other two-thirds were reserved for her two surviving children when they came of age).

Fortunately, all 285 of Daniel Custis’s slaves remained in the same family, as George Washington became executor of that estate in 1759 (agreeing to raise Martha’s two children at Mount Vernon). During their marriage, George used Martha’s great wealth to continue purchasing property and slaves, and at the time of his 1799 death, there were 317 enslaved people living at Mount Vernon:

  • 153 dower slaves owned by Martha (the law said that the children of any female dower slaves were also dower slaves, no matter who the fathers were - remember this a few paragraphs from now)
  • 123 owned by George
  •   41 owned by neither Martha nor George - many of these were rented from other owners to work at Mount Vernon.

Now things get more complicated: George Washington left directions in his will to emancipate his 123 slaves after the death of Martha Washington (Martha died in 1802). However, by law, neither George nor Martha could free any of Martha’s 153 dower slaves - upon Martha’s death, they were to be returned to the Custis estate and divided among her four grandchildren (both of Martha’s Custis two children were already deceased).

Not surprisingly, Martha Washington did not feel safe with 123 of George’s slaves living at Mount Vernon, essentially waiting for her death to obtain their freedom. This fear led her to sign a “deed of manumission” (i.e., “release from slavery”), which would emancipate George’s 123 slaves as of Jan 1, 1801.

Another terrible complication: In their 40 years of marriage, many of George Washington’s 123 slaves married and/or had children with Martha’s 153 dower slaves, resulting in children who would eventually have one free parent, and one slave parent who would be dispersed among Martha’s four grandchildren. If the children’s mothers were dower slaves, the children would be dispersed as well; if the children’s mothers were George’s slaves, the children wouldn’t be dispersed. Aside from slaves being property, no different than a piece of furniture, there were at least three events which divided up slave families:

  • when Martha’s son, John “Jacky” Custis, got married on Feb 3, 1774 and left Mount Vernon, taking the two-thirds share of his father’s non-dower slaves with him
  • when Martha freed George’s 123 slaves on Jan 1, 1801
  • when Martha died on May 22, 1802, and her 153 dower slaves were divided among her four grandchildren

Even though John “Jacky” Custis died in 1781, he died intestate (i.e., “without a will”), and his estate wasn’t fully resolved until the 1811 death of his widow, when *her* 600 dower slaves were divided up among their four children (George and Martha Washington’s grandchildren).

U.S. Interstate 66 is nicknamed the “Custis Memorial Parkway” east of the Beltway, in Fairfax County, Virginia, and remains so until it reaches the DC border. At the time of the American Revolution, in the middle of this story, over 40% of Fairfax County residents were black slaves, including the Custis dower slaves at Mount Vernon. Perhaps it's time to rethink the nickname of this section of I-66.

This article is dedicated to each of the Custis dower slaves.

Further reading:

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