Dower Share, Dowry & Dower Rights

The following article is by my friend, William Dollarhide:

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No. 10: Work from the known to the unknown. In other words, just because your name is Washington doesn’t mean you are related to George.

Martha Dandridge was the oldest daughter of John and Frances (Jones) Dandridge, born June 2, 1731, on a plantation near Williamsburg, Virginia. Typical for a girl raised in a well-off 18th-century family, her home-tutored schooling was in the basics, but heavy in the domestic and social skills required for keeping a well-ordered plantation household. In 1749, Martha was a girl of 18, about five feet tall, dark-haired, and gentle of manner. That year she married Daniel Parke Custis, one of the wealthiest men in colonial Virginia. Two babies died and two were hardly past infancy when her husband died in 1757.

Dower Share
Upon her husband’s demise, Martha received a Dower Share, the lifetime use of (and income from) one-third of his estate, with the other two-thirds held in trust for their minor children. Martha’s dower share included at least 85 of the total 285 slaves held by Custis at the time of his death, and over 5,700 acres of the total 17,300 acres in the Custis plantations and farms in five Virginia counties. Two years later, at the age of 28, the dowager widow Martha (Dandridge) Custis married a former military officer and surveyor named George Washington, age 27.

Martha (Dandridge) Custis was perhaps the richest widow living in colonial Virginia in 1759, but when she married George Washington, she gave up control of her entire estate to her new husband. Two weeks after their marriage, George officially put his wife on allowance — from the same money that used to be hers. The property that Martha brought into the marriage with George was her Dowry, which, under English Common Law, was any money, goods, or estate owned by the wife. In the case of a maiden bride, the dowry could be in the form of a gift to the groom from the bride’s family. In the case of a widow who had property (her Dower Share), that property became her Dowry, and was automatically transferred to her new husband’s name. This dowry practice was followed in colonial Virginia well into the federal period of the 19th century, a carry-over from the plantations of southwest England, where most of the earliest landed Virginia people had derived. Essentially, a married woman could not own property in her own name.

At the time of his marriage to Martha (Dandridge) Custis, George Washington was a well-known Virginian, recently returned from service with the British Army during the French and Indian War. But George Washington had no property, and was still struggling to find a place in Virginia society. He had no property because he was not the oldest son in his family. That honor went to his older half-brother, Lawrence, who inherited the Washington family estate upon the death of their father, Augustine Washington, who died in 1743. The prevailing system of inheritance in colonial Virginia provided that the first-born son would inherit the entire estate, a system of inheritance known as primogeniture. Again, this was the practice followed in the plantations of southwest England and was continued in colonial Virginia well into the 19th century. George Washington’s entry into Virginia’s elite society came as a result of his marriage to Martha (Dandridge) Custis, who gave him a dowry of land and slaves – the prerequisites to become an English gentleman.

George managed to acquire and expand the Washington family estate, Mount Vernon, after his brother Lawrence died, but without the resources of his wife’s dowry, he would not have had that opportunity. Washington used his wife’s great wealth to buy slaves and land, tripling the size of Mount Vernon to over 8,000 acres over the years. But initially, the Custis estate was far greater than the Washington properties in size and value, and is what first gave George Washington the social standing and prestige of an English gentleman. It could be said that George Washington married very well indeed.

Dower Rights
After her marriage to George Washington, Martha may have lost her estate, but under English Common Law, she gained rights specific to a married woman, including the legal right to stop any land sale George Washington may have decided to do on his own. The Dower Rights of a married woman was another of the practices of colonial Virginia, as well as the rest of the English colonies. Dower rights were a protection to a wife so she would not be left out of her husband’s wealth after his death. Upon the death of a husband, a widow was entitled to one-third of her husband’s estate, thus her Dower Rights (as a wife) became her Dower Share (as a widow), often referred to as the Widow’s Third. The oldest son would inherit the entire property, but one-third of the estate was held in trust in the name of the widow, who could legally derive equity, rents, or income from her portion. After her death, her Dower Share would revert back to the heir.

Martha’s first experience with the Widow’s Third rule was after the death of her first husband. Because the legal heirs to the Custis estate were underage, Martha gained management control of the entire estate. Incomes from two-thirds of the Custis properties, however, were held in trust for the minor children of Daniel Park Custis. After her marriage to George Washington, Martha’s control of the entire Custis estate transferred to her new husband. George Washington became the manager of the entire Custis estate, but derived income only from Martha’s Dowry. George and Martha never had children, but they raised Martha’s two children, John Parke Custis and Martha (Patsy) Parke Custis, and also raised two grandchildren, Eleanor (Nellie) Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis, children of John Parke Custis, who had died during the Revolutionary War.

After the death of George Washington in 1799, Martha’s original Dower Share of the Custis estate was restored back to her control. That Custis Dower Share had grown to 153 slaves, and still included a sizeable amount of the original Custis estate properties. Washington’s will had specified that all of his slaves were to be freed after the death of his wife – but on her own, Martha freed all of the slaves one year after his death.

Martha Washington died at Mount Vernon in 1802, after which her Dower Share of the Custis estate was finally liquidated. Her only surviving grandchild, George Washington Parke Custis, turned 21 in 1802 and inherited the Custis estate of his father and grandfather, including Martha’s former Dower Share. G.W.P. Custis’ only surviving daughter, Mary Anna Custis, was to marry Robert E. Lee in 1831. Mary Anna Custis inherited land and property when G.W.P. Custis died in 1857, and title soon transferred to her husband. The Custis house and property from which the present Arlington National Cemetery was established still stands today. Arlington House is famously known as the family home of Robert E. Lee, but in fact, Arlington House was erected and named by a Custis grandson of Martha Washington.

Find the Deeds
Because of the English Common Law practice of Dower Rights for a married woman, a genealogist can locate land records that name a husband and wife in the same document. Deeds and other real estate transactions are often mundane genealogical sources – except in special cases of the division of property from a probate of an estate, where the names of heirs may be mentioned – deeds are usually stale legal documents, simply showing the transfer of ownership of property from one man to another. However, because of the Dower Rights of a wife, whose name is mentioned in the deed, they take on a very important role in genealogical discovery.

Deeds recording a land sale for a man would mention the name of the man’s wife, because she had veto power over the sale of the land — that is, she had a legal interest in his property because of her dower rights. As an example, deeds in which dower rights are involved might mention the sellers of land as “John Henry Brown and wife Jane” as the grantees involved in the sale. Jane was mentioned by name only because she had dower rights on the property. In many cases, the accompanying papers in a deed case will have a record of an interview with the wife attesting that she was in favor of the sale.

Since deeds are universally available for longer periods of time than any other court record, they provide the best tool for finding the place where an ancestor lived. Land deeds are recorded at the county court level, except in three New England states (Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont) where they are recorded at the town level. In Alaska, which has no counties, deeds are recorded at the state district court level. In each courthouse, the index to deeds, variously called a Grantee-Grantor Index, Direct-Indirect Index, or simply Index to Real Estate Conveyances, is the place to find out if an ancestor ever bought or sold land in that jurisdiction.

A common problem in genealogy is finding the county where an ancestor lived. Census records often give us the name of the state of birth only. So, for this problem, I have learned to check the deed indexes first. Even if you have to look through deed books for many counties, this exercise is the quickest way to find which is the right county of residence. There are no other court records that are as complete as deeds. And, understanding the concepts of dower share, dowry and dower rights will help you find the names of both the husband and wife.

Dollarhide’s Genealogy Rule No.11: With any luck, some of the people in your family could read and write . . . and may have left something written about themselves.

For Further Reading:

Check out Dollarhide’s earlier article: “If He Owned Land, There’s a Deed

E. Wade Hones Land & Property Research in the United States

Kyle Betit’s Researching American Land Records

Genealogy at a Glance: Virginia Genealogy Research; by Carol McGinnis

Research in Virginia – NGS Research in the States Series – Second Edition; By Eric G. Grundset

Virginia Genealogical Research; by George K. Schweitzer Ph.D, Sc.D.

Virginia Genealogy – Sources & Resources; by Carol McGinnis

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