Wills. Although wills and bequests can spark fireworks within a family, they can also shed lots of light and insight on the culture prevalent when they were written.
That was made abundantly clear at the Tuesday, February 2019 DIHS meeting. Our speaker, Marianne Cawley of the Charleston County Library, shared some of those insights.
They ranged from the quirky…why were so many feather beds officially passed down in 17th and 18th century wills? Because a feather bed took 50 or more pounds of goose feathers and it could take years to accumulate enough for a bed. Ditto on why so much clothing was passed down with great detail. Fabric, particularly silk, was very expensive in colonial America and fine clothes were loosely stitched together with an eye toward subsequently taking them apart and turning them into new items.
On a level both profound and fundamental is how wills reveal the status of both slaves and women. The legal rights of both groups were severely limited.
Slaves were actually property and maintenance of the status quo was so important to Charleston’s social/political structure that there were severe limitations on how/when slaves could be freed. An owner’s death frequently resulted in slaves being sold and families being broken up.
Women had some (fewer than white males) rights when single but a married woman was totally subservient to her husband and had no rights to own property. This led to convoluted wills regarding property rights (both real estate and slaves) since a widow who remarried ceded everything inherited from a deceased spouse under the legal control of her new husband.