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Exploring a Virginia widow's 18th century gender, family relationships

  • Mrs. Preston's home
    Mrs. Preston's home  Smithfield Plantation in Blacksburg was left to Susanna Smith Preston following her husband's death in 1783, provided she adhered to certain guidelines.  Courtesy Eve Bourbeau-Allard
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They were late 18th century Virginia backcountry aristocracy, owners of massive plantations that spread into what now is West Virginia and more slaves – around 40 – than anyone in Montgomery County.

When William Preston died in 1783, his wife and the mother of his 12 children – Susanna Smith Preston – was not named executor of his will. That distinction went to two of Preston’s sons and two other male kinsmen. That was typical of the times. If a husband had a very large estate, the odds were overwhelming that his wife was not going to be named executor.

What was not typical, and what graduate student Eve Bourbeau-Allard has uncovered through painstaking research that continues on, is the manner in which Mrs. Preston dealt with that, and numerous other restrictions faced by 18th century widows. Bourbeau-Allard’s work, entitled "A Widow's Purview: A Microhistory of Gender and Family Relations in the 18th-Century Virginia Backcountry," began in September.

Her work thus far is so compelling that she will receive the Market Access International Corporate Award during the College of Arts & Sciences Graduate Research Symposium, which opens today at William & Mary’s Sadler Center. In addition, Bourbeau-Allard, a 2014 graduate of McGill University in Montreal, will make a 15-minute presentation to those in attendance.

“I was speechless,” she said when asked her reaction to the award, which carries a $1,000 prize. “It was especially surprising to me because I was competing with people from (many) other fields. To me it felt very humbling, also encouraging, that I could produce research that was seen as very worthwhile.”

The first-year master’s student in the Department of History always knew she wanted to study women’s history. While touring historic sites across Virginia, she came to Smithfield Plantation in Blacksburg, the seat of the Preston family. The more she learned of the achievements of the Preston men, the more she longed to tell the other side, the story of the woman who managed the estate for 40 years following her husband’s death.

“I discovered that there were very complex family and gender relations at play,” she said. “I thought that looking at a specific case like this allowed me to look at women’s positions in society and their economic role in the 18th century in Virginia.”

Because letters written by Susanna are extremely rare, Bourbeau-Allard has been forced to cobble together the details of her life using her husband’s will, letters between family members, court records, account ledgers and tax records.

“Sources on women’s history are sometimes very limited,” she said. “Much of the papers are focused on the Preston men, who were surveyors, militia men, politicians. Many of the Preston sons served in the Virginia Legislature, were active in political life. We tend to associate women with the household, but Susanna signed so many orders to her plantation overseer.Eve Bourbeau-Allard

”She was saying things like, ‘I want so many crops to be allocated to (this) person.’ We do have a sense of her acting outside in the community, which is very interesting.”

Looking at just one portion of William Preston’s will illustrates how an 18th century widow’s life could be manipulated. According to the Smithfield Plantation website, Susanna was left the use and profits of all of her husband's plantations, slaves and stock -- if she remained single and supervised the rearing and education of their children, particularly their daughters.

“William's will is very detailed and intricate, which for me makes it all the more interesting to look at in order to investigate how family members, including women, had to cooperate to manage such a large estate,” Bourbeau-Allard said. “Yes, she was involved in the education of her children, both daughters -- and sons.

“I have evidence of sons writing to her to ask for money for tuition, and a letter exchanged among two of her sons discussing the plans that Susanna made for which academy and college another son should attend  -- an example of the detective work I have to do, looking at all family letters because so few were written by Susanna herself.”

In addition, the will stated that Susanna would distribute the estate’s slaves to the children as they reached adulthood, or as they married. It was to be done with the consent and advice of the executors of the estate.

“An interesting gender dynamic,” she said. “But what I found is that Susanna held on to a lot of the estate slaves for a longer time than prescribed. She only slowly allocated the slaves to her children. Instead, she was renting them, selling them, using some of the slaves’ labor to grow crops on the plantation. She had her own ideas as to the management of the estate.”

In spite of the authority she wielded during the 40 years she lived after her husband’s death, there were areas of her life where the men of the family took the lead. Bourbeau-Allard found instances where her sons went to stores to pay bills for goods for her usage. There were other recorded incidents of her sons appearing in court to settle issues involving their mother.

“When I started my project I was really focused on how limited she was in range of action,” she said. “I was not seeing the extent of the agency she had. As I was digging deeper and finding other sources, I understood that it was not all black and white. What I’m hoping with this case study is to nuance it a little bit, to show that in daily lives it was possible for women to go beyond the expectations placed on their gender.”