Divorce is no small matter, particularly in 1835. In the United States, it wasn't until well into the twentieth century that divorce became somewhat less stigmatized, although divorces in general still favored men over women. Women were, throughout history, left to bear the brunt of social stigmatization over divorce and other matrimonial troubles. It was usually seen as a woman's duty to ensure the happiness of her household, and for rich women, the burden was especially high. More was a stake in a marriage between two wealthy families than was for more common families.
Exploring the intricacies of marriage in the 19th century would fill dozens of blog posts, so if you want to read more, check out this lecture, written by Hendrik A. Hartog of the University of Wisconsin Law School entitled Marital Exits and Marital Expectations in Nineteenth Century America.
While digging through the Clarke County deed books, we once again found some intrigue - record of the divorce in 1835 of John W Byrd and his young wife Mary F Page, the second daughter of Ann Meade Randolph Page of Annfied. Seeing written evidence of a divorce this early in the century is intriguing enough, but reading further, the questions grow.
Clarke County Deed Book a:111-113
It starts out innocently enough claiming "a state of things has arisen between the said John W Byrd and Mary F Byrd his wife which makes it indispensably necessary that there shall be an immediate and permanent separation between them." Keep reading and a few lines down you discover "Mary F Byrd hath recently payed sureties of the peace against the said John W Byrd." Paying sureties of peace is a serious act - it's essential security money put down by one party to ensure the good behavior of the other, and is usually resorted to when it is believed the second party will do something to disrupt the peace. Put simply, Mary was afraid of whatever John was doing in retaliation for her pursuit of a separation. What exactly was going on, we don't know, but it seems to have been pretty serious.
Further down, we read that in exchange for Mary dropping the potential charges surrounding the need for a surety of peace, he is relinquishing his rights to their two children, Courtney and Mathewella. This is hugely important, and highly suggestive that whatever John was doing was very problematic. Common practice upon any kind of separation between husband and wife in this period was for the wife to lose everything - children, property, respectability, etc. But in this case, Mary is retaining her children, and if you read farther down, a bit of property as well. John does get to keep the house, the slaves, the farm, and most objects in the house, but Mary gets control of some land and slaves when she reaches her majority (she's not yet 21).
At present, we don't know any more about the story, and unfortunately, it ends with cruel irony - both John and Mary's tombstones record that they were husband and wife, and do not reflect the separation. Mary died in 1837, two years after this event, of causes unknown, while John died in 1864. Both are interred in Old Chapel Cemetery in Clarke County.
These articles of one agreement made this 3rd day of august 1835 by and among John W Byrd of the first part Mary F Byrd his wife of the second part and David Meade of the third part witness that whereas a state of things has arisen between the said John W Byrd and Mary F Byrd his wife which makes it indispensably necessary that there shall be an immediate and permanent separation between them. And whereas the said Mary F Byrd hath recently payed sureties of the peace against the said John W Byrd which matter is now a course of of prosecution, but she the said Mary F Byrd hath agreed to abandon the further prosecution of the same in consideration of the agreement on contract evidenced by this writing. Now it is agreed by the parties as follows
1st the said John W Byrd and Mary F Byrd mutually agree to an immediate and permanent separation and to a dissolution so far as this contract can dissolve them of the ties that bind them together as husband and wife.
2nd John W Byrd on his part in consideration of the dismission of the prosecution aforesaid and of the other stipulations herein after contained covenants to and with the said David Meade trustee that he will not retract to any legal steps for the assention of his paternal rights to the custody and maintenance of the two children Courtney Bodwoin and Mathewella Page Byrd of the said John W Byrd and Mary F Byrd and that he will not in any manner interfere with the Education or bringing up of the said children, or seek access to them but gives up to the said Mary F Byrd the custody and safe keeping nurture and educating of the said children fully absolutely and finally.
3rd the said David Meade trustee and the said Mary F Byrd covenant with the said John W Byrd that she the said Mary F Byrd with support and bring up and educate the said Courtney Bowdoin and Mathewella Page Byrd her children and with indemnity him the said John W Bird against all charges in that matter.
4th it is agreed by the parties that the said John W Byrd shall retain in his possession and as his own to all intents and purposes all the slaves acquired by him by his marriage with the said Mary F Byrd except three old slaves named Judy Franky and Jenny and their other slaves named John Katy and Ariana which said slaves VVZ Lucy Franky Jenny John Katy and Ariana he hereby bargains and sells to the said David Meade trustee to have and to hold the same in trust for the sole and separate use of the said Mary F Byrd during the life of the said John W Byrd if he shall live so long and after his death to the use of the said Mary F Byrd .
5th it is further agreed by the parties that the said John W Byrd shall retain in his possession and as his own to all intents and purposes all the other personal property on the Farm he now resides on belonging to the said Mary F Byrd, except some articles of household furniture which are specific in a schedule hereto annexed but he the said John W Byrd is to pay to David Meade the late guardian of the Said Mary F Byrd the debt due to the said David Meade as guardian for which the said John W Byrd hath given his obligation.
6th and whereas the said John W Byrd with a view to make provision in part for the payment of the said debt did sometime since contract to sell and did sell to Francis O Byrd Esq a small parcel on Tract of Land the property of the said Mary F Byrd it is further agreed that the said F O Byrd on receiving a deed of conveyance for the said parcel or tract of land duly execute at once or presently by the said John W Byrd and by the said Mary F Byrd when she shall arrive at full age in March 1836 shall pay the purchase money of said tract of and to writ to the said David Meade late guardian as aforesaid with interest from this date. But this stipulation is not to interfere with the right of the said David Meade to sue for the residue of said debt having first given credit on John W Byrds bound obligation for the amount of said purchase money with interest from this date and the said Mary F Byrd and the David Meade trustee covenant to and with the said John W Byrd that she the said Mary F Byrd will as soon as she arrives at full age execute a deed of bargain and sale conveying the said tract or parcel of land to the said Francis O Byrd his heirs assigns for ever.
7th and the said John W Byrd in consideration of the Remedies doth hereby bargain and sale a lien and confine to the said David Meade as suritee for the said Mary F Byrd all his right title interest claim and demand as husband of the said Mary F Byrd and as tenant by the curtsey inchoate in an d to the property real and personal in [illegible] Reversion or remainder of the said Mary F Byrd and more especially his life interest in the real estate with the exception herein before made and expressly to have and to hold the same in trust for the sole and separate use of the said Mary F Byrd until the death of the said John W Byrd if he shall so long live and if she shall depart this life before the decease of the said John W Byrd to the use of such person or persons as she shall devise the same to by her last will and testament and if she shall die intestate before the death of the said John W Byrd to the use of her heirs and [illegible]: and lastly if she shall survive the said John W Byrd to the use of the said Mary F Byrd to whom in that event the said trustees to convey the same.
8th but the conveyance, hereby made by the said John W Byrd of all his interests in the real estate of the said Mary F Byrd is made with a reservation of a right to the said John W Byrd to occupy the real estate and furnish the cultivation of his farm crop until the 31 of December, occupying the dwelling houses and all the families except [illegible words] which is to be occupied by the trustee, By the said John W Byrd is not to sow a fall crop on said land, and the said trustee has and reserves the right of sowing down the corn ground and fallowing any part of the farm, he may think proper for the benefit of the said Mary F Byrd and the said John W Byrd is to surrender quiet and peaceable possessions of the said tract of land to the said trustee on the 31st December next.
9th and the said parties severally covenant each with the other, that they will at any time when called upon to execute all other and further deeds which may be necessary and proper to carry into full effect this agreement the articles or heads of which are herein before set forth.
Melanie is the current archivist for the Clarke County Historical Association, in Berryville, Virginia. She is a graduate from Shepherd University, where she earned a degree in History.