Sunday, September 21, 2014

Getting Outta Debt, the Colonial Way

I just wanted to see how many people would visit this blog with the most popular subject line on the net, Getting Out Of Debt, hahaha. Sorry folks for the laughter at your expense, I truly didn't mean it. But this blog IS about a woman getting out of debt, just a little dated is all.

I am quite certain this wouldn't work today but many generations ago, from the Puritan era to the late colonial era(ca. 1790), some types of women could get out of debt easy enough if they had "daring-do".

A Colonial smock-Courtesy of
It started in Old England with the custom of Smock marriages brought over by the English settlers of New England. Widows were often the women who chose to enter into a Smock Marriage, sometime called Shift Marriages. By todays standards, they would be considered overly dressed, but during the early days of New England immigration, women wouldn't be seen without their caps on their heads, let along a ragged, loose-fitting over-garment called a smock and nothing else. A smock was worn by all women during this period, much like a summer dress, protecting her clothes from her everyday work such as cooking, cleaning and oftentimes, butchering. At times, a shift was worn, which essentially was an undergarment of the same material and coverage.

In a nutshell, a woman would don her smock, wait until nightfall, usually around midnight, and cross a major "highway" a few times and be wedded by a minister. It was best for this ceremony to occur at the intersection of three roads, but because here in New England, settlements were few and far between, a two road intersection was appropriate. And if your settlement didn't have but one road, then that was deemed sufficient. The best possible scenario for a shift/smock marriage was at the crossroads of four major thoroughfares. Such was the case in Rhode Island, at the intersection of Slocum and Stony Fort Roads where three towns met, Exeter, North Kingstown and South Kingstown. This intersection was referred to for many generations as Shift corners.
this practice began, as mentioned, in early Mother England. Some have speculated that by having a woman show up in nothing but her shift/smock, she brings nothing to the marriage, no money or debt. If a wealthy widow had inherited some money from her previous marriage, she would still agree to a smock marriage, having the groom agree that he would accept her the way she was before her inheritance and/or she was willing to give up claim to her property for this marriage. During this time, husbands automatically took claim to a woman's property at marriage. This type of marriage also absolved the groom to be of nay debts from a previous husband as well.
                                                   A colonial shift- Courtesy of

From the Vital Records of Barnstable, Massachusetts:
"Nathan Noyes & Mehitable Bangs wid: Sept 20 1750 ye Bride Setting
in ye Bed ye Bridegroom Declared before ye witnesses present that
he took her in her Shift as She was, having never Received
anything of her former Husbands Estate nor expecting to Receive
Any and that he would not pay any of ye debts of it - This
Returned on ye Back of ye Certificate Pr Mr Green Attest David
Crocker Town Clerk."

Here are but a few more examples of just such marriages:


"On March 11, 1717, did Phillip Shearman Take the Widow Hannah Clarke in her Shift, without any other Apparel, and let her across the Highway, as the Law directs in such Cases and was then married according to law by me. William Hall, Justice"

"There is an ancient registration book of births, deaths, and marriages at the handsome new town Thomas Calverwell was joyned in marriage to Abigail Claverwell his wife the 22, February, 1719-20. Hi took her in marriage after she had gone four times across the highway in only her shift and hairlace and no other clothing, Joyned together in marriage by me. Geo. Hazard, Justice."

" In 1780, David Lewis married at Hopkinton, Widow Jemima Hill, "where four roads meet," at midnight, she being dressed only in her shift. This was to avoid payment of Husband Hill's debts. Ten years later, in a neighboring town, Richmond, still in the South county, Widow Sarah Collins appeared in the twilight in a long shift, a special wedding shift covering her to her feet, and was then and thus married to Thomas Kenyon at Hopkinton."


"To all People whom It May Concern. This Certifies that Nathanell Bundy of Westerly took ye Widow Mary Parmenter of sd. town on ye highway with no other clothing but shifting or smock on ye Evening of ye 20 day of April, 1724, and was joined together in that honorable Estate of matrimony in ye presence of John Sander, justice."



Now if the bride to be was riddled with debt, the reason for her to cross the road at least three times was to ensure that any debt collector that may have been hiding, only to pounce on the groom and bride at the right moment, were around, he would surely show himself the first or second time. If she crossed the road three times and nobody showed up to collect, she was ready to marry.

There are many documented circumstances of this type of marriage being undertaken throughout New England as well as New York, even in the daytime. In order to preserve the meaning of this type of debt absolution, and nightfall couldn't wait, then another type of smock marriage was performed.

A bride to be simply hide in a closet and extended her hard through a curtain for the marriage ceremony. After, she was handed her wedding attire, dressed herself in this closet and joined in the festivities. This practice was used in the winter as well, although not all the time.

In the "History of Wells and Kennebunkport", there is recorded a smock married of widow Mary Bradley. She and the groom decided instead of a smock marriage in the home during a winter storm, they decided to do it the old fashioned way, outside. The minister felt so sorry for the bride that he removed his own coat and draped it around her


In the book "History of Eastern Vermont", there is a passage written of a marriage in Westminster, Vermont, in which the widow Lovejoy, nude and hiding in a chimney recess married Asa Averill.


Here is a rather odd example from 1784 Manhattan:

"One day a malefactor was to be executed on a gallows; but with a condition that if any woman, having nothing on but her shift, married the man under the gallows, his life was to be saved. This extraordinary privilege was claimed; a woman presented herself, and the marriage ceremony was performed."

Hannah Ward married Major Moses(b. 1741 in MA) Joy as she was sitting in her closet completely naked, with her hand stuck out a hole.

Early America saw more than a few of these, too. The most famous is Hannah Ward Taft, who married Major Moses Joy in 1790 at Vermont while completely naked. She stood in a closet with a hole cut in the door through which she could stick out her hand and take his. At least nobody saw her particular parts.


Here is a link to a story on Smock marriages from the Tryon Daily Bulletin of North Carolina, 1922.

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