What was she thinking?  Was there a reason for Elizabeth Hancock, a young widow, to be concerned about the safety of her assets as she anticipated her marriage to David Gurganus?  Or was she simply following the recommendations of well meaning or possibly even slightly suspicious associates?  Was she really worried about the possibility of the  “indiscretion of her intended husband?”  As I searched to learn more about David Gurganus, son of David and Mary (Swain) Gurganus, I came across the following among Edgefield, South Carolina Equity Court records:

“That the said Simon Hancock departed this life intestate sometime during the latter part of the year one thousand eight hundred and twenty eight, leaving his wife and children in the possession of the said property.  That Eliza Hancock his widow afterward to wit on or about the sixth day of May in the year one thousand eight hundred and twenty nine in contemplation of an intermarriage with the said David Gurganus made and executed a deed of trust to your orator John Day with a view of protecting her property against any indiscretion of her intended husband.”

It’s hard to put myself in the place of a young widow with three children and it is equally difficult to imagine what her concerns and fears might have been in 1829.  By all appearances,  her deceased husband had left her with considerable property and the annual returns reveal a widow that continued to live a very comfortable lifestyle, frequently traveling to Augusta, Georgia to shop.  But there would have been concerns beyond financial stability for a young widow in that time period, not the least of which was safety. In addition, neither widows nor widowers relished the idea of rearing children alone and as was frequently seen in those times,  Elisabeth remarried less than a year following her husband’s death.

For reasons not expressed in court documents, David did in fact begin to sell her properties following their marriage and they prepared to leave the state.  My suspicions are that they were preparing for the move to Cass County, Georgia that was mentioned in my previous post.  In any case, it did not sit well with John Day who had been entrusted with protecting Elizabeth’s property against any indiscretion.

On 10 Oct 1834 a bill filed against David Gurganus:

“Your orator John Day further shows unto your honors that he declined to accept of the trust unless the said David Gurganus should be apprised of the said tract deed and thereupon the said David Gurganus was fully apprised of said deed and was present when it was executed.  And the said David Gurganus and Eliza Hancock were shortly afterward married.  The said David Gurganus since by said intermarriage has sold, disposed of or squandered nearly all the property specified in said deeds, except the land, and Negroes and is now, as your orator John Day is informed upon good authority and very believes, preparing to remove from the state and intends to set off in a few days and carry with him the said Negroes.”

From that point on, there was a flurry of documents filed and testimony given as to who knew what when and to what extent Eliza had been party to the sale.  Although there had been the required dowers release, she may not necessarily have been in full agreement of her own free will and choice as the release would otherwise imply. In addition, there was a question as to what extent Eliza had had authority regarding the children’s shares and as to whether David and Eliza had received  full value on the sale of the properties. The court battle began in 1834, continued after David returned “home” following his time served in the Milledgeville Penitentiary (previous post here), and extended into the year 1845, when the kids were of age to have received their share of their father’s estate.

As I read through the court documents, it was difficult to discern the truth, to wade through the accusations and testimonies from a variety of individuals to determine what really happened.  Did David become greedy or were there personal issues and biases that existed among Eliza’s family and those entrusted with the watch care over her family’s inheritance?  To what extent did Eliza’s children resent a step-father that had influence over their mother?  But there were there indications that Eliza was in agreement regarding the transactions and that no more than her share had been sold.  As I read through the documents, I couldn’t help but feel that just maybe David was not such a bad guy, but that instead he was caught in the middle of a squabble in which he was the outsider.  Perhaps even the initial filing against “indiscretions of her intended husband,” were not indications of her suspicions as much as strong recommendations from the protective friends of her deceased husband.

In the end, it’s not surprising that David and Eliza decided to take their children Willis, Moses, Frances, Mary and David and move from Edgefield,  leaving behind the persistent legal troubles that had plagued them for over 10 years. Initially they settled in Hamilton County, Florida and were living there in 1850. Once again,  David’s  distinguishing occupation of “blacksmith” helped me to locate him and Eliza. The final document that I have for David is a census record for the 12th day of July, 1870 in Lake City, Columbia County, Florida.  I assume that Elizabeth had died by then as David was living with their yet unmarried daughter, Frances.  David was listed as 62 years old and a blacksmith. Whether Eliza had initially had reservations about David or not, she chose to remain with him through years of emotionally trying court battles, to wait for him as he served time in a prison miles away from home in another state, and then moved with him to Florida, leaving behind her extended family and friends. Whatever others may have seen that concerned them about David, it seems that Elizabeth saw enough good that she remained with him for over thirty years.

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6 thoughts on “What was she thinking?

  1. What a challenge it has been for you to wade through all that material, in the hopes of absorbing the sense of the true situation. Between the court battles and reasons for Eliza's decisions, I keep thinking that finding a way to gain a sense of cultural mores of the time would provide more context. The court proceedings–at least those at first–may be no different than the formalities we now call prenuptial agreements. Perhaps social pressures, once she moved, kept her from leaving her husband. After all, where would such a woman go in those days?

    Unfortunately, from what you've found in documents so far, there hasn't been much to guide you in drawing conclusions of a personal nature. Frustrating.

    Or, maybe you already know more 😉

  2. If you haven't already, you might consider reading _Women and the Law of Property in Early America_ by Marylynn Salmon, which details not only how women were treated under the law (in a broad sense) but how those views changed over time.

  3. I have had some of those same thoughts, Jacqi. My first thought was that I had never run across any sort of a "prenup" in that time period, but then I realized that I had really never had that exact situation before either, with a wealthy widow marrying a man that didn't appear to even own any land. (at least before his marriage I have not found any evidence of him owning land.)

    There are always so many questions. I initially started out to tell the entire story—but as I once again revisited the stacks of documents, I realized that it would probably take the remainder of the year in posts just to try and explain it all. The issues and various court appearances all became so complicated. So I opted to essentially take the skipping rock approach (envision a rock skipping over the surface of a lake) and hit a couple of the points with the idea that it might be enough for anyone who desired to know more should they choose to pursue it further. About half way through this post, I thought "what have I gotten myself into." Probably a good lesson to look down the road a little more before I begin something difficult to finish. (big sigh!) Live and learn.

  4. Thanks Dawn. I do own that book, along with "Inheritance in American" by Carola Shamma, Marylynn Salmon, and Michael Dahlin, but it's probably time I revisited them. It was interesting because years ago I assumed some things about this case, but when I returned to it most recently I realized that I now see it with different eyes somewhat, basically because of what I have learned over time about a few of the individuals involved. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. The shady characters are the good and the bad of it. Truthfully they leave so much behind in court records, it helps me to find the families and piece some things together. Thanks for your comments!

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