By Grace Rozembajgier ’23
On November 14, 1816, Marie Pourciau entered the courtroom in Pointe Coupée Parish, Louisiana, seeking to divorce her husband and reclaim the property she had brought to the marriage. The case, lasting just over a year, mysteriously ended with Pourciau withdrawing her claim. Nonetheless, the nearly three handwritten pages of court documents capture the intricacies and struggles for Pourciau’s claim as she pursued what more Southern women sought at that time – the equitable dissolution of their marriages. The arc of Marie Pourciau’s 1816 legal petition for a separation from her husband reveals how the fall of eighteenth-century coverture led to female exertions of control in the home, as property owners, and in the courts.
Coverture stems from the European idea of “feme covert,” meaning that once a woman was married, her husband controlled the entirety of her legal status. In essence, this structure created societal pressure and emphasis on marriage. As Olwen Hufton describes in “Women, Work and Family,” since the husband carried the responsibility of his wife’s well-being, her “contribution at the moment of marriage was critical in the establishment of the new household.” (1). The dowry the wife would bring to the family contributed to the economic importance of marriage, as it determined who she could marry in terms of wealth and social status and the extent of her role within the household. Hufton explains, “the role of married…women in the family economy does not lend itself to easy generalization,” in that a woman was not necessarily confined to her “separate sphere” of domestic work, depending on her economic status (1). Women would often leave the house to find employment or, presumably the case with Marie Pourciau, take on the traditionally male role of slave-owner in their home. For Pourciau in particular, coverture continued to “clearly define…the differences between a single and married woman,” but greater access to legal options, such as divorce, gave women an escape from this “covered” lifestyle (2). As such, the early nineteenth century witnessed a gradual rise in divorce petitions like Pourciau’s, whose main grievance was that her husband was “unsupportable” (3). As women began to bring forth formal petitions in court, they did so not solely to obtain a divorce but, equally important, to maintain their independent wealth and status.
Marie Pourciau argues for the reclamation of two things in her divorce petition: her land and her slaves. As historian Sara Sundberg Brooks details in her article “Women and Property in Early Louisiana: Legal System at Odds,” Louisiana law during Pourciau’s time considered dowry property as “separate” from the husband’s property, giving her the legal right to reclaim the “full value” of her dowry if her marriage ended. Furthermore, Louisiana included both land and slaves in this “separate” property, allowing women to “possess…land, and the labor to work the land, at the end of a marriage” (4). In court, Pourciau could request either a total divorce or a divorce “of bed and board.” Opting for the latter, Pourciau demanded a legal separation, but still a continuance of her marriage. In other words, she could obtain her separate property, but she and her husband, Barthelemy Olinde, were still technically married, and therefore could not remarry, which would keep their assets separate (2). Widowed from her previous marriage to Charles Robillard, Pourciau brought significant land to her marriage with Olinde, nearly “five some half arpents [French acres] of land with the ordinary depth of 40 arpents,” which converts to approximately 157 acres, today (3). This sizable amount of land supports the assumption that Pourciau inherited a fairly well-to-do estate from Robillard. Widows in early America held proportional female financial power, as they could inherit assets from their husbands. In Point Coupée Parish alone, women possessed almost 20 percent of the probated wealth (5). Thus, Pourciau’s presumed economic standing presents her in a favorable position of her petition, as “elite, slaveholding women had a greater investment to appeal to the courts for help,” and had a greater success rate in doing so than their poorer counterparts (2). As such, her elevated social status most likely encouraged and promoted Pourciau to make a legal petition for separation from “bed & board.” Her act of reclaiming her land raised her petition from a request for a divorce to a method of exercising control of ownership over her property.
Perhaps the most interesting request made by Marie Pourciau is for the return of her slaves. Having brought six slaves to the marriage, Pourciau is established as a female slave owner and someone who wished to potentially continue this practice after the end of her marriage. Pourciau requests she not only maintain ownership over her original enslaved people but that the five children of one slave, Marguerite, be “considered as an extra-dotal effect” (3). Upon first reading, the term, “extra-dotal” may connote an emotional plea of attachment to these children, or perhaps even a maternal draw seen from white women influenced by the Enlightenment (6). In reality, “dotal” historically refers to dower property, positioning Pourciau’s claim as more economically than emotionally driven. This is not to say Pourciau had no connection with these children. According to accounts given by enslaved people in the pre-Civil War South, although all of the slaves were technically the property of the white male, their wives would exercise their domestic power by treating the slaves they brought to the marriage on different terms. For example, Sarah Davis from South Carolina would purposefully feed her slaves meat for breakfast and would not allow the children to work, while the same did not hold for her husbands’ slaves (7). Like the reading of “extra-dotal,” this differential treatment could be viewed as sympathetic and kind-hearted. But given the legal and economic restrictions female slave owners operated under during this time, this practice was an effective method of establishing domestic authority over their husbands and claiming their property independently (7). As scholar Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers concludes in her research on female slave-owners, “slave-owning women exercised…the right to do what one formerly enslaved man referred to as their ‘own bossing’” (7). For Southern white women in the early nineteenth century, the legal recognition of their status as slave owners empowered them in their domestic sphere. Yet, this empowerment came at the expense of others’ freedom. For Pourciau in particular, she claimed the right to her property – including both land and people – in her legal petition, projecting an outward sense of ownership and implying an internal practice of power.
Marie Pourciau’s petition is two-fold: first, demanding the rights to her original property; and second, an added amendment detailing acts of her husband’s slander against her. This amendment recounts “hearing of diverse citizens of said Parish to wit, garse faire garse, which words mean in English whore daine whore meaning thereby that your petitioner was a lewd woman & had committed adultery” (3). Not only is this the juiciest part of the legal document, but it also gives insight into the social dynamics at play in nineteenth-century courts and legal systems. The amendment, dated May 20, 1817, comes six months after the original filing, implying the petition’s initial lack of success. As such, Pourciau adds to her claim that called her husband “unsupportable” with this amendment which publicly displays and shames his slander of her in October 1816 (predating the original claim) (3). While this is not necessarily a crime, Pourciau presents this occurrence as evidence as to why she both should receive a legal separation from her husband, and why she is entitled to her property. This was not an uncommon practice at the time. Slave-owning women in Southern society represented a societal feminine ideal that could be used to their advantage in the legal process (2). As a slave-owning, presumably financially affluent, Southern woman, by stressing this positionality – or in this case, threat thereof – Pourciau aims to gain sympathy and protection from the court in her legal battle. This amendment exemplifies how Pourciau persisted in her plea for control over her marriage and property, and also how she sought to steer and secure her social status after she would become a “feme sole,” separate from her husband.
While a significant number of women like Marie Pourciau petitioned for marital separation in court at the start of the nineteenth century, it is interesting to note that for a large part, the results of these claims are unknown (2). For Pourciau, however, records indicate an end to her legal endeavor, but not necessarily a resolution to her story. According to the Race and Slavery Petitions Project at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where Pourciau’s records are housed, the petition is marked as “withdrawn,” without further indication as to why (3). Later Pointe Coupee records of a successful slave purchase from Pourciau in 1834 acknowledge her as the widow of Barthelemy Olinde and owner of his estate (8). Yet what occurred between the withdrawal in 1817 and this sale in 1834 is unknown. However, the withdrawal itself speaks volumes. Despite laws and a legal foundation for the reclamation of people and property by women seeking a divorce, they were still subjected to male control. Thus, while coverture may have been weakened legally during the nineteenth century, its social implications continued to leak into the lives of women.
Original Petition to Fourth Judicial Court by Marie Pourciau
My Transcription of the Original Petition (as quoted in the essay)
To the Honorable Judge of the 11th district Court of the State of Louisiana. Sitting in for the parish of Pointe Coupée.
The petition of Marie Pourciau, wife of Barthelemy Olinde. Living in your parish of district aforesaid, respectfully showeth unto your Honor, that: the conduct & behaviour of her husband, Barthelemy Olinde towards your petitioner is of such a nature as to consider her living with him unsupportable, that wishing a writ At law, to put an end to her suffering & grief, she therefore, claim a separation from bed & board with her said husband [agreement]: of […] treatment of her said husband toward your petitioner, and well be proved before your Honorable Court.
Your petitioner further [showeth], that: when the married said Barthelemy Olinde twenty six years ago or there about, being then widow Charles Robillard, she from brought in marriage as often proper, five some half arpents of land with the ordinary depth of 40 arpents then the aforesaid land bounded by Pierce [Hinde] One and by [Gabriel] […] with other [Lide] […] at […] with dareth […], which land is […] in nature among the property of the community existing between your petitioner & Her said Husband Barthelemy Olinde, that are brought also as aforesaid six slaves named Coffi, Jean Louis, L’éveillé negro men & Rapelle, Julie, and Marguerite negre women, that the said negro woman named Marguerite then brought, by your petitioner, […] now five children slaves, […] Jacob, Francois & Marcellin negro men & Clemence and & Genevieve negre women.
By afronting & beating & [wanding] Your petitioner with 19th day of October …1816 & was […] days & time & by publiquely… [diffaining] Your petitioner by publishing the following […] of Scandoulous worde of […] your petitioner with hearing of diverse citizens of said parish to wit, garse faire garse which words mean in English whore daine whore meaning thereby that your petitioner was a Lewd woman & had committed adultery, which said word were spoken on the day & year aforesaid,
Amendment of petition
20th of may 1817
Grace Rozembajgier is an American Studies major with minors in Business Economics and Constitutional Studies. Her essay was originally written for Professor Sophie White’s American Studies course ‘Laboring Women.’
- Hufton, Olwen. “Women, Work and Family.” A History of Women in the West, ed. Natalie Zenon Davis and Arlette Farge, Harvard, 1993.
- Molloy, Marie S. “Law, Property, and the Single Woman.” Single, White, Slaveholding Women in the Nineteenth-Century American South, University of South Carolina Press, 2018.
- Pourciau, Marie Robillard. “Petition to Fourth Judicial District Court, Pointe Coupee Parish Courthouse, New Roads, Louisiana.” 14 November 1816.
- Sundberg, Sara Brooks. “Women and Property in Early Louisiana: Legal System at Odds.” Journal of the Early Republic, 32, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.
- Clark, Emily. “Peculiar Professionals: The Financial Strategies of the New Orleans Ursulines.” Neither Lady Nor Slave: Working Women of the Old South, ed. Susanna Delfino and Michele Gillespie, University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
- Klepp, Susan E and Roderick A. Macdonold. “Inscribing Experience: An American Working Woman and an English Gentlewoman Encounter Jamaica’s Slave Society.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 58, 2001.
- Jones-Rogers, Stephanie E. “‘I Belong to de Mistis.’” They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, Yale University Press, 2019.
- Robic, François. “Petition to Fourth Judicial District Court, Pointe Coupee Parish Courthouse, New Roads, Louisiana.” 26 April 1834.