Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 113 / Number 1
His Slaves or Hers?: Customary Claims, a Planter Marriage, and a Community verdict in Lancaster County, 1793
- By Tatiana van Riemsdijk, pp. 46–79
In 1791, after two years of marriage, Elizabeth Yerby left her husband's plantation, but remained in and around Lancaster County. Her husband, George Yerby, wanted her back. He had no clean shirts, no fresh bed linen, and slaves were not receiving rations. Local men and women knew the smallest details of George Yerby's smooth-talking attempts to win back his wife. Sometimes he succeeded, other times not. Finally, in 1792 Elizabeth Yerby left him for good, filing for separation plus stipend in Lancaster County's Chancery Court.
This case vividly demonstrates an eighteenth-century world in which planter clout did not hold sway. After decades of economic decline in Lancaster County, smart money had moved west, leaving Elizabeth Yerby behind in a yeoman neighborhood with few allies. These hardscrabble residents left a record of sharp observations about George Yerby's violent behavior, Elizabeth Yerby's sharp tongue, and her poor housekeeping. Long before this ill-fated marriage landed in court, an informal network of neighbors, friends, family, and a hired worker, participated in the dispute, interjecting moral judgment, projecting shame, distributing threats, and at their worst, resorting to violence.
Elizabeth Yerby posed as a gentry woman, using customary claims to make her case. She wanted her slaves back. A proper wife of station deserved financial support, relief from certain kinds of household labor, and a husband's protection. Peddling this cache of values was not easy in 1793 in Lancaster County. In this place of downward mobility and planter exodus, Elizabeth Yerby faced a community verdict.