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Speculative painting of Margaret Brent

Margaret Brent (1601–1671) was the first woman in the English North American colonies to act as an attorney before a court of the Common Law, and a significant founding participant in the early history of the Colony of Maryland and the Colony of Virginia. She ranks, with Anne Hutchinson among the most confrontational and controversial women figures to rise to prominence in early Colonial American history. Hailed as a feminist by some in modern times in advancing rights of women under the laws, her insistent advocacy of her legal prerogatives, as an unmarried gentlewoman of property, while notable in its exceptional energy, in fact did not stray from English law.[1]

Life

Born into a Catholic family, her emigration and that of her siblings occurred during a period of agitation against those suspected of recusancy preceding the English Civil War. She was one of six daughters of a total of thirteen children of the Lord of Admington and Stoke, Richard Brent, and his wife, Elizabeth Reed (daughter of Edward Reed, Lord of Tusburie and Witten, all of Gloucester, England). Ode Brent, a knight in 1066, is direct ancestor to The Brents of Stoke, by their lineage account, while Elizabeth Reed's family claimed descendancy from William the Conqueror of 1066. Margaret, her sister Mary, and her brothers Giles and Fulke sailed together from England and arrived at St. Mary's, Maryland on November 22, 1638.[2]

Large entitlements of land grants and high political offices were secured due to their prestigious bloodline and/or political affiliations. Wanting individual independence, Margaret came to Maryland's Proprietary Governor, Leonard Calvert (with whom she shared a guardianship of Mary Kitomaquund, the daughter of a Piscataway "Emperor" chief). He appointed her his executrix while on his death bed on June 9, 1647,[2]) with land entitlement letters from Maryland's Proprietary Governor, Lord Baltimore, entitling the Brent sisters to land grants of equal size to those of the Maryland arrivals of 1634.[2] Their initial entitlement was enlarged to Template:Convert/acre per sister, as written in the colonization inducements offered to women, since Margaret had also brought with her five men and four maid servants. In the end, due to the letters from Lord Baltimore, the Brent sisters each received much larger land grants. Then on October 4, 1639, she became the first Maryland female land owner. She obtained the first recorded land grant in St. Mary's, a Template:Convert/acre patent with which she established the "Sister's Freehold", and an adjacent Template:Convert/acre titled St. Andrew's. Next Giles Brent turned over to her a 1,000 acre (4 km²) land tract on Kent Island, Maryland as payment of a debt owed her. Her land holdings grew as she continued to import bondservants and sell their indentures.[2]

Almost immediately, showing great determination and fearlessness, she assembled armed volunteers to assist Governor Calvert's forces in suppressing the Claiborne Rebellion upon his return from Virginia in August, 1646.[2] He appointed her his executrix while on his death bed on June 9, 1647,[2] with Letters of Administration granted on June 19, 1647.

On January 3, 1648, with no time to spare, Lord Baltimore in England, religious tolerance in Maryland at stake, potential loss of the colony to Virginia, and Margaret Brent pacifying hungry soldiers over their pay, the Provincial Court appointed her attorney-in-fact to Lord Baltimore whereby she collected his rents and paid his debts.[2]

On January 21, 1648, three things happened. First she entered the Provincial Court's assembly and entered a plea for voice in the assembly's council and a second plea for two votes in its proceedings (one as landowner and one as Lord Baltimore's attorney - Archives of Maryland, I, 215). Governor Thomas Greene flatly refused them, as they considered by the assembly at the time to be privileges reserved only for queens. She left resentfully with a statement to the council that she "Protested against all proceedings ... unless she may be present and have vote as aforesaid."[2] Secondly, the assembly defended her stewardship of Lord Baltimore's estate, stating that it "was better for the Colony's safety at that time in her hands than in any man's...for the soldiers would never have treated any others with that civility and respect..."[2]. And thirdly she demanded corn imports from Virginia to feed hungry troops camped at St. Mary's, and may have spent all of Leonard Calvert's personal estate and Lord Baltimore's cattle to pay the soldiers wages, although there is disagreement on this matter. English law would not permit these possessions without a court order or a special act of the legislature. However Calvert's lands and buildings were added into the inventory. Margaret Brent and then Governor William Stone disagreed upon the act of a sale of a Template:Convert/acre land tract entitled "The Governor's Field".[2] From England Lord Baltimore tersely objected to the selling of any of his property.[2]

She appeared a final time as Lord Baltimore's attorney on February 9, 1648 in a case against one Thomas Cornwallis, and was possibly replaced by Thomas Hatton, the new Provincial secretary.[2] All in all, Margaret Brent entered more law suits than anyone in the colony, although she was more of a businesswoman than a lawyer. In 1658 Mary Brent died, leaving her entire estate of 1000 acres (4 km²) to Margaret.[2]

She moved across the Chesapeake Bay and founded a community called "Peace" in Westmoreland County, Virginia. She held festive annual court leets for her people. She never married,[2] one of very few English women of the time in Chesapeake not to do so, and at a time when men outnumbered women there by 6:1.[2] In 1663[2] she wrote her will. In 1670 she assigned one half of her 2,000 acres (8 km²) in Maryland to her nephew, James Clifton. Her will was admitted into probate on May 19, 1671. She died at "Peace", Stafford County, Virginia[2] in 1671. Exact dates of her birth and death are currently unknown.

Legacy

A Liberty Ship of World War II was named after her; the SS Margaret Brent[3] (launched 1943).

Several public schools in the state of Maryland are named for her.

Margarent Brent is also valorized at Historic St. Mary's City. The museum on the spot of Maryland's colonial capital features her prominently in exhibits and publications for the role she played in women's suffrage by asking for the right to vote. The St. John's site archaeology museum, which sits atop the exposed foundations of the house where Brent appealed to the Assembly, includes an exhibit devoted to her life. The Historic St. Mary's City grounds also include a garden dedicated in memory of Brent, and a street at neighboring St. Mary's College of Maryland is named Margaret Brent Way. On January 21, 1648, Margaret Brent appeared before the assembly and requested two votes. She asked for one for herself as a landowner and one as Lord Baltimore's attorney. Who was this woman, the first female in the New World to request the right to vote?

    Accompanied by two brothers and a sister, Margaret Brent arrived in St. Mary's City on November 22, 1638. She proceeded to claim a land grant, and engaged in numerous business ventures, trading in tobacco, indentured servants, and land. She appeared in court to sue for debts and to protect her interests, and often acted for her brothers as well. Margaret Brent was named with Governor Leonard Calvert as joint guardian for Mary Kittamaquund, daughter of the chief of the Piscataways. Ten years after her arrival, Margaret Brent was prominent as a businesswoman and landowner. 
    Existence in 17th-century Maryland was precarious. Threatened by disease, life was hard and often short. Under such conditions, some women were forced to step out of the sheltered sphere they had inhabited back in England. Margaret Brent was not the only woman to claim land in her own right or to pursue her own interests in court. However, she chose to do so; she was not forced. Her continuing unmarried state was unusual in a settlement where the male/female ratio was about six to one. 
    Born around 1601, Margaret Brent was approximately thirty-seven years old when she arrived in Maryland. Little is known about the first half of her life. She was one of thirteen children born to Richard and Elizabeth Brent. The Brents were landed Catholic gentry living in Gloucestershire. Daughters of such families usually lived quietly at home under the domination of their fathers until they married, at which time control of their lives and their fortunes was transferred to their husbands. In light of her later life, it is hard to imagine Margaret Brent indulging in needlework and other maidenly pastimes for thirty-seven years. She seems to have had some education. Her decision to emigrate to Maryland was not so unique; what was unusual was her coming as head of her own household and not as an appendage of her brothers. Her brothers emigrated to seek opportunities in business and public affairs not available to them in England as Catholics and younger sons; Margaret may have emigrated to escape the inherent constraints of her life in England. 
    Fifteen years after the first settlers arrived, the Maryland settlement faced a severe crisis. In 1645, the civil war raging in England between Charles I and Parliament spilled over into Maryland. Richard Ingle, a Protestant and a partisan of the English Parliament, invaded St. Mary's City, destroyed the property of Catholic settlers, and took the Jesuit priests and Margaret's brother Giles back to England in chains. Governor Leonard Calvert and other settlers fled to Virginia, and the population of the colony dropped drastically. Late in 1646, the Governor returned with soldiers to reestablish Calvert control. However, Governor Leonard Calvert died in 1647 with his own and Maryland's affairs still in turmoil. From his deathbed, exhorting her to "Take all and pay all," he appointed Margaret Brent his executor, a testimony to his faith in her abilities. 
    Margaret's decisive actions in such troubled times ensured the survival of the settlement. The most pressing problem was paying Leonard Calvert's soldiers, who were on the verge of a mutiny. Margaret averted that disaster by having the assembly transfer to her Leonard Calvert's power of attorney for his brother Lord Baltimore. Because Leonard Calvert's estate was not sufficient, she sold some of Lord Baltimore's cattle to pay the soldiers. Her most famous action, requesting two votes in the assembly, occurred while she was trying to resolve the Calvert affairs. 
    Ultimately, Margaret's actions in averting disaster were commended by the assembly to Lord Baltimore, who could not see beyond the loss of his cattle. The Brents never regained his favor and relocated to Virginia by 1651, where Margaret died around 1671.

References

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