One Third for the Widow

Under Puritan law an adult unmarried woman was a feme sole, and could own property and sign contracts. A married woman was a feme covert and could not own property individually. Widows regained the status of feme sole but the Right of Dower entitled them to keep only one third of their property. When a woman was left a widow some men like vultures were ready to take the other two thirds.

Ruth Fellows house, Ipswich
Ruth fellows house, 16 Fellows Road, built in 1714

Read more in Law and Society in Puritan Massachusetts: Essex County, 1629-1692.

The oldest parts of the Joseph Fellows house at 24 Fellows Road are said to have been built before 1693. Fellows was the son of Ipswich settler William Fellows. When he died his widow Ruth received a third, but she purchased 4 acres of John Low Jr. and built her own house. Her third was apportioned after her death to sons Daniel, William and Joseph, who greatly expanded the estate along Fellows and Candlewood Roads.

Wainwright-Treadwell house, East St., Ipswich MA
Wainwright-Treadwell house, East St., Ipswich MA

The widow of Thomas Treadwell fared slightly better. They arrived in New England in 1635 with infant son Thomas. When the senior Treadwell died in 1671 his will bequeathed to his son Nathaniel one half of his “upland house, barn and meadows”. The other half of the house he left to his wife “as long as she lives”. He also gave his wife “the benefit of the keeping of four Cows and six sheep upon the pasture also the Wintering five head of Cattle and six sheep, ”plus the firewood from the pasture and all my household goods to be at her own disposing.” The senior Treadwell seemed not to trust his younger son, adding “And if Nathaniel fail of any thing he is to do for my Wife my will is that he shall forfeit ten pound every year he fails.”

Thomas Treadwell house
The Thomas Treadwell house at 7 Summer St., built in 1740

Every generation of the Treadwell family named their sons Thomas and Nathaniel. The widow of Thomas Treadwell in the mid-Eighteenth Century retained 1/3 of the rooms in the house and part of the land under the right of dower. Samuel Stone purchased the other two thirds and after her death he was able to purchase the balance of the house and land.

The John Wood / Lord house at 68 High Street was built circa 1725

Martha Ringe was widowed with small children after Daniel Ringe her husband disappeared in 1727 while on a fishing expedition to Penobscot Bay that was attacked by Indians. Puritan law required women to wait three years until remarrying. After considering her petition, the court allowed Martha to marry John Wood before the three years had passed “in order to advance her circumstances”.


Salem Quarterly Court: Writ: Dorothy Graves, relict of Richard Graves v . John Neale , executor of the will of Francis Lawes; for not delivering or laying out of her thirds or right of dower in a house and a parcel of land now occupied by said Neale, which was the land formerly of her said husband; dated 15, 4, 1669.

Further reading:

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