Women in 18th Century North Carolina

By Kelly Bolding, Project Archivist for Americana Manuscripts

While archival materials are usually interpreted within the context of surrounding materials, sometimes a single document can tell a story. The Manuscripts Division recently acquired an 1773 manuscript indictment from the North Carolina Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. The document summarizes the case of Margaret Smith, a woman living in 18th century North Carolina, likely as an indentured servant of William Sipards.

Smith, who was unmarried, had secretly given birth to a child that died under unexplained circumstances shortly thereafter. In the indictment, Smith is accused of asking a man who was enslaved to her employer to bury it the following day. Instead of following Smith’s instructions, the man took the child’s body to a neighboring barn. Although we do not know the circumstances of the child’s death, one can imagine the many pressures that Smith faced as a single mother with little social or economic power. While no related documents appear to be readily available in other repositories, perhaps a future researcher can locate additional pieces of Smith’s story.

This case is also notable due to the fact that Smith was indicted by an all-female jury, which would have been an anomaly for the time. The document notes that the twelve women jurors, all of whom are listed by name, were gathered by “Street Searching.” Martin Pfifer (1720–1791, also spelled Phifer) presided over the case as Justice of the Peace. While Pfifer or another agent of the court likely wrote the text of the indictment, the forewoman of the jury signed the document herself. Although the last two letters of her surname are indecipherable, her name is written as Abigil Shu– (perhaps Abigail Shuar or Shuan).

A description of this document can be found in the finding aid. For more information on visiting the Special Collections Department at Firestone Library, please see the library website or email RBSC@princeton.edu.