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Runaway Wives, 1760
Courtesy, New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, NJ., Date: 1760

Citation: William Nelson, ed., Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New Jersey, Volume XX (Trenton: Call Printing and Publishing Co., 1898), pp. 435, 449.

May 7, 1760

Whereas Susannah, the wife of the subscriber, of Kingwood, in the county of Hunterdon, In West New-Jersey, hath lately eloped from her said husband (having left four small Children with him) and as it is not improbable that she, the said Susannah, may be credited on his account, These are therefore to forewarn all persons not to trust her on his account, as he will pay no debts of her contracting after the date hereof. And all persons are forbid to harbour, secrete or entertain her, or may expect to be prosecuted as the law directs.

John Smalley

Burlington County, in New-Jersey, July 10, 1760

hereas Esther, the Wife of Amos Austin, hath alienated her Affections from me her Husband, and hath for some Time, shewed a Desire to convey my Money, Goods, and Effects into the Hands of another Man: Therefore I do forbid any Person trusting her on my account, for I will pay not Debts of her contracting after the Date hereof.

Amos Austin

The Pennsylvania Gazette, No. 1646, July 10, 176



As a British colony, New Jersey was subject to English Common Law and its women, especially married women, were subject to the limitation of rights familiar to women in England. During the Colonial Era, divorce, for example, was extremely rare if not impossible to achieve. Only in certain circumstances could divorce be attained by a special bill of the colonial legislature. When a woman married, her legal status became that of feme covert, an English Common Law concept meaning that the wife was covered by the civil identity of her husbandĖany belongings she might have became her husbandís, she could not sign or make contracts on her own, she could not write a will without her husbandís consent, she could not sue or be sued in court, and her husband was the legal guardian of their children. A woman in an unhappy or abusive marriage had no recourse. If she had sympathetic family nearby she might go to live with them, or, she might run away. Running away was an extremely desperate act, yet notices such as these were not uncommon in colonial newspapers.

Susannah Smalley ran away, leaving her four young children behind. Her husband publicly announced he would not pay her debts, and he forbade others to shelter or hide her. Since, as a married women, she would not have had money of her own, she was thereby left destitute. She could not legally remarry.

Esther Austin took a different route. She took money and belongings with her, things her husband said were his own. In turn her husband publicly announced he would not pay any debts she might incur in the future. While she may have been in the company of another man, she would not be able to legally remarry.


Women's Project of New Jersey
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