Valinda Wade, an Independent Colonial Woman

Aja Bain / Middle Tennessee State University / 2014 Glassford & Henderson E-Tern

When I first heard about the Glassford and Henderson transcription project, I was immediately intrigued because it reminded me of a book I’d just read and enjoyed in one of my graduate classes. Ann S. Martin’s Buying into the World of Goods examines the economy of the eighteenth-century Virginia frontier in the context of colonial trade and culture, and gives us insight into a world of surprising sophistication through analysis of the customers and purchases at one backcountry shop in the upper Shenandoah Valley.[i] Focusing on the years between 1758 and 1810, Martin’s depiction of John Hook’s store brings a variety of historical characters to life, including those who are so often lost in the written record. This book shows that it was not only white male settlers who were involved in commercial life and trade, but also colonial women and slaves. Although the voices of these groups are often missing from official accounts, we can learn more about their experiences through their transactions at the Hook store. I was excited to see how this idea was being applied by Mount Vernon to stores in the Tidewater region!

As I started to work on the project, I found more or less what I had expected. Most transactions were performed by white men, few by white women, and very few by slaves. The lack of female customers made their appearance all the more striking, especially if they were listed as “Miss”. While married women making purchases for the family under their own accounts were uncommon, I was particularly surprised to see the names of single women as account holders. There were unmarried ladies taking care of business on their own, sometimes on a large scale. This is how I became interested in the Wade family, particularly the daughter listed in the ledgers as “Miss Valinda Wade.”

Beginning around 1765, Miss Wade (named Valinda, Vorlinda, or Verlinda depending on how the account keeper spelled it) kept an account at the Colchester store and made a variety of transactions over the next few years. Others also made purchases on her account, including men like John Barry and William Mills. I was particularly intrigued by some of her more luxurious purchases, like a satin hat for ten shillings, a dozen large London pewter plates for 25 shillings, and an apron made of lawn fabric for twenty shillings. Other interesting purchases included a 45 pound iron pot and a primer book.

Valinda Wade's purchase of a hat in 1767 at the Colchester Store … and are those dish washing gloves?

As for credit, she traded tobacco with her own “VW” tobacco mark. I was fascinated to see a single woman with such an active and varied commercial life, and wanted to see what else I could find out about her.

Valinda Wade maintained a farm that grew enough tobacco for her to have her own tobacco mark at the Pohick tobacco Warehouse.

By consulting the ledgers, genealogical research, and George Washington’s diaries available from the Library of Congress, I learned more about the Wade family, including Valinda. In the 1760s, the Wade family consisted of the widowed Mrs. Valinda Wade and her three daughters: Valinda, Eleanor, and Sarah. The patriarch, Zephaniah Wade, had died around 1746 and left a tract of land to his family adjacent to Washington’s mill plantation.[ii] Mrs. Wade appears in the Colchester ledgers in the 1760s, with multiple people making purchases on her account.

Mrs Valinda Wade maintained an account at the Colchester Store after her husband's death.

But by 1766, Mrs. Wade was deceased and the land was inherited by the daughters. Sarah died sometime before 1770, never having married. Eleanor had married John Barry, a tobacco inspector, in the 1750s and had a son, William, in 1754. In colonial Virginia, married women could not own property separately from their husbands, so Eleanor’s part of the Wade land was now owned by John. In England, a married woman was not legally considered a person separate from her husband, or much of a person at all.[iii] Like Sarah, Eleanor died early around 1770, leaving Valinda as the last remaining Wade daughter in possession of the land. Washington’s diaries note that young William Barry inherited the land after his mother’s death, so Eleanor must have made some sort of provision before the marriage that her land would go to her future children. Until William became an adult, however, the property was controlled by his father.[iv]

As a single woman, Valinda could own property and had more freedom than a married woman to conduct her own business. “As long as a woman remained single or widowed, the law deemed her a feme sole, a woman capable of keeping her own earnings, owning property, making contracts, incurring debts, suing or being sued, and writing a will.”[v] This explains her having her own store account, her own money to purchase personal items, and her own tobacco mark. As I saw more of her purchases in the Colchester ledgers, I began to try to imagine the woman who made them: a single woman in her ‘30s (quite unusual at this time), running her own household and enjoying the freedom and benefits that afforded her. Were items like the satin hat and lawn apron proof of her financial success? Was the primer for her motherless nephew, William? These and other clues can provide insight into the life of this fascinating woman.

The Wade-Barry land near Dogue Creek was eventually acquired by George Washington and incorporated into Dogue Run Farm. Valinda Wade sold her share in 1770 for £175, but John Barry refused to allow a division of the property because Washington’s plan was to divert water from Barry’s portion. The case was taken to court in August of 1772, and the judge awarded 75 acres and rights to the creek to Washington and 118 acres to the Barrys. In 1783, the remaining acres of the original Wade tract were purchased from William Barry for £150.[vi]

The unusual ledger entries connected with Miss Valinda Wade led me on a fascinating investigation into the lives of colonial women, property law in Virginia, and the gradual buildingof the Mount Vernon estate. While not much is known about Valinda’s later life, her interactions with the Colchester store and George Washington ensure her survival in the historical record. I hope to find out more about independent propertied colonial women as I continue transcribing!

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance and genealogical knowledge of Sarah Johnson, fifth great-granddaughter of William Barry, in preparing this article.

[i]  Ann S. Martin, Buying into the World of Goods. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

[ii] The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 2 .Sowing and Harvesting, 1766. eds. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig. (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1976), 1.

[iii] Linda L. Sturtz, Within Her Power: Propertied Women in Colonial Virginia (New York: Routledge, 2002), 29.

[v] Sturtz, 20.

[vi] The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 3. Routine Duties and Quiet Pleasures, 1772., eds. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig. (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1976), 125 and 131.

[vii] The Diaries of George Washington, Vol 1, Washington the Planter and Farmer, 1760., eds. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig. (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1976), page 240.


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One Response to Valinda Wade, an Independent Colonial Woman

  1. Sarah Johnson says:

    Aja, it was my pleasure to provide you with information on my fifth great grandfather and his Wade relatives. I loved your article! If ever, I can assist you again, please contact me. I am hoping to someday do a supplemental for DAR on William so my research on him will continue.

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