Dowry versus Dower Right

Land record mentioning Abigail Adams’s
Land record mentioning Abigail Adams’s “voluntary surrender of all her rights of dower.”

Family historians use a variety of records, some of which require some understanding of legal terms. And when it comes to land records, one term that is very often misunderstood is dower. Many look at that word and think of dowery. While both terms have to do with women, marriage, and property, they have different meanings.

Recently I encountered a family historian who was looking for a record that didn’t exist. Her research had turned up a land record that included the following phrase: “Being the same land with a dwellinghouse that was set out to our mother Catherine Olmsted in the settlement of our Father’s estate as her Dower during her natural life.” The researcher had spent a lot of time looking for a deed from Catherine’s father because she had misunderstood the use of the term dower.

Dowery, or dowry, is the term for that portion, usually from her father, that a bride brings to her husband that he can use as long as the marriage lasts. The term dower, on the other hand, is a shortened version of dower right: it refers to the portion of a deceased husband’s estate to which a widow is entitled to by law for her lifetime.

A financially savvy woman, if her husband wrote a will but was in debt at the time of his death, would elect to receive her dower right portion, as it was taken right off the top and not available to the creditors. If she elected to receive what he gave her in the will, then the creditors got their due first and she would be left only with her share of what was left. Unfortunately, few women in the colonial period were aware of such rights.

Most of the time, though, we see the term dower right when a man is selling property, as there is a clause at the end of the deed where the clerk writes that he has talked to the wife and states that she is giving up her dower right without pressure.

If an ancestor lived in a state that had dower rights, we should be able to find a wife’s name in any record of land being sold by her husband during their marriage. Having the wife’s name often helps us differentiate between two men of the same name in a particular area.

Land records can hold many clues for family historians, but one of the best is ownership through dower right or dowry, which can alter by whom and when land can be sold. If it is a dowry, then a father should be listed in the record; the dower right clause requires that a wife’s first name be listed in a deed.

About Rhonda McClure

Rhonda R. McClure, Senior Genealogist, is a nationally recognized professional genealogist and lecturer. Before joining American Ancestors/NEHGS in 2006, she ran her own genealogical business for 18 years. She was a contributing editor for Heritage Quest Magazine, Biography magazine and was a contributor to The History Channel Magazine and American History Magazine. In addition to numerous articles, she is the author of twelve books including the award-winning The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Online Genealogy, Finding your Famous and Infamous Ancestors and Digitizing Your Family History. She is the editor of the 6th edition of the Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, available in our bookstore. When she isn’t researching and writing about family history, she spends her time writing about ice hockey, covering collegiate to NHL teams and a couple of international teams. Her work has allowed her the privilege of attending and covering the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Korea and the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

11 thoughts on “Dowry versus Dower Right

  1. I knew there was a difference, but not about the ramifications in law. You explained it so clearly and concisely; I’m sure others appreciate it, too! Thank you SO much!

  2. The absence of a dower waiver in a deed MAY mean the woman identified as wife prior to that date MAY have died. It is a good working assumption, and if a new female name appears on the next deed, then it is almost a certainty — OR you are dealing with two men of the same name in the same place, etc.!!! (Oh, joy.)

    Illness is another reason why a wife might not waive her dower in a deed. “Everyone” knows she’s incapable of signing but as the husband is living, no guardianship is required under law. (I’m looking at a case now where 2 deeds are made by a father to a son with purchase amounts that look to be stand-ins for the older maintenance agreements. The mother doesn’t die until 18 months later but she doesn’t sign these 2 deeds that materially affect her.)

    Also, my understanding is that a wife’s name may NOT appear IF the property in question was acquired by the male seller BEFORE their marriage. I’ve not been able to nail this down in either a primary source such as Acts & Resolves of Mass., or in a secondary work like Law in Colonial Massachusetts (C S of MA). I haven’t looked recently.

    If you or another reader can clarify, I’d really appreciate.

  3. When you do have a dower waiver, be sure to look at the witnesses to the seller signatures.

    The 2nd witness often is a woman. Again, this may be more custom than legally enshrined because I’ve certainly seen just 2 or more male names for a husband & wife. I THINK the requirement was that the witness for the wife/woman was to be a relative on her side if at all possible. (Again, does any one know a formal legal source on this?)

    I’ve just looked at a completely separate dower waiver deed where the 1st witness is the J.P. before whom the deed will be acknowledged, but the second witness is a 21-year old niece-in-law to the signer.

    If the 2nd witness is a male, a researcher needs to consider that he may be a close male relative (uncle, brother, son, cousin, brother-in-law, etc.) to the female signer. (I’ve not ever encountered a deed where the witness was the waiver’s father, but it must have happened.)

    Of course, the 3rd optional consideration is that the 2nd witness, either male or female, is just a neighbor who knows the waiver well.

    1. Witnesses may also be those present on a Court day when the original deed was written and given to the Clerk for recording. The first-signing witness may be the person who wrote out the original document

      It is a myth that witnesses to deeds were always relatives, but their identities should be determined where possible.

  4. I am interested in the name Catherine Olmsted and wonder who the researcher is/was. As a relative of Frederick Law Olmsted, I was pleasantly surprised to see this name I am a former member of the board of NEHGS and present board member of the National Society for Olmsted Parks. “Fred” was my great grandmother’s first cousin, their mothers being sisters Linda and Charlotte Hull.

    Jean McKee

    1. I am the family historian who contacted Rhonda McClure for an explanation between dower and dower right. Replies to her explanation on the blog are great additions with more details/questions. My connection to Catherine Olmsted is that I have been researching her parents and their descendants for nearly 48 years. They are Richard Patrick or Partrick of Norwalk, CT I published a preliminary study of what I had gathered up until 1978: “Richard Patrick or Partrick of Norwalk, CT & Some of His Descendants.” I have a lot of new information compiled since then and am trying to do a second edition before I go to heaven! The Hist-Gen has my 1978 publication a well as other libraries. Be in touch. Pat Haslam

  5. A note of caution: while dower and curtesy laws may have been fairly uniform throughout the English colonies as a part of English common law, anyone researching ancestors after the Revolution needs to keep in mind that such laws and their application would vary from state to state. In other words, after the establishment of the United States, dower and curtesy would be addressed by the state (rather than federal) laws of each individual state or commonwealth. Just because something was so in Massachusetts doesn’t necessarily mean it would be so in Connecticut!

  6. It is true that different states had different laws regarding dowers. However, my personal experience with MY dower came in 1971 when we purchased a house in SC ( a state with laws that go back to 17th century.) I was ushered into a room apart from my husband and asked IF I would relinquish my dower. Never having heard of this legal term before, I questioned why it was such a secret thing and what were the consequences. It was important the lawyer said that no one had persuaded me to give it up but IF I didn’t they would not sell us the house. When we bought another SC house in 2010, I was also asked to relinquish my dower. The law is still on the books.

  7. When my fourth reatgrandfather died he was deeply in debt. Fortunately his widow exercised her dower rights so she did not lose everything. This was in ME and I saw the documents at the Wiscasset Court House. My ancestor died in 1846.

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