Family Histories / Genealogy

Love, Actually?

“”The Love Affair . . . now Trouble.”

Taking sex to court in early America was fairly common; in different jurisdictions across British American men and women could be criminally or civilly liable for having sex if they were not married, and/ or for having sex that resulted in a baby, and/ or for the care of that baby. Most of the bastardy and fornication cases I’ve been examining for mid- to late-18th century New England are available only in manuscripts spread out across a variety of archival and other locations. I’m so interested in these cases because they constitute an essential aspect of the history of women, gender, and family in early America. Scholars have written important and compelling work about how women’s sexuality was policed and regulated in early America, but there is so much more to do on this important subject.

And most of the cases I’ve read about and posted (a little) about here on my blog and on Instagram have only allowed the barest view of the people and lives involved. Women being charged for fornication, their localities pressing for identification of fathers, both parties being called to court, and attempts to get them to pay for the child’s care– and sometimes more assertive efforts to have the father’s pay what we would recognize as (bare minimal) child support. Occasionally using other sources I can build a slightly fuller picture of the individuals and family involved, and I’ll surely do more of this as the project expands (it’s still nascent as I wrap up other work).

But recently I was alerted to a digitization project in Duchess County, New York (the “Ancient Documents Search“) which makes such cases for this locality incredibly accessible not only because the search function is so straightforward but also because the scans are available as downloadable, high quality PDFs. It’s a terrific resource.

The County Clerk Ancient Document Search allows you to explore digital images of 52,000 pages of eighteenth-century legal documents.

These records comprise the oldest surviving manuscripts from the Dutchess County Court of Common Pleas and General Sessions, which began operation in 1721 through 1820 (document numbers 1-20999). 

From the Ancient Document Search for Dutchess County, New York

Searching through this resource, I’ve been able to read many of the same kinds of cases I’ve described above. But one case, in which Marytje (or Maria) Berringer Giselbregh, Benjamin Kip, and their daughter Margrita, offers a little bit more. The baby was born in October of 1760 and her parents spent the spring of 1761 in court variously testifying to their conduct and experiences, and gathering and hearing testimony from friends, neighbors, and officials. The officials, in particular the Overseers of the Poor, were keen that the baby not become “chargeable” to their town of Rhinebeck. Thus far, same as so many similar cases.

What was unusual was that some detailed testimony about the case provides emotional and domestic political texture to the case. The basics were laid outing the typical documents, such as notices to those who would need to appear at court or to give testimony elsewhere, including at Marytje’s own house. Marytje was a widow, and had been for some four or five years. Benjamin was “Living Next Door to her.” He “became acquainted,”, he “frequented” her house, and he “had the Carnel knowledge of her body.” Marytje said that Benjamin “and no other person whatsoever” was “the only true father” of her child, who was born October 4th, 1760, and “christened and named Margarita” in Rhinebeck’s “Low Dutch Calvenist” church. Eventually Benjamin was ordered by the court to pay to the Overseers of the Poor not only 11 shillings 4 pence for the 4 weeks of Marytje’s immediate post-partum (lying in) but also 3 shillings a week “for and towards the Relief and Maintenance of the said Bastard Child for So Long a time as the Said Child shall be Chargeable” to Rhinebeck.

But then, a witness testified that the story was more complex. It was, said Christian Schultz, a “Love Affair formerly, but now Trouble.” In May of 1761 Schultz gave a long statement that described how, the previous summer, he had encountered Benjamin, then Marytje…and then Benjamin’s father. When he was out o a morning walk, he met Benjamin who asked him for help getting a marriage license. Benjamin asked Christian also to help facilitate a conversation with his intended, Marytje. When he encountered Marytje, she seemed so pleased and when Christian wished her well, “Joy and Prosperity with your Bridegroom,”then “she began to Smile” and they talked ” a few minutes over said Affair.”

…in the Beginning of the Summer in the Last past Year, one Morning I went from my House downwards, along the Post Road, when I came opposite the orchard of Mr. Johannes Kip. I see said Benjamin Kip coming towards me, bidding me a good Morning and Said he was glad that I came or else he would have come to my House and that he wanted a Letter have writt by me, to New York….He wanted a License for to be married wit[h] Said Marytje Gisselbregt, I wishd him Joy a[nd] continual Contentment with his Sweet Heart etc.

Affidavit of Christian Schultz. Rhinebeck, New York. May 3, 1761

But then, further down the road Christian “met by the Way” Benjamin’s father, Johannes Kip. In respond to a friendly inquiry about he and his family fared, Johannes reported them to be “very Melancholy.” Had Christian not heard? “Marytje Giss: proved to be with Child –and that his Son Benj: would have her and Marry her and all that he and Margriet [Benjamin’s mother] did do, and could do, Seemed to be ineffectual and that he and said Margaret was most out their wits about it Since she could not eat nor sleep for it” But why object, wondered Christian? He wished that “the parents would not take it so hard” and that as the two young people “lov’d and would marry one another, I thought it for the best not to hinder such a good Intention.” But Johannes “not liking any Discourse we parted.” Later, Christian saw Benjamin as the latter was arranging to pay a friend to go to New York (city) to get the license, and was also enquiring whether “no license was to be had in the county.” But there was not. That was the end of Christian’s testimony, and, it seems that since by the following year the court was adjudicating child support, close to the end of the couple’s plan for marriage.

Benjamin Kip appeared in the records both before and after this case. In 1759, just a year before his daughter was born he was charged with breaking and entering, and along with an accomplice stealing two horses. Several years later he was back in court on account of what looks to be a substantial debt. And in between he was married– and not to Marytje. Or at least not this one. He married Marytje Van Steenberg in March of 1762. No trace of Marytje or baby Margrita– at least not that I could find. Yet.

So was it love? We struggle to understand contemporary human emotions and relationships, and we know how bounded and shaped they are by popular culture, religion, and more. As Julie Hardwick has shown in Sex in an Old Regime City: Young Workers and Intimacy in France, 1660-1789, even with substantial records of such cases of unmarried sex and babies the emotional situation and the relationship strategies of these young people are exceptionally hard to discern. We know they were intimate, we know that the politics of class and gender were (and remain) such that young women were under very different kinds of pressures than young men, and that the consequences for each would be very different. But a “love affair” was how baby Margrita’s birth family was described, and perhaps it was exactly that.

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