Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Probates: Thomas H. Brundage

I've now reached the point in my Master's research where I am going back over all of the probate records I copied this summer and looking for interesting things to latch onto. Yesterday this stood out to me (words underlined):
Will of Thomas H. Brundage
The last will and testament of Thomas H. Brundage of the Town of Bedford County of Westchester and State of New York. 
I, Thomas Brundage of Bedford aforesaid, do make, publish, and declare this my last will and testament in manner following, that is to say - 
First: I direct my executors herein after named to pay all my just debts and funeral expenses. 
Second: I hereby authorize and by these presents give to my said executors full power and authority to sell and convey all my real and personal property. 
Third: I give and bequeath to my son Nathan Brundage the 1/3 of all the proceeds of my estate and to my sons John Brundage and Walter T. Brundage the 1/3 to be equally divided between them share and share alike. 
Fourthly: I give and devise all the rest and residue of my estate to M. W. Fish, one of my executors herein after named, in trust for my daughter Rachel Ann Brazill, wife of Richard, the interest and income to be paid my said daughter during her natural life, and I further hereby authorize my said executor, in case of my said daughter being in destitute condition and needing more than the interest to make her comfortable, to allow her such portion as he may in his judgment think she requires. And I further provide in case of the decease of my said daughter not leaving any lawful issue then I give and bequeath all that remains of such portion or share to my sons then living share and share alike. 
Fifthly: I hereby nominate and appoint my friend Moses W. Fish and Burnett Miller of Bedford executors of this my last will and testament hereby revoking any former will by me made. 
In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and seal this 5th day of December 1874.
Thomas H. Brundage [his mark]
My thoughts:

It's not surprising that Thomas Brundage set aside 1/3 of his estate for each of his sons with no strings attached, while appointing a trustee to look over his daughter's inheritance; such patronizing conditions were commonplace for female heirs. The fact that such conditions - and the inheritance itself - was intended to provide for the female heir's livelihood and prevent her from falling into destitution is likely implied in every case I have seen; that is to say, fathers who were making wills were anticipating that their daughters might need financial assistance in the future, and set up their affairs to ensure that they were taken care of.

However, I have never seen a father's concern for his daughter falling into destitution so explicitly stated. It's even more shocking considering that Thomas Brundage's daughter was married. Was this simply a "just-in-case" scenario, or did he have reason to believe that his son-in-law would be unable to provide for her?

Even in her hypothetically destitute state, Rachel Ann Brazill is made to rely on the "judgment" of a man - admittedly, a very judicious man (Moses W. Fish was justice of the peace for the county for many years and was very well-respected), but the belittling of Rachel, who was 31 at the time her father's will was written, stands out to modern eyes.

Of course, the patronizing attitude towards women is easy to explain as an artifact of cultural attitudes of the time; it likely has little or nothing to do with Thomas's personal views of his daughter or her financial acumen. Rather, it is the special concern that Thomas gives to Rachel's potential destitution, and his explicit mention of it, that stands out to me.

Gravestone of Susan Brundage (source)
To investigate, I looked up the Brundage family in the 1850 federal census. That year, Susan and Thomas had four children under the age of 13, and Thomas was working as a laborer, which implies that he did not have the same level of job security as a landed farmer or a skilled artisan. The value of his real estate was only $170. Thomas's neighbors, including several farmers and shoemakers, owned real estate valued at $200-$6,000. Relative to their neighbors, the Brundages may have felt disadvantaged, and possibly struggled to make ends meet.

(It's also notable that Thomas Brundage's will is not signed with his name, but with a mark, suggesting that he was illiterate. While illiteracy was much more common in the 19th-century United States than it is now, most of the people in the St. George's/St. Mark's community were literate. I suppose it is possible that Thomas Brundage was too weak at the time he wrote his will to sign his name - but many of the wills I have read mention being "very weake [sic] in body" and yet are still signed by name, in crabbed but still legible handwriting. I don't think I've come across another will belonging to a member of this community that was signed with a mark.)

In the next census (1860), Thomas was again listed as a farm laborer, this time with real estate worth $350 and personal estate worth $100. All four children were still at home, with 21-year-old John working as a shoemaker.

Susan Brundage died in 1868 at the age of 61. It stood out to me that she was more than 10 years older than her husband, and that her oldest child was born when she was in her thirties. Both would have been unusual at the time. Assuming that Thomas was Susan's first husband (which is a big assumption), they may have been married when he was around 20 and she was around 30, which would explain why she didn't have children earlier. Perhaps Susan was the last of her sisters to marry and as a result didn't receive as substantial a dowry as they did; even if this was not the case, her dependence on her natal family past the age when most women would have married could have placed a financial burden on them.

Of course, this is all speculation, but I'm trying to imagine what situations and personal experiences might have inspired a father to be more cautious about his daughter's financial welfare than usual. The family's history of financial instability could be a potential answer.

By 1870, the census closest to the date of Thomas's death, John Brundage had established his own household with a wife and two-year-old daughter. Fifty-two-year-old Thomas Brundage, now a widower, was living with his father John (74), son Nathan (30), and daughter Rachel Ann (27). Thomas was listed as a "farm hand," with an estate worth $500.

It was not particularly desirable for a man to remain a "farm laborer," "farm hand," or "laborer" throughout his life. The expectation was that the young farm laborer would work long enough to establish his own farm, or - perhaps more likely - inherit a part of his father's farm and become a proper landowner who would then employ young farmhands to do his dirty work. This was the cultural narrative, but of course it didn't always play out in real life. It might have been somewhat disappointing if Thomas ended up working as a laborer on other people's farms into his fifties. The fact that he had to support an aged father and adult children at the same time might have compounded his difficulties.

While it's possible that Nathan Brundage was also employed as a farmhand (although it isn't explicitly stated in the census), Rachel Ann's opportunities to provide for her own financial support would have been limited. Taking on the kind of employment that was open to women - such as millinery or teaching - might have reflected poorly on her father and brother's ability to fulfill their cultural roles as men. Thus it wouldn't be surprising if she was encouraged to marry - implicitly if not explicitly - in order to ease her family's financial burden and fulfill her own culturally prescribed role.

So what happened to Rachel Ann? Of course, we know from the will that she ultimately married, but I had the hardest time tracking her down. I guess it shouldn't have surprised me that in a document with a number of spelling idiosyncrasies - including "exutors," "autherize," "equily," "shair," and "intrest"- that Rachel's married name was spelled incorrectly. "Brazill" was actually "Bradsell."

Richard Bradsell, who was ten years his wife's senior, was born in New York to English parents. In 1880, the couple was living together in North Castle.

1880 Federal Census
Since Richard and Rachel weren't married until after 1870 (according to the 1900 census, they were married in 1874), Hiram Bradsell, a 21-year-old shoemaker, must have been Richard's son from his previous marriage. The other three sons were presumably Richard and Rachel's, her first-born son named for his grandfather Thomas. So Rachel, like her mother, didn't have children until her 30s. Given the trend in my own peer group, I suppose Susan and Rachel were just ahead of the times (though I doubt either was delaying childbearing until she was ABD).

According to the census, Richard was a "painter." The 1900 census is more specific - he was a house painter. In that year, he and Rachel were living with three of their sons - Thomas, Walter, and William - and Thomas's wife Theda. Rachel was said to be the mother of five children, one of whom had died. Thomas was a hotel keeper and farmer, Walter was a farm laborer, and William, who was only 14, was in school.

There are no real conclusions to be drawn here, only speculation. Did Thomas Brundage anticipate that his daughter would be destitute? Perhaps not, but the possibility was on his mind, perhaps because of his own experience struggling to support a family on a farmhand's wage. Perhaps the most important knowledge to take away from this, from my perspective, is the fact that people like Thomas were aware that women - even married women living in a middle-class community - could become destitute, and that the beneficence of their relatives might be all that kept them from the almshouse. Other fathers might have trusted that their sons would take care of their daughters in such a situation, but Thomas Brundage wasn't willing to take that chance.

While I can't comment on the moral character of Rachel's brothers in particular, I have seen records from the almshouse explicitly stating that a female resident was left destitute by relatives who either refused to support her or actually took her money. One widow allegedly had her savings squandered by her son and his wife; another languished in the poorhouse while her well-off children refused to provide for her. Perhaps Thomas Brundage wasn't even considering his son-in-law's ability to provide for his daughter; maybe he was looking ahead to her potential widowhood and the children, then only hypothetical, who might abuse or neglect her.

One part of the package of assumptions that overlies the middle class is that middle-classness is a relatively stable part of one's identity, much like race or gender. Class, then and now, is so much more than one's level of income or amount of property owned; it is a part of one's worldview and way of existing in the world. Yet middle-class people in the 19th century were often much closer to the margins than they would like to believe. Class could not be taken for granted, but had to be continuously cultivated and perpetuated from generation to generation. One couple's hard work to establish and maintain their middle-class status could all be undone if the next generation was too irresponsible or simply too unlucky. Provisions like those in Thomas Brundage's acted as insurance on the middle-class status - the class associated more than any others with simple "comfort," rather than luxury (upper class) or hardship (lower class) - of their successors. Thus, middle-class status was, in some respects, a heritable trait - but one that could be very easily lost.

Family Tree
  1. Thomas H. Brundage (1818-1875) m. Susan Brundage (1807-1868)
    1. John Brundage (1838-) m. Unknown
      1. Susan Brundage (1868-) 
    2. Nathan Brundage (1840-)
    3. Rachel Ann Brundage (1843-) m. Richard Bradsell (1833-) in 1874
      1. Thomas R. Bradsell (1875-) m. Theda
      2. Samuel T. Bradsell (1878-)
      3. Walter Bradsell (1879-)
      4. William Bradsell (1885-)
    4. Walter Timothy Brundage (1848-)