Colonial New York Woman
Image: Mary Alexander Burial Site
Trinity Churchyard, Manhattan
Mary Spratt Provoost Alexander (born 1694, New York) was a dry goods importer and real estate entrepreneur in New York City, who was descended from wealthy merchants on all sides. Mary’s mother and grandmother ran their husbands’ mercantile businesses after their deaths. Mary’s grandmother, Cornelia DePeyster, who raised Mary from the age of seven, was a major merchant in her own right, and was rated one of the wealthiest people in New York in 1695.
Mary married the thriving Dutch merchant Samuel Provoost in 1711. The Spratts, de Peysters, and Provoosts were all prominent families of colonial New York. When Samuel died around 1720, he left his fortune to his widow absolutely. Mary assumed control of his business, adding considerably to the family fortune.
In 1721, Mary married again, this time to a prominent attorney James Alexander, who also had a merchant business. It is said that Mary financed him and provided him with valuable contacts, and he later became the Attorney General of New York and Surveyor General of New Jersey.
The couple built a magnificent mansion and lived well. Their wealth, in today’s dollars, would have made them millionaires. Mary gave birth to ten children, and many of her children lived extraordinary lives in commerce and trade as well as becoming involved in civic matters. James’ will also left everything to Mary absolutely.
Mary turned her financial and personal capital to become one of the most successful traders in the city. As both a merchant and a shopkeeper, she participated in both local and international markets. Mary is said to have laid the first paved sidewalk in New York, in front of her store and offices, for the convenience of her customers.
Mary’s incomplete business papers indicate that she imported large amounts of dry goods, china, and groceries from London merchants Samuel Storke and David Barclay. She also retailed them to residents of New York City, Albany, and New
Mary Alexander’s wealth brought parts of her business into a realm quite different from that of small and middling traders. Her volume of trade was high enough that she could depend on just one or two London factors to handle her imports, and she was able to reduce her shipping costs considerably by purchasing a one-sixth share in a sloop.
After Mary Spratt Provoost Alexander’s death in 1760, more than £15,568 went to her heirs. Yet despite the unusually large sums that constituted her business, her transactions were nonetheless limited and shaped by her gender. Like most married women, she had lost control of some of her profits to her husband.
Women Under Dutch Rule
Much of Mary Alexander’s life bears out the impression that Dutch women participated in trade extensively and without interference from their husbands. Alexander became one of the wealthiest women in New York, thanks to her elite family connections and her trading acumen.
Dutch women colonists had a tradition of merchandising and trade. For the most part, such women have been seen as holdovers from the days of Dutch settlement. Early modern Dutch property law, in contrast to English common law, allowed women to own and transfer property regardless of their marital status.
In colonial Dutch New Amsterdam law – before the English took control in 1664 and renamed it New York City – there was the concept of the mutual will, which was based on the understanding that husbands and wives were equal economic partners in a marriage.
Women Under English Rule
The coming of the English did not spell immediate doom for the women of New Amsterdam. Vestiges of a Dutch culture that both celebrated commerce and treated women as independent economic agents remained in New York, and made it an easier place for women to pursue business.
Over the course of the eighteenth century, as New York City became increasingly British, the mutual will was often replaced by one in which children, and particularly sons, inherited property, not the widow.
Still more damaging to women’s property rights was the introduction of coverture into New York’s laws. The British legal term of coverture assumed that a married woman owned nothing, not even her own clothing. Her husband was the sole possessor of all family property.