ELIZABETH UNDERWOOD IN THE COLONY OF VIRGINIA
by Betty Lou Gaeng
As we begin searching for our roots, some only wish to find those roots and then walk away satisfied. However, there are those of us who follow the lure to find information regarding the personal lives of our ancestors and their families. We have been captured and thus we become the storytellers of the families. I was one of those snared by the lure, captured enough to wander off the beaten path. In so doing, I discovered Elizabeth UNDERWOOD, the younger sister of Col. William UNDERWOOD, my gr-gr-gr-gr-gr-gr-gr-gr-grandfather.
In our present day, Elizabeth UNDERWOOD’s life would not be considered unusual, but in her time, the mid-1600s, amid England’s Tidewater settlers in Sittingbourne Parish, Old Rappahannock County, in the Royal Colony of Virginia, (1) she seemed to have had a celebrity appeal. Elizabeth UNDERWOOD’s life was noticed by historians centuries later.
Elizabeth was born in 1632, perhaps in Old England—at least her ties to the old country were noticeably strong. As mentioned, she was the sister of William UNDERWOOD, my lineal ancestor. They were the children of William and Margaret UNDERWOOD. The father William was born in England and died in Virginia in 1643. His widow Margaret went on to marry two more times. The men she chose were both well known in the early days of the Colony, Col. John UPTON and Capt. Thomas LUCAS. When widowed, ladies in those early days of our country did not remain alone for long. They were sought after not only because of the scarcity of women, but when left with children to raise and property to be administered, they found the need for a man’s hand. Also, I imagine it was a way for a man to increase the value of his own estate. In those times, it was definitely a man’s world.
Elizabeth is interesting to me because she appears to have been a woman who did not always follow the role expected of her. She seemed to maintain her own identity during an age when most women’s lives were unnoticed. Because of this, her lifestyle was chronicled—very unusual. How many times have we wished that our own ancestress was documented with more than the description….. his wife?
Domestic Life in Virginia (2) on page 46 tells the story of an unusual event occurring March 26, 1654, and gives us an interesting look into the private life of Elizabeth UNDERWOOD.
“Divorce in Virginia rarely occurred. There was no Ecclesiastical Court and therefore, no source of authority to which dissatisfied couples might turn. The Governor and Council were vested with the power to grant separations, which were seldom sought. One of the very few cases of separation and remarriage was that of Elizabeth, sister of Colonel William Underwood and ex-wife of Doctor James Taylor. After petitioning the Governor and Council for separation, she married as her second husband Francis Slaughter, merchant and planter of Rappahannock County, who was deceased by 1656, his will naming his wife and mother-in-law. Incidently [sic], Elizabeth had in all, four husbands before her death in 1673.It struck my fancy that for a short while, Elizabeth was Elizabeth TAYLOR. Poor Dr. TAYLOR; we are left to wonder why he didn’t measure up to Elizabeth’s expectations. Perhaps he was sickly, or perhaps he died of a broken heart? The actual truth was that in her petition for official separation which was presented to the Governor and the Council, Elizabeth stated she feared she would be killed or maimed if she remained with Dr. TAYLOR. She had returned to her mother’s home. It was not long after this that Dr. James TAYLOR departed this world. In the accounting of his estate in Surrey County, Virginia on May 1, 1655, Elizabeth was mentioned as the wife of Francis SLAUGHTER. Mr. Slaughter, as the husband of Elizabeth, was devised one-third of Dr. TAYLOR’s estate in right of his wife.
Once she was officially freed by the death of Dr. TAYLOR, Elizabeth did not waste any time in marrying again. As mentioned above, her second husband Francis SLAUGHTER was a merchant and planter. He also served as Captain of the Militia and Justice of the County of Rappahannock. Francis and Elizabeth SLAUGHTER sold the Surrey County legacy soon after Dr. TAYLOR’s estate matters were finalized. They then moved to Old Rappahannock County. Even though Mr. SLAUGHTER was a young man, still in his twenties, he rapidly became an active member of the newly established county. (3)
Alas, Elizabeth’s marriage to Mr. SLAUGHTER soon ended. He apparently died before ever knowing he was to have a son. Mr. SLAUGHTER’s will, proved 1656/57 named his wife Elizabeth, his mother-in-law Mrs. Margaret UPTON, and his brother-in-law Colonel Moore FAUNTLEROY. However, he did not name any issue, nor did he mention expected issue. An abstract of Francis SLAUGHTER’s will was presented by W. G. Stanard in his Abstracts of Rappahannock County Wills.
Francis Slaughter. Sick in body. To my mother-in-law, Mrs. Margaret Upton, 10 shillings to buy her a pair of gloves. My brother-in-law, Col. Moore Fauntleroy, my book entitled Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Policy. To Andrew, my overseer as much broadcloth as will make him a suit. To my dear wife, Mrs. Elizabeth Slaughter, all the rest of my estate, and I appoint her executrix, reserving and excepting my rapier and belt and a young mare that runs either about Lyons or Lower Chipoaxe creek. I appoint my good friend and loving brother, Humphrey Booth, assistant to my wife, and give him the said rapier and mare.Many years later, when Elizabeth executed her own will, she did name her son Francis SLAUGHTER as one of her heirs. The SLAUGHTER name in the history of Virginia is a very well documented.
A few years after the death of Mr. SLAUGHTER, Elizabeth married again. As her third husband she chose another man from an important Virginia family, the very wealthy Col. John CATLETT. (4) This marriage was of a longer duration and Elizabeth and Col. CATLETT had four children: Sarah, John Jr., Elizabeth and William. Evidently, with this marriage and motherhood, Elizabeth settled down as her lifestyle was not documented during this time.
However, once again Elizabeth was widowed. John CATLETT died in1670, killed by Indians as he was helping defend a frontier fort near Port Royal along the Rappahannock River. Elizabeth was left on her own to raise four young children in addition to her son Francis SLAUGHTER. Not one to remain single for long, Elizabeth married again. This time she made a different choice in husbands. As her fourth and final husband, Elizabeth chose a man of the cloth, Rev. Amory BUTLER. Rev. BUTLER was the brother of Mary BUTLER, the wife of Elizabeth’s nephew and another of my ancestors, Maj. William UNDERWOOD III. (5)
In Rappahannock County Court during May of 1671, prior to their marriage, Rev. BUTLER executed a pre-nuptial agreement relinquishing any right of entitlement to Elizabeth’s estate, with exception to the proceeds which were to be used for the maintenance of Elizabeth’s children.
During her marriage to Rev. BUTLER, Elizabeth’s lifestyle seemed once again a subject for discussion. In the publication Domestic Life in Virginia (cited below) on page 52, homes and furnishings in early-day Virginia were discussed with this information included:
The four-times married Mrs. Amory Butler owned a rare item in an extension table.Page 53 of this same publication again noted Elizabeth BUTLER’s home furnishings:
The well-to-do planters, especially after 1650, brought with them, or sent for, a wide variety of table-linen, and both Mrs. Butler and Mrs. Digges owned napkin-presses, that for the former [Elizabeth Butler] listed in 1673, and that of the latter in 1692.The early and sad conclusion to the life of Elizabeth UNDERWOOD is noted on page 67 of Domestic Life in Virginia:
In 1673, Mrs. Amory Butler, nee Elizabeth Underwood (Taylor-Slaughter-Catlett) left to legatees a collection of jewelry probably assembled, in part, during her four ventures in matrimony. These jewels included her wedding ring—to which husband it is not known—two big stone rings, a blue enameled ring, two mourning rings, a small diamond ring and a large diamond ring, a small pearl necklace and a necklace with large pearls, a silver bodkin and a gilded bodkin, a pair of silver buttons, and a pair of silver buckles.Elizabeth’s will was a very lengthy one, and very unusual for a woman of her time and place. (6) The information given in her will showed that it was written sometime after her marriage to Amory BUTLER, but no date is established as to actual execution. However, the date given for proving was May 7, 1673 in the Parish of Sittingbourne, County of Rappahannock in the Colony of Virginia. In her will, Elizabeth mentioned that each of her daughters was to receive her own legacy in her own name either at the age of seventeen or the date of marriage, whichever came first. Elizabeth divided her estate equally between her five children with the exception of small individual personal bequests. Elizabeth also stressed the desire that her CATLETT children be educated in England, requesting that this matter be handled by her husband Rev. BUTLER. She also stated that when the children completed their education in England, she wished him to see that they were brought back to their home in Virginia.
In her will, Elizabeth voiced very strong opinions as to how she wanted her tobacco plantation managed on behalf of her children. She left strict orders for her overseer. The instructions voiced in her will showed she was no quiet little wife without knowledge of managing her own estate during her lifetime and in stipulating what she desired after her death.
Elizabeth was 41 years old when she died. In those few years she lived a prosperous life, but one that included tempest and trials. Even death did not appear to remove the stigma of her multiple marriages and her audacity in separating herself from her first husband. Because of the interest by others in her lifestyle and possessions her descendants are able to know more about Elizabeth UNDERWOOD than the normal statement…..she was his wife.
NOTES1 Old Rappahannock County was formed from Lancaster County in 1656. Old Rappahannock County became extinct in 1692 and was divided into Essex and Richmond counties. The records are now held at the Essex County Courthouse in Tappahannock, Virginia.
2 Annie Lash Jester, Domestic Life in Virginia, In the Seventeenth Century, originally published 1957. Reprinted for Clearfield Company, Inc. by Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., Baltimore, Maryland 1994, 1998. Jamestown 350th Anniversary Historical Booklet Number 17.
3 Adventurers of Purse and Person, Virginia 1607-1624/25; Revised and Edited by Virginia M. Meyer (1974-1981) John Frederick Dorman, F.A.S.G. (1981-1987); Published by Order of First Families of Virginia, 1607-1624/5; Third Edition 1987.
4 Dorothy Ford Wulfeck; Marriages of Some Virginia Residents, 1607-1800.
6 Underwood Family of Virginia published in Genealogies of Virginia Families, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. V, Page 631. Rappahannock County Wills, Order Book, 1664-1673.
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