Margaret Brent (1601-1671)
Margaret Brent was born around 1601 to a landed family in Gloucestershire, England. Because the Brent family was Roman Catholic, they experienced religious persecution during the Protestant reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The family, which included thirteen children, also experienced financial troubles. In 1638, Margaret Brent, along with her sister Mary and her brothers Giles and Fulke, migrated to the Maryland colony. By emigrating they hoped to find a new place where they could maintain both their wealth and their Catholicism.
The Brents were distantly related to the Calverts, the Catholic ruling family of Maryland. Cecilius Calvert, Lord Baltimore, was the Proprietor of Maryland and his brother Leonard Calvert was Governor. Under their rule, Maryland became known as a refuge for persecuted English Catholics. Margaret Brent brought with her a land grant, designating a tract of land for her and her sister. A single woman migrating to Maryland was not unusual, but Brent was unique in that she traveled as the head of her own household. With their seventy acres, the Brent sisters established the “Sisters Freehold” outside St. Mary’s City. In 1642 Margaret received 1000 additional acres from her brother Giles. This large amount of land made Brent an independent, propertied woman.
Because Margaret Brent never married, she retained certain legal rights that a woman would typically lose upon marriage. She appeared in court several times to file suits against her debtors. With her single status she could represent herself instead of having a man represent her. She was not considered a lawyer, as lawyers did not appear in Maryland courts until the 1660s. She was simply an independent woman who was defending her own legal and financial affairs. Brent was also named guardian, along with Governor Calvert, of Mary Kitomaquund, the daughter of a local Piscataway chief. In this role she became well acquainted with her distant relative Governor Calvert.
In 1645 Maryland Protestants rebelled against the Catholic government in an event known as Ingle’s Rebellion. Governor Calvert hired mercenary soldiers from Virginia to fight the insurgents and end the rebellion. He was successful, but he died soon after in 1647. Shortly before he died, Governor Calvert named Margaret Brent the executrix of his will. As Governor, Leonard Calvert had power of attorney for his brother, Lord Baltimore. Upon Leonard Calvert’s death, Brent also succeeded to Baltimore’s power of attorney.
The responsibility of executrix was demanding because Leonard Calvert had died before any of the mercenary soldiers had been paid for their service. They remained camped around St. Mary’s City, ready to mutiny if they were not paid. To handle the crisis, Brent first imported corn from Virginia to feed the soldiers. To pay them, she liquidated every part of Calvert’s estate that she could. She was forbidden, however, from selling any of his land because it had to be kept intact for his heir. When Leonard Calvert’s estate could not cover the debt, she sold cattle that belonged to Lord Baltimore. The soldiers dispersed once they were paid, and the Catholic government remained firmly in power.
With the power she wielded as executrix of Calvert’s estate, Margaret Brent appeared before the Maryland Assembly on January 21, 1648. She demanded two votes: one vote as a freeholder of land, and one vote for her position as Lord Baltimore’s legal representative. The assembly denied her request, but she remains the first woman recorded who demanded the right to vote in an English colony.
Lord Baltimore was angered that Brent had sold his cattle. He accused her specifically of wasting his property and the Brent family in general for taking his property. The Brents lost favor with the Catholic leaders in Maryland. In 1651 Margaret and Mary Brent acquired land in Virginia. There they established a plantation named “Peace.” It was there that Margaret Brent died in 1671.
Margaret Brent’s status as independent and unmarried was rare for a woman of her time. She was one of the few women who remained unmarried for her entire life in the male-dominated Chesapeake society. By remaining single, though, she retained a large amount of legal power. She represented herself in court and handled the affairs of two prominent and powerful men. With this power she was able to avert a rebellion and preserve the Catholic government in colonial Maryland.
- Dames and Daughters of Colonial Days. Geraldine Brooks
- Political Participation in the United States. M. Margaret Conway.
- Carr, Louise Green. “Margaret Brent – A Brief History.” http://www.msa.md.gov/msa/speccol/sc3500/sc3520/002100/002177/html/mbrent2.html. 13 April 2007.
- Walker, Niki. Colonial Women. New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 2003.
- PHOTO: "Margaret Brent," Maryland State Archives, 2000, http://archive1.mdarchives.state.md.us/msa/speccol/sc1500/sc1545/e_catalogue/html/objects/1545_0789.html13 April 2007.