Susannah Sanders Cooper (d. after June 9, 1751)

Susannah Sanders Cooper tested restraints on married women's property ownership in eighteenth-century Virginia. In 1717 Susannah Sanders married Isles Cooper, but he had deserted her by 1720 and later illegally married at least two other women. Her husband's creditors seized assets she had brought to her marriage. She later engaged in business in her own name, including operating an ordinary in New Kent County for many years. Early in the 1740s Cooper petitioned the House of Burgesses to protect her estate, to allow her to operate as a feme sole, and to enable her to bequeath her property to her son. The burgesses and governor's Council agreed in 1744 and forwarded the bill to London for the Crown's review. The Privy Council ignored the bill for many years and did not approve it. In June 1751 Cooper's husband sold her property to a son born of one of his illegal marriages, after which Susannah Sanders Cooper disappeared from public records. MORE...

 

Cooper was born probably late in the 1690s or early in the 1700s. It is likely, though by no means certain, that she was the Susannah Sanders, daughter of William Sanders, who was baptized in Saint Peter's Parish in New Kent County on February 24, 1703. The name of her mother may have been Elizabeth.

Sanders married Isles Cooper, a York County widower, in 1717. Within three years of their marriage, her husband had deserted her and their young son and perhaps a daughter. It was probably this action that spurred his father to disinherit him early in October 1719. Isles Cooper disappeared from York County records in that year. He lived in Norfolk County for a time, eventually settled in Currituck County, North Carolina, and illegally married at least twice more. Susannah Cooper asserted that during the few years of their cohabitation, her husband squandered most of the assets she had brought to the marriage. After his departure, his creditors seized what remained of her estate in order to satisfy the many debts he had contracted. For a time Cooper relied on friends and family for support. During the next twenty years "by her own industry," as she proudly recorded, she purchased land and several slaves (at least some of whom she had baptized and engaged in business under her own name). She operated a New Kent County ordinary that provided food, lodging, and stableage, purchased forms for making out bills of exchange, and sold goods such as almanacs.

Although Cooper's predicament could have remained her own private misfortune, the issue of her control over her property became a test case determining a married woman's rights. More than twenty years after her abandonment, Cooper petitioned the House of Burgesses to protect her hard-earned estate from her husband and his creditors and to secure her rights to sue and be sued, to make contracts as if she had never married, and to bequeath her property to her son. She carefully documented the details of her marriage and abandonment. The burgesses and governor's Council passed authorization for Cooper to dispose of her property as a feme sole, or unmarried woman, in September 1744. In transmitting the private bill to London for the Crown's review, Lieutenant Governor William Gooch urged speedy approval because "should her Husband return before this Bill is confirmed by His Majesty, all that she has, with great Industry and Honesty gott, since he left her, will be forced from her." The Privy Council dawdled for almost a decade and finally, on the advice of the king's legal counsel in February 1754, either rejected the bill outright or allowed it to die on the grounds that an act of assembly could not without a husband's consent remove the rights he held in the personal estate of his wife.

Although recourse to the General Assembly provided one solution for deserted wives trying to regain control of property, an earlier generation within Isles Cooper's family found an informal resolution to marital breakdown. In 1675 his grandfather, Thomas Isles, acknowledged he had fathered a child outside wedlock. Rather than turn to the assembly, as Susannah Cooper later did, Elizabeth Isles, the wronged wife, petitioned the York County Court to regain control of her property for the good of herself and her children, demanded that her husband relinquish half the family's property to her, and insisted that Thomas Isles post a bond to leave her alone. The Isleses' case demonstrates that a family could resolve issues arising from marital division, even when coverture remained in effect. In the 1744 bill, Cooper and the Virginia government sought a more sweeping resolution than had her grandmother-in-law.

Cooper continued to conduct business in New Kent County under her own name until 1751. On June 9 of that year Isles Cooper sold all the property at her New Kent County Court House plantation (including slaves, livestock, household goods, furniture, and bonds) to John Cooper, his son from one of his subsequent illegal marriages. Merchants' account books that had listed Susannah Cooper's business in her own name before 1751 began to render her accounts under the name of John Cooper. The assets may have supported Cooper in her old age, as she wished, but her stepson had the final word on how the money and property were managed and disposed of.

Isles Cooper wrote his will in July 1762 and had died in Currituck County, North Carolina, by July of the following year. Susannah Sanders Cooper, who tested Anglo-American restraints on married women's property ownership in Virginia for more than thirty years, disappeared from New Kent County records after June 9, 1751. Her fate, death date, and place of burial are not known.

Time Line

  • February 24, 1703 - Susannah Sanders, daughter of William Sanders, is baptized in Saint Peter's Parish in New Kent County. This may be the same woman who later petitions the General Assembly to protect her estate from her estranged husband's creditors.
  • 1717 - Susannah Sanders marries Isles Cooper, a York County widower.
  • October 1719 - Isles Cooper's father disinherits him, perhaps because Cooper abandoned his wife and young child or children.
  • 1720 - By this time, Isles Cooper has abandoned his wife Susannah Sanders Cooper, their young son, and perhaps a daughter.
  • September 1744 - The General Assembly passes "An Act, to enable Susannah Cooper, to sell and dispose of her personal estate, by deed or will notwithstanding her husband, Isles Cooper, shall happen to be living; and for other purposes therein mentioned," authorizing Susannah Sanders Cooper to dispose of her property as a feme sole, or unmarried woman.
  • June 9, 1751 - Isles Cooper sells all the property at Susannah Sanders Cooper's New Kent County Court House plantation to John Cooper, his son from an illegal marriage. Merchants' account books that had listed Susannah Cooper's business in her own name begin to render her accounts under the name of John Cooper. She disappears from New Kent County records.
  • February 1754 - The Privy Council either rejects outright or allows to die the bill authorizing Susannah Sanders Cooper to dispose of her property as a feme sole, or unmarried woman, on the grounds that an act of assembly could not without a husband's consent remove the rights he held in the personal estate of his wife.
  • July 1762 - Isles Cooper writes his will. He dies in Currituck County, North Carolina, by July of the following year.
Further Reading
Sturtz, Linda L. Within Her Power: Propertied Women in Colonial Virginia. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Sturtz, Linda L. "Susannah Sanders Cooper." In Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, edited by Sara B. Bearss et al., 448–449. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2006.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Sturtz, L. L., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Susannah Sanders Cooper (d. after June 9, 1751). (2013, September 11). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Cooper_Susannah_Sanders_d_after_9_June_1751.

  • MLA Citation:

    Sturtz, Linda L. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Susannah Sanders Cooper (d. after June 9, 1751)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 11 Sep. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: November 2, 2012 | Last modified: September 11, 2013