Migration to Maryland
Margaret Brent, born about 1601 in Gloucester, England, was one of thirteen children born to Richard and Elizabeth Brent. In 1638, she migrated to Maryland with her brother Giles and her sister Mary. The Brents were a Catholic family, and Margaret Brent and her siblings might have been motivated to move to Maryland where, unlike England, they could practice their religion without penalty. They were likely associated with or related to another Catholic family, the Calverts, who founded Maryland. After the Brents arrived, Cecil Calvert, second Lord Baltimore and proprietor of Maryland, granted them the same generous amount of land as the original Maryland settlers.
Brent’s status as a single woman was unusual in Maryland at that time, when men outnumberedsix to one. Her sister Mary also remained unmarried; together, they established an estate in Saint Mary’s County named Sister’s Freehold, where they grew and imported whose indentures they sold. Margaret Brent held additional property and a profitable mill on Kent Island. She handled her own business affairs, even appearing in court to represent her interests, and served as attorney for about a dozen other colonists, including her brother Giles. In 1641 Brent, along with Maryland governor Leonard Calvert, was named guardian of Mary Kittamaquund, the daughter of a Piscataway Indian tayac, or chief. Under Brent’s influence and that of Jesuit missionaries, Kittamaquund converted to Christianity in 1642. She married Giles Brent around 1644. (In 1652, Mary and Giles had a son, also named , who would participate in ).
Margaret Brent is most famous for the role she played in Maryland politics between 1644 and 1649, when tensions between Catholics and Protestants in that colony ran high, influenced in part by the(1642–1651) and in part by the class divide in Maryland, which ran along religious lines. Maryland’s proprietor, its governor, and many of its wealthiest citizens were Catholic, while most of its labor force was Protestant. Protestants and Parliamentarians perceived Maryland as a place of tyrannical rule similar to that of England’s King Charles I. In 1645 Richard Ingle, a ship’s captain, tobacco trader, and Parliamentarian, invaded Saint Mary’s City (then the capital of Maryland) and plundered the homes of its Catholics. During this raid, Brent’s brother Giles was captured, imprisoned, and sent back to England.
After the raid, several of Maryland’s elite, including Governor Leonard Calvert, fled to Virginia. Brent, however, remained. In 1646 Governor Calvert, hoping to retake the colony, returned with a force of about twenty-eight men from Maryland and Virginia (including). Calvert had recruited these men by promising to reward them for their service. Late in 1646, he reestablished control of the Maryland government, but had not yet paid out his men’s wages. Calvert soon fell ill and died in June 1647. On his deathbed he named Brent his executrix, telling her, “Take all, and pay all.”
This was easier said than done. The men who had fought with Calvert demanded the wages promised to them, threatening mutiny, but Calvert’s estate proved insufficient to meet their demands. Calvert had also promised them food, but at that time corn was in short supply in Maryland. To resolve the shortfalls, Brent sold cattle owned by Cecil Calvert, second Lord Baltimore, to pay the men their wages and imported corn from Virginia to feed them. Her actions pacified the mercenaries and preserved the Calvert family’s power.
Migration to Virginia
On January 21, 1648, Brent went before Maryland’s General Assembly to request “a vote in the howse for her selfe and voyce allso … as his Lordship’s Attorney.” She was the first woman in the colonies to make such a request. Despite the role she had played in preserving the Calverts’ leadership in Maryland, Thomas Greene—whom Leonard Calvert had appointed governor just before his death—denied her request. Lord Baltimore, in England, was also less than grateful after hearing of Brent’s actions. After learning that Brent had sold his cattle without his permission, he became enraged. The General Assembly defended Brent’s actions, responding,
it was better for the Collonys safety at that time in her hands then in any mans else in the whole Province after your Brothers death for the Soldiers would never have treated any other with that Civility and respect and though they were even ready at several times to run into mutiny yet she still pacified them … we conceive from that time she rather deserved favour and thanks from your Honour for her so much Concurring to the publick safety then to be justly liable to all those bitter invectives you have been pleased to Express against her.
But by this time the Brents (including Giles Brent, who had returned to Maryland from England) had fallen out of Baltimore’s favor for good. Sometime after December 1648, Giles Brent abandoned his property in Maryland and moved across the Potomac River into Virginia. Margaret Brent and her sister Mary Brent followed, settling in Northumberland County in the Northern Neck.
When Brent left her home in Maryland, she abandoned not only her land and her political influence, but also her ability to worship freely. Thewas the established church of Virginia, and Governor worked with the General Assembly to enforce practice of the Anglican faith. Under his administration, religious nonconformists were excluded from ministering and holding public office. As a result, Brent remained active in business and legal affairs, frequently witnessing Giles Brent’s business dealings, but stayed out of politics, perhaps to avoid drawing attention to herself.
Brent named her Virginia plantation Peace. In the 1650s and 1660s Brent and her siblings drew Maryland refugees, servants, and laborers to their settlement, establishing what is considered Virginia’s first Roman Catholic community and increasing the area’s population. Westmoreland County was established in this area in 1653, although that name does not appear in the records of Virginia’suntil 1655. Mary Brent died in 1658 and left her estate to her sister. When Margaret Brent wrote her own will in 1663, she bequeathed her property to her brother Giles Brent and her nephews Richard and . At the time of her death in 1671, she and her siblings allegedly held nearly 10,000 acres of land in Virginia.