A Winn Story: Henrietta Winn Robertson of Sumner Co., TN

Time for a quick detour from the Rankin families of Frederick, VA and southwestern PA …

One of the nice things about family history and DNA tests is that you  meet a lot of nice people. Many of them are relatives, do good research, and are happy to share information and great family stories.

My distant Winn cousin Terri Works of Jackson, California emailed just such a story. Terri is descended from Daniel Winn of Lunenburg County, Virginia, who died there about 1799. Her ancestors are Orsamus Winn, one of Daniel’s nine sons, and Orsamus’s son Woodson Winn. Her Winn line includes a great-great-great-aunt Henrietta Winn, born in 1832 in Sumner County, TN. Henrietta and her brothers Richard and William Winn were children of Woodson Winn and his wife Jane Wilkes.

Here is Terri’s story about Henrietta.

In October 1848, when she was 16, Henrietta Winn married William T. Robertson in Sumner County. He is the bad guy in this story.

Henrietta’s father Woodson died in 1852, leaving his estate in equal shares to all his children. Henrietta sued her brothers Richard and William Winn, executors of Woodson’s estate, AND her husband, for her share. Since she had no standing in a court of law as a married woman, a male friend sued in her behalf. In the pleadings, William Robertson is described as “clever but improvident.” The suit ended in her favor: the court ordered that she was to receive her share of her father’s estate free from any liabilities of her present or any future husband. The brothers, however, claimed that they didn’t have the money in hand but had plans to pay her.

In September 1853, Henrietta sued her husband William Robertson for divorce. Here are some excerpts from her suit (unclear words or phrases are noted):

“She would further show, that they have two children. The oldest named Isaac is about three years old and the other named Edward is about twelve months old….

… she was on a visit to her sister and while there, the [defendant William Robertson] took the child to his mother against her wish and request. Shortly after he carried the child to an examination (? word is unclear) in the neighborhood and while there became intoxicated and on his …(transcript unclear) … drunk, the child in some way had his thigh broke; and the defendant rode up to a (???) … in the road, with the child before him, with its leg dangling about and the child suffering the most excruciating pain. The [defendant], being too drunk to feel or appreciate the [pain] of this child. A physician was called in and the conduct of the defendant was most shameful while the broke limb was being set…..

… since the settlement of the property upon her (from her father’s estate) he has done any thing in his power to aggravate her and render her unhappy. …..(the following is struck out: He accused her of having taken medicine to produce an abortion) and also accused her of a (lack) of chastity and of being too intimate with her brother-in-law. He has also cursed her and used the most insulting languages to her -….the [defendant] has taken the oldest child and refuses to give it up…he also has a bed and clothing given to her by her father which he refuses to give up.

The court granted Henrietta’s divorce from William Robertson in October 1853. She had also sought custody of the children, asked to have her maiden name restored, and requested the names of her two sons be changed to Winn. You’ve got to admire that kind of courage and determination in an era when women had so few rights.

Henrietta won the divorce battle. Unfortunately, she lost the war concerning her two children: the 1860 census shows her son Isaac F. Roberson [sic], age 10, in the household of his father, W. T. Roberson. William then had a new wife named Mary, two small children with the surname Roberson, and two older children with the surname Mungall, presumably Mary’s by an earlier marriage. There was no sign of Edward, who had apparently died.

 There is nevertheless a modestly happy ending. Henrietta married G. S. Barnett, a neighbor who gave a deposition in the lawsuits against Richard Winn concerning Woodson’s estate.  Henrietta and Mr. Barnett went on to have two daughters. Henrietta most likely died between 1868 and 1870, probably in Montgomery County, Tennessee.

Note: all of the research is Terri’s. She found the information about Henrietta’s suit to obtain her inheritance and the divorce proceedings among the records in the Sumner County archives in Gallatin, Tennessee. Thanks again to Terri for the research and for sharing the story!

5 thoughts on “A Winn Story: Henrietta Winn Robertson of Sumner Co., TN”

  1. Thank you so much . Another important bit of Winn family history is no longer a mystery . I so enjoy reading your blog.
    Keep it up.

  2. What a story, Robin! Glad to hear it had at least something of a happy ending for poor Henrietta. Under the coverture system of the Southern states, women had an awfully difficult time for many years — no ability to take legal action without a man “covering” for them, etc.

    I have always loved the story (I think I first met it in David Hackett Fischer’s “Albion’s Seed,” of what happened when Sarah Harrison married Dr. James Blair, founder of William and Mary College in 1687. When the minister read the marriage vows to Sarah, she responded, “No obey.”

    He repeated the line from the marriage ceremony in which she would promise to obey her husband. Again, she responded, “No obey.”

    He tried it a third time and then got another, “No obey,” and then he decided to go on with the marriage ceremony.

    1. Bill, it wasn’t just the southern states that considered women under the legal disability called “coverture:” it was any state that adopted wholesale the English common law, which was adopted by all of the colonies. In fact, the English common law was adopted by every state except Louisiana. Coverture was addressed (removed) by statute on a state-by-state basis.

      Meanwhile, thank you for the great story about “no obey.”

      1. Robin, thank you for that valuable lesson in legal history. I had known that the concept of “coverture” came to us from English common law, but somehow seem to have been misinformed about how extensive it was in American law. I had thought it prevailed in the Southern states because they tended (with the exception of Louisiana) to model their law on the codes of Virginia, and that may have led me to assume other colonies didn’t have the concept. Thanks for telling me otherwise.

        Yes, I’ve long loved that story about the marriage of Dr. Blair and Miss Harrison, which I think I first met in David Hackett Fischer’s “Albion’s Seed.”

        1. PS I have corrected the error in my original reply. Every US state EXCEPT Louisiana adopted the English common law. My home state either adopted the Napoleonic Code or some model thereof … I’m not sure which.

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