Theresa and Charles Wriston: Chapter Two

Who would have ever thought? Last week's post, which involved Charles Wriston, his wife, Theresa, and their two children, triggered a lot of feedback. The responses tended to fall into two categories.

The California Constitution of 1849, written at Colton Hall, Monterey, granted women trailblazing rights.

The California Constitution of 1849, written at Colton Hall, Monterey, granted women trailblazing rights.

The first filled in missing biographical details. Thanks to one of Charles's blood relatives, I know now that he lived to the ripe old age of ninety. Men characterized by "habitual intemperance and dissipation" usually don't live that long—sometimes they do, but not usually. It looks as though Charles mended his ways.

As for Theresa, according to another reader—someone who seems well-versed with an array of genealogical resources—she and her husband continued living together at the Boston House at least until 1925. They evidently continued in that relationship at other addresses in Stockton from around 1930 until at least 1940.

The children's fate is unknown.

The feedback that intrigued me the most came from my good friend, Norm, who worked at the appellate level of the California State court system until his retirement a few years ago. Theresa's legal situation triggered memories of his that reach back to his days in law school. Norm steered me in a direction that eventually led me to an article titled "California's Sole Traders," written by attorney and genealogist Judy G. Russell.

Russell reminds readers that women in nineteenth-century American lacked full equality with men. However, California and a few other states provided a legal framework that enabled them to run businesses on their own, with property rights of their own, protection against debts incurred by their husbands, and access to the courts.

Here's the relevant wording from legislation that dates from April 1852: "Married women shall have the right to carry on and transact business under their own name, and on their own account, by complying with the regulations prescribed in this act."

Which regulations? Well, a woman in search of status as "sole trader" needed to publish her intention several weeks in the newspaper, satisfy the court that she didn't intend to defraud her husband's creditors, and swear that she was setting up her business with her own money to support herself and her children. All of which Theresa, who clearly labeled herself as an aspiring "sole trader," did to the satisfaction of the court.

Whether or not the law of April 1852 amounts to "affirmative action," as Russell suggests, can be debated. But it can be safely stated that, whatever else it tells us, the Wriston's case demonstrates how progressive California's laws were at that time.

Russell's article can be read here.

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