Like many of us, Amy M. Porter, of Texas A&M, takes a special interest in women's experience in historic America. In her new book, Their Lives, Their Wills: Women in the Borderlands, 1750-1846, she reports on her study of the legally recorded wills of women from the communities of Saltillo, San Esteban de Nueva Tlaxcala, San Antonio, Santa Fe, and El Paso. These towns varied in wealth and power, but all were frontier settlements influenced by both Spanish and native culture.
The women of these final testaments, which were often dictated to the local notary or escribano, were focused on what meant the most. Porter's analysis reveals many details of the women's religious beliefs, family concerns, and personal histories, as they dispersed a lifetime's accumulated goods, and looked death in the face.
Throughout, the author gives us background to understand the difficulties these women faced, such as the heart-wrenching rates of widowhood and child mortality. Women who had achieved enough to rate the expense and effort of dictating a will had often lost a husband, sometimes more than one, and the children who survived, or were adopted, were usually treasured. Bequests were a chance to provide for them a final time, though the wills sometimes suggest family discord, as well. The women paid their debts, and called for payment of what they were owed. Familiar with death, and steeped in Catholic teachings, they also set aside funds for prayers to save their souls, for religious garb in which to be buried, and for favored burial locations.
Porter sketches the broad scope of women's influence in what was a strongly patriarchal culture. During this period, women in New England were considered chattel and did not own property, but Spanish law was different. Borderlands women not only owned property, they sometimes owned slaves or supported large households. They were traders, craftswomen, farmers, and moneylenders, affecting local economies and churches. When examined with this kind of care, the lists of belongings, the few pieces of furniture or jewelry, tools and clothes, and the orchards and animals these women owned, reveal the social context of a life's work, and the scope of its accomplishment.
Porter looks at the data in systematic detail but her sample is necessarily small. Wills of that time and place were generally made by men, just as most property was owned by men. The examples of translated wills are fascinating, and I would have liked more. But Porter is generous with resources and notes, and there is much to absorb here, not only about women's lives, but also the growth of communities and the sweep of social change in the region.
The academic style of this book is not for everyone, and an editor might have excised the unnecessary repetitions. But I can recommend it, especially as a research tool, to the person who reads to learn. If you are interested in the way America expanded and the part women played in its growth, or if the development of Mexican-American culture intrigues you, or the details of daily frontier life are clues you want to follow, Their Lives, Their Wills is filled with moving facts. It will call you back to a challenging yet lively society and the strong women who carried so much of its weight, the foremothers of Borderlands women today.
Amy M. Porter received her Ph.D. in History from Southern Methodist University in 2004 and her B.A. in History and Spanish from Austin College. She is currently an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University, teaching classes on early America, women, Texas, the Spanish Borderlands, and the American West.
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