Same-sex marriage rooted in Weybridge
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont had the distinction in 2000 of becoming the first state in the union to approve a civil unions law, through which same-sex couples were extended many of the same rights as heterosexual married couples. Nine years later, Vermont became the first state to approve a same-sex marriage law without being required to do so by a court decision.
And looking back into its history, the Green Mountain State’s progressive stance on same-sex unions should not come as a surprise. A new book by Rachel Hope Cleves sheds light on such a union involving two Weybridge women — more than a century-and-a-half ago.
The book is called “Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early Weybridge, Vermont.” Using research culled in large part from documents at Middlebury’s Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, Cleves charts what was a long, loving relationship between Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake. The two women lived together in a home in Weybridge in the first half of the 1800s, running a tailoring business while becoming well-respected members of their local church and community.
Cleves spoke about her book at Middlebury College’s Twilight Hall this past Tuesday in an event co-sponsored by the Sheldon Museum, which will have a variety of Bryant-Drake journals and other artifacts on exhibit through Dec. 31.
It was during a visit to the Middlebury area in 2005 that Cleves found herself in the Sheldon Museum, doing a little research on the late American romantic poet William Cullen Bryant. In one of his letters, Bryant revealed the de facto same-sex marriage that his aunt Charity Bryant was maintaining with Sylvia Drake.
“I said, ‘Whoa, I have never come across any account of a same-sex relationship in the early 19th century that’s described so explicitly as a marriage,’” Cleves told the crowd of more than 100 people who packed the Twilight Hall auditorium.
The subject matter seemed all the more timely because Massachusetts had just recently legalized same-sex marriage, Cleves recalled.
“I said to myself, ‘I wonder if there are any sources about these two women?’” she recounted.
A web search revealed two main repositories of information on the Bryant-Drake household: The Sheldon Museum and the Regional History Archive at Northern Illinois University, where Cleves had recently accepted her first job in academia.
So Cleves, now an associate professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, immersed herself into the subject matter and was amazed at what she was able to uncover.
Among the evidence — two framed silhouettes of Bryant and Drake, crafted by an itinerant artist of the early 1800s. The silhouettes look very similar and are facing each other, much in the same way that married couples of the day were depicted.
“The only hint that the women captured by these twin portraits may have differed from the normative standards of American womanhood is the design drawn by the braided hair that frames their images,” Cleves noted. The braided hair — culled from the two women — assumes the shape of a heart, which Cleves said conveys “a message of romantic unity of souls, and souls that in the grammar of early America signaled marriage.”
THESE SILHOUETTES DEPICT Bryant and Drake.
Charity Bryant was born in 1777 in what is now known as Brockton, Mass., the youngest of 10 children. She had an unhappy childhood, according to Cleves, who said Bryant had an uneasy relationship with her stepmother. While Bryant’s siblings married young to escape the unhappy household, Charity declared at age 23 that she would never marry, Cleves noted.
“She sought independence as a teacher and seamstress, instead,” Cleves said.
But Charity Bryant encountered scorn and intolerance in the various Massachusetts communities in which she worked early in her life, according to Cleves.
“There were damaging rumors spread about her character, seemingly related to the close relationships she formed with other, unmarried women,” Cleves said.
She finally fled Massachusetts at age 29 and came to Weybridge, where she met Sylvia Drake. Drake had been born in 1784 in Easton, Mass., the youngest of eight children. Financial problems had forced the family to migrate to the then-frontier town of Weybridge.
While Sylvia’s siblings married at an early age, Drake “avoided courtship, preferring to immerse herself in education and religion,” according to Cleves.
Drake was 22 when Bryant arrived in town.
“Soon after meeting, Charity and Sylvia became inseparable,” Cleves said.
Charity canceled plans to return to Massachusetts and instead rented a room in Weybridge. A month later, on July 3, 1807, Sylvia came to join her, “ostensibly to help with Charity’s sewing work, although, as Charity confessed in a letter to Sylvia, she really wanted her there for her companionship.”
Charity would write a brief account of her life in 1844 in which she suggested the pair lived together as a married couple, according to Cleves.
“Sylvia Drake consented to be my help-meet and came to be my companion on the 3rd day of July, 1807,” she wrote. The text features the crossed-out words “in labor” after the word companion —indicating their relationship was about more than being merely co-workers. And the word “consent,” in the 19th-century vernacular, was a term for marriage.
The term “help-meet” is derived from the Biblical book of Genesis as it speaks to Eve being a “help-meet” for Adam, Cleves noted.
“In the Protestant culture of early America, ‘help-meet’ served as a common synonym for ‘wife,’” Cleves said.
Meanwhile, Drake referred to Bryant as “the companion of my way,” and as “my beloved friend.”
Bryant, according to Cleves, assumed the “husband” role within the relationship. She was the more extroverted of the two and took the lead in making business decisions for their tailoring business. Drake took on what was then the archetypal wife’s role in performing most of the cooking and cleaning, Cleve’s research indicated.
“Charity presented the couple’s public face,” Cleves said.
“They manipulated the roles of husband and wife to make it work,” she added.
While same-sex relationships were considered taboo in 19th-century America, Cleves said Bryant and Drake gained acceptance and recognition of their union from fellow townspeople and parishioners by being pillars of the community. Their family members at first shunned their domestic arrangement, but some of them eventually came around, Cleves noted. Those who knew them would refer to “the state of their union” and knew them as a couple, rather than two spinsters sharing an abode under platonic circumstances for joint business interests.
“They found Weybridge hospitable enough to tolerate their household,” Cleves said.
Bryant and Drake were listed jointly on land and tax records. Both had wills recognizing their respective rights to inheritance of what they considered their joint property. Federal census takers recorded them as a household of two women, with Charity listed as the head of the household.
They were inseparable until Charity’s death in 1851 from heart disease. When Sylvia died in 1868, she was buried with Charity in the Weybridge cemetery.
So while Bryant and Drake were not married in the legal sense of the institution as it was understood 170 years ago, Cleves believes they were nonetheless accorded that status by their neighbors, friends and the church community.
“I would argue … that the evidence suggests that both the women and those who knew them understood their union was within the contemporary category of marriage,” Cleves concluded.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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