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Phebe (Cabiness) Belcher Swinney (1750-1822)
of Franklin Co., Virginia- Sex and Money

Life and Origins

Phebe Cabiness was born about 1750, probably in Amelia County, Virginia. She was the daughter of Matthew Cabiness who was son of Henri Cabiness, a Huguenot jeweller and money changer who arrived from England in 1700. Her mother Hannah Clay was the daughter of Thomas Clay whose family descended from John Clay, "The Grenadier" who arrived at Jamestowne in Jan. 1613 according to the 1624 Muster Roll. Matthew Cabiness left hundreds of acres of land and many slaves when he died. While not among the aristocracy of Virginia, he was much more affluent than most small planters.

Phebe Cabiness married Francis Belcher on 23 Nov. 1771 in Granville Co., North Carolina although neither lived there. It is widely asserted that Francis' first wife was Mary Cabiness, Phebe's older sister. Several facts suggest this may be correct. "Mary Belcher, deceased" was named along with Phebe Belcher in their father Matthew Cabiness' will. Virginia law categorized marriage of a man to his wife's sister as incest in a bill passed in 1792, so there may have been social pressure, if not yet a legal reason, to marry elsewhere if Mary had been Francis' first wife.

Francis and Phebe lived in Nottoway Parish, Amelia County as early as 1776. Their married life was cut short when Francis died in 1781, supposedly from wounds sustained in the Revolution. He had died by October when his estate was probated. Again the unproved suggestion is supported by circumstantial evidence. Two of four witnesses of his will written 29 July 1781 in Amelia Co. were not local, and one of the local witnesses wasn't able to swear to the will for over a year after it was first submitted to court. These three could have been military companions.

Ten years later in 1791 Phebe married again in Franklin County. Joseph Swinney. He sold his interest in Francis Belcher's estate to one of his step-sons in exchange for support while he lived. He seems to be living with Prudence in 1830 after Phebe's death.

Children and Estate

Francis Belcher's will named his "beloved wife Phebe Belsher" who was given his estate for her life, and at her death is was to be divided "amongst all my Children, each to share and share alike." As a result, the Inventory of his estate was filed twice, once following his death and a second time in Franklin Co. 40 years later along with the Inventory of Phebe's estate.

Phebe had 5 children she named as "heirs of my own body" and affirmed them as the only persons who were to share in the slaves inherited from Francis in a deed recorded in 1818 in Franklin County: Kesiah Boldwin, Prudence Belcher, Isham Belcher, Polley Warwick, and Frances Belcher. Since she and Francis were married only 10 years it seems likely all of their children survived. This deed was made because "it is now talked of that other people is to share with my children" in her property; "why this should be the case I know not." Francis had at least one child with his first wife, but this was not the person she was concerned might claim part of the estate. Matthew Belcher, who lived until after 1830 in Georgia, sold his interest in his father's estate in 1814 to Isham Belcher, his half-brother.

Phebe had one other daughter named in a second deed filed at the same time in 1818, in which she specified that the property "that is not bound by the Will of Francis Belcher Deceased", her personal property, was to be divided between "Prudence Belcher, Polley Warwick and Amey Cook Daughters of the said Phebe." Amey Cook, daughter of Phebe, was not a daughter of Francis Belcher, although she is named Amey Belcher in the record of her marriage to John Cook in 1805. If around 20 when she married, she was born about 1785, between the death of Francis in 1781 and Phebe's remarriage in 1791. Was Amey adopted? If she was Phebes biological daughter did this birth contribute to Phebe's move from Amelia County to Franklin County, still the frontier, about this time?

Phebe's son-in-law John Cook was named executor of Phebe's estate when she died in July 1822. Her husband Joseph Swinney relinquished his right to serve and had already renounced any claim to the estate in one of the deeds of 1818. He died penniless about 10 years later, demented and dependant on his half-brother.

The estate took years to settle. A chancery suit filed by Phebe's daughter Prudence Belcher in 1824 suggests that John Cook, whose wife Amey had no claim to a part of the slaves, may have been the source of her anxiety that the slaves would not be distributed as Francis Belcher's will directed. Prudence sought to force him to present the inventory and appraisement, and to settle the account of his administration; and asked that he be subpoenaed to answer her charges of his mis-administrations. She had bought $75 worth of property from her mother's estate, paying with a bond to the administrator of the estate, her brother-in-law John Cook. The executor had money in his possession but did not distribute it and when the bond came due he "instituted suit thereon and obtained judgement & has issued an execution against the property."

In his deposition in response John Cook claimed he submitted the inventory and appraisal promptly. The distribution of the slaves, however, was very complex "and under the state of things your worships will readily perceive that the estate which came into his hands will be more than consumed" by the cost of administering the estate. This despite admitting that when Prudence Belcher died "she held at the time not less thirteen negroes." The suit was finally settled in 1838, 14 years later, with no more explanation than that the case should be dismissed because the parties had reached an agreement.

© 2012 Footie Lund
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