Sunday, July 13, 2014

Rebecca Austin Sherman's messy divorce from her Revolutionary War husband & family portraits from the Sherman Limner

1787 Sherman Limner fl 1785-90 (perhaps Abraham Delanoy 1742-1795). Rebecca Austin Mrs John Sherman & son Henry (1789-1817).

Rebecca Austin (1753-1830) married John Sherman (1750-1802) on August 28, 1771. He seemed to be a young man of great promise. They both came from good families. He was 21, she was 18.
John Sherman was born in New Milford, New Haven, Connecticut, the son of Roger Sherman, a respected attorney at the Continental Congress who helped draft the Articles of Confederation. Thomas Jefferson referred to young John Sherman's father as "Mr. Sherman of Connecticut, who never said a foolish thing in his life;" and John Adams called the elder Sherman, "an old Puritan, as honest as an angel." Roger Sherman was the only American to sign four signficant historical documents: The Continental Association of 1774; the Declaration of Independence; The Articles of Confederation; and The Federal Constitution.

Rebecca's father David Austin was also prominent in the New Haven community. He was named the first president of the New Haven Bank on Dec 22, 1795. He served as deacon of the North Church for 43 years and an alderman under Mayor Roger Sherman. From 1793 to 1801 he was the Collector of Customs.

Rebecca Austin and John Sherman had children John, born 1772; Maria, born 1774; Harriet, born 1776 died 1795; Elizabeth, born 1778; David Austin, born 1781; Charles Sherman born 1783; and Henry Sherman was born in 1785. Although John Sherman served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, he apparently returned home occasionally.

John Sherman was not a foot soldier, he was assigned to headquarters. He enlisted in 1776; and by January 1, 1777, he was Paymaster for the 6th Connecticut Regiment under Colonel Butler. On October 7, 1777, he received his commission as 2nd Lieutenant; and on May 10, 1780, he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant. On June 1, 17781, he was transferred to the 4th Connecticut Regiment under the command of Colonel Samuel Whiting. He served in "Booth's Company" under Captain James Booth, until he was detached to the 11th Connecticut Regiment (by order of Brigader General Sillick Silliman) as part of the "Short Levy" of 1782. On January 1, 1783, he was again transferred to the 2nd Connecticut Regiment, where he served until June of 1783; when he left the army at the rank of Captain in Colonel Gideon Burt's Massachusetts Regiment. He received his Captain's commission by brevet at the close of the war.

When he returned home in the summer of 1783, John Sherman tried his hand at business in New Haven for several years; but by 1788, he decided it was time to move on.


In 1788, John Sherman determined to leave his wife and family, wrote to his father on December 8, "Most respected Parent, My departure from this is absolutely necessary on Account of my entering into business; the Trade of this City at present is not an Object of Importance, & and scarcely of Support, I am now in the prime of life, I hope my Friends will not think me lost, my determinations are Just, that is to pay all their dues and owe no one anything, in consequence of which I shall advise you & Esq Austin, likewise Mrs. Sherman the place of my residence, the Settlement of my Public Accounts will be attended to by me as soon as the Public are ready to make me payment for my Services, otherwise I should have left the United States for a few years, & this is only what prevents. I most probably shall fix my residence at Charles Town, or Savannah, unhappy it is tho past. I did not take your advice, it would not have obliged me to take the present measure (I think the most unfeeling Heart would not wish to distress Mrs. Sherman & the Children in my absence) (I leave them to your care you will please to assert their rights & be their Just protector, & may the most Cordial Friendship ever subsist betwixt you & Esq. Austin. I wish each of you the length of days & that your usefulness may be preserved to the last & and that each of your Families may be happy (my own unhappiness is proceeds from myself only.) I am with every respect, Your son John Sherman."
(Baldwin Family Papers, #55, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.)


Just a year before John Sherman decided to leave the family, he had portraits of the family painted in 1787, by the Sherman Limner, whose name derives from these portraits. The portraits are of John Sherman; his wife Rebecca holding baby Henry; John's daughter Maria (1774-1857); his son John II; and his son, David Austin (1781-1843), whose portrait is signed on the reverse Jany 2d 1787.
Rebecca filed for divorce in 1792 claiming he drank excessively and became violent when drinking and that he was adulterous. In 1792, there was a motion for the continuance in the plea for divorce of Rebecca Austin Sherman vs John Sherman, New Haven 1792. The family portraits apparently became a focus of John's anger with the dissolution of his marriage. (Baldwin Family Papers, #55 Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library)


On December 10, 1792, son David Austin wrote to his grandfather Roger Sherman that his father, "then catched down any likenesses and Swore it should not be in the house and that he woyld throw it into the street, I told him if he did not like to see it, I would take it away but he must not throw it into the street and ruin it as I was at the expense of the drawing and I did not choose it should not be destroyed." (Baldwin Family Papers, #55 Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library)

A fragment of a letter from the husband John Sherman to Simeon Baldwin exists from December 19, 1792. John Sherman wrote about his wife, "she means to bring in her cut portrait as an Evidence the whole of them were made at my Expense to flatter her Vanity & if the original had been present I should not have done it." The portrait of Rebecca Sherman and her son Henry was slashed. (Baldwin Family Papers, #55 Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library)

On January 21, 1793, John Sherman's daughter Maria and her two sisters wrote a letter to their grandfather Roger Sherman. Honored and much respected Grandfather, We sincerely lament the unhappy necessity, which had seperated our Parents. We hope it will not be the means of depriving us of your parental regard and protection. We shall ever retain a grateful remembrance of your past kindness, and hope you will ever continue it to us. The mortifiyig and disagreeable situation we are in, we hope will apologize for the freedom we have taken in addressing you. Our father not satisfied with heaping disgrace and sorrow upon his children, has stripped us of all the Furniture he ever purchased, not even excepting out Portraits, and the arms of the Family from which we are descended, which we would wish to retain. as a remembrance of the family from which we are descended. The Carpet Mama thinks she ought to have, as he made a present of it to her, on his return from the Army before Evidences, as a reward for her faithfulness and Industry. He has likewise taken the Desk, Tea Urn, Silver Handled Knives & Forks, best Bed and Bedding, Chairs, Tables &c., which Mama is very willing he should have. He has been here, & with Roger taken account of all the Provisions, & Stores we have in the House, which are very considerable, and threatened taking them away. He has also given orders to Mr. Baldwin, to receive all the Money due to us from our Boarders, when they return at the end of Vacation. We intreat you Sir, to interpose in our affair, & not suffer him to add affliction, to his already afflicted Children. We shall do everything in our power to assist Mama in the maintenance of the Family , and endeavor to be as little burden to our Friends as possible. We rejoice dear Sir, in the prospect of your speedy return, and hope to find in you an indulgent Father, & unfailing Friend. We hope our future conduct will be such as to merit your approbation and esteem. With the greatest respect Dear Sir, we subscribe ourselves your dutiful & Affectionate Grandchildren, Maria Sherman Betsey Sherman Harriet Sherman (Baldwin Family Papers, #55 Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library)

In 1793, Sherman wrote that if "A bill of divorce is granted to Mrs. Sherman & and all connections on my part with the Family ceases forever...I am disposed to render them every assistance so far as it respects the children that Humanity & and reason can demand." (Baldwin Family Papers, #55 Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library)


Apparently the court determined that Rebecca Austin Sherman's allegations were true, and the divorce was finalized in January 1794. Rebecca Austin Sherman raised her children by running a boarding house, until she died in 1830.

John Sherman remarried Anna Tucker, ten years younger than Rebecca, in September 4, 1794, at Canton, Massachusettes. John Sherman had two more children with his new wife. Sherman supported his new family as a shopkeeper in Canton. He died 8 years later, his widow lived until 1858.


1787 Sherman Limner fl 1785-90 (perhaps Abraham Delanoy 1742-1795), John Sherman (1750-1802) Christies NY 2006


1787 Sherman Limner fl 1785-90 (perhaps Abraham Delanoy 1742-1795) Maria Sherman (Mrs. Ira Hart) 1774-1857. Christies NY 2006.


1787 Sherman Limner fl 1785-90 (perhaps Abraham Delanoy 1742-1795) David Austin Sherman (1781-1843) Christies NY 2006.

1787 Sherman Limner fl 1785-90 (perhaps Abraham Delanoy 1742-1795). John Sherman II. Christies 2006.

On Divorce in the American Colonies & Early Republic


In colonial New England, the legal aspects of marriage differed from mother England, where marriage was an indissoluble religious sacrament. Anglican church courts could order separations of unhappy spouses without right of remarriage; and, by the 18th century, rich men in England could buy private legislative acts authorizing their divorces, if they could prove, in one way or another, their wives' adultery.

The first American couple obtained a divorce in a Massachusettes Puritan court in 1639. In 18th century New England, marriage was a civil contract, and divorces were granted after a judicial proceeding, when a wife's or husband's misconduct was proved. Divorces were occasionally granted elsewhere in colonial North America, but other colonial legislatures did not pass laws allowing divorce before the American Revolution. Because the colonies were more open than the mother country and in a state of constant flux, many unhappy spouses just ended their unbearable marriages by disappearing and marrying again elsewhere.

By the early 19C, each new American state, except South Carolina, enacted laws authorizing divorce under limited circumstances. A full divorce with right of remarriage for the "innocent" party could be granted if adultery of the "guilty" spouse were proved. In some states, such as New Hampshire, a variety of other grounds, including incest, bigamy, abandonment for 3 years, and extreme cruelty, would also justify a divorce decree. In many states, only the innocent party was set free from the "bonds of matrimony," leaving the guilty party unable to remarry during the lifetime of the innocent spouse who retained the right to inherit land or other property from the guilty one. In most of the new states, courts heard divorce cases; but in Maryland a divorce required a private bill of divorce by the state legislature.