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If Downton Abbey Had Been in Ohio

At Historic Fort Steuben, we use storytelling to make the facts of history more interesting and relevant. We relate both true and fictional tales. For example, how many of you followed the popular British drama “Downton Abbey”? Do you remember that the plot centered around the frantic efforts to keep the magnificent estate in the family and have a suitable marriage for the aloof but beautiful Mary Crawley?

The lovely Mary was pledged to marry her cousin Patrick but all the plans for this arranged nuptial were drowned along with the Titanic upon which Patrick had been aboard. Not only were Mary’s marital hopes dashed, but the future of Downton Abbey suddenly became uncertain since the Laws of Primogeniture and Entail complicated inheritance details of property-owning families that had no sons.

Here’s a quick review of those laws:

Primogeniture ensured that the eldest son in a family inherited the largest portion of his father’s property upon the father’s death. The practice of entail, guaranteeing that a landed estate remain in the hands of only one male heir, was frequently practiced in conjunction with primogeniture. When there was no son to inherit the property, it was to go to the closest male relative. These laws existed in Europe for many years and was a sure recruitment tool for the church and the military as a place for those younger sons.

The Story

Since Lord Grantham was blessed with three daughters and no male heirs, the title and the property would no longer remain in the hands of the immediate family. Conveniently for the plot, the distant cousin, handsome Matthew Crawley, was brought in and, after the usual ups and downs of soap operas, fell in love and married Mary. Now the inheritance would flow through HIS line, guaranteeing that the estate would go to their son, George. After Matthew’s death, it is understood that no matter if Mary should wed again, George would become the next Lord Grantham and the owner of Downton Abbey.

Some History

So what does this have to do with Fort Steuben and the settlement of Ohio? Well, let me digress with some history before we return to the Crawleys.

You remember that in 1776, when the United States declared its independence from Great Britain, there were 13 colonies aligned along the east coast of America. Each of these colonies, soon to be states, had their own constitutions and claims on the territory to the west of the Allegheny Mountains. That territory, which was called the Ohio country and then the Northwest Territory, had been fought over by the French, the British, various native tribes and the colonies themselves. But with the Treaty of Paris in 1783, all that land was now ceded to the new country. And that was a lot of land. It was to become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. The newly independent states came together; they knew they needed a stronger form of union than the loose confederation under the Continental Congress.

They also needed money to pay the bills from the war, to pay their creditors, and to pay the veterans. They thought that the Northwest Territory was going to be their gold mine…all they had to do was sell the land.

That wasn’t going to be easy since there were already people on the land…Native Americans as well as white settlers who had staked out tomahawk claims. There ensued years of the US military burning out illegal homesteads and chasing hostile Indians until the Ohio Country could be surveyed and settled.

By the time the Ohio country was ready to be settled, however, life became a little more civilized, especially for women.

The Northwest Ordinance

First, the Continental Congress issued the Land Ordinance of 1785 which not laid out the way the Northwest Territory would be surveyed and divided into states. And then in 1787 they issued the Northwest Ordinance that laid out the laws for this territory. Among these mandates (which included trial by jury and prohibition of slavery) was the right for women and children to inherit their father’s property…no primogenitor, no entail. Of the early colonists who came to the new country across the ocean, many were the younger sons of British gentry who could take their monetary inheritances and build up their own estates in the new lands. Benjamin Franklin, for example, said in his autobiography that he was the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations back! The colonies had acres and acres of land…while most land in Europe was entailed. And with the Northwest Ordinance, not only was there land, but there was also freedom to buy and sell and pass it on to children, both male and female.

A Different Ending

And so, if Downton Abbey had been set in Ohio in 1912, there would have been no drama other than sadness at the loss of Patrick on the Titanic. Mary, Edith and Sybil probably would have had rousing, vicious, biting and hair-pulling arguments about who would get what part of the estate…but that would have to be another PBS series.

Be sure to stop by Historic Fort Steuben during Women's History Month to learn more about our history!

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