General History/Women's property rights in the 1800's in the United States
I'm writing a book and in this story there is a conflict between a young woman and her town bully neighbor. Who since her father has died, has been harassing her about her land. I was wondering if you knew of a way this man could take her fathers land from her in a legal since of the way.
Hi Ashley and thanks for your question,
To the best of my knowledge, an unmarried daughter who was of age (not a minor) could inherit and own land, especially if there were no other heirs.
If your young woman was underage and had no family, the court would appoint a trustee to look after the land in her interests until she reached the age of majority. If the bully neighbor could convince the court that he was the best person to be a trustee, he could get temporary control of the land until she turned 18 or 21 or whatever the age was in that jurisdiction.
The easiest way for your bully to acquire her land permanently would be to marry her. In most jurisdictions, especially in the eastern US, the law did not recognize a wife's legal competence. In other words, while a wife might be allowed to own land in her own name, only her husband could sign the legal documents necessary to buy or sell land, to use the land as collateral for a loan, or to enter into contracts to use or improve the land. A wife might own land but she could not do anything with it. But if you go this route, you have a new problem: why would she marry the bully? At least this way, you can give the bully some other form of leverage over her besides the law. Because a woman gave up her property rights when she married, many wealthy women chose to remain single. Alternatively, if a woman wanted to marry, she might use her land as a lure to attract the best possible husband.
The bully could claim the land as payment for a debt her father owed him.
The bully could produce a deed that showed he actually owned the land and not the father. If two owners have otherwise legal deeds to the same land, the law recognizes the older deed. Alternatively, if someone who did not own the land sold it to the father, then that deed is invalid. Deeds vary from state to state. In my state, deeds do not establish a seller's legal right to sell the land. I could sell someone the Brooklyn Bridge, if it were in my state, without having to establish that I own the Brooklyn Bridge and have the legal right to sell it. Other states do a better job of recording the seller's right to sell the land. If you go this route, the bully and your heroine would end up in court and a judge would have to disinherit your woman by invalidating her father's deed.
You could also look into squatter's rights. Some jurisdictions recognized squatter's rights. Basically, if someone lived on the land long enough, they owned it, whether they had a deed to it or not. Other jurisdictions did not recognize squatter's rights. Abraham Lincoln's father twice had to move because he could not enforce his squatter's claims. Someone else filed papers at the local courthouses that they owned the land, so the Lincolns were forced to move. This was especially common on the frontier. Squatters settled on land before there were any courthouses to record deeds. Later, once courthouses were set up, someone else filed a deed on the land and they owned it simply because they filed their papers first, not because they actually lived there. This again would require a court battle, but you could have your young woman claiming her father's squatter's rights while the bully claimed that he had a deed.
Good luck with your book,