Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake

Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant lived together in Weybridge from 1807 until Charity’s death in 1851 as one of of the most well-documented same-sex couples in early America. The two ran a successful tailoring business in Weybridge, and openly behaved as a married couple. Charity grew up in Massachusetts, and met Sylvia—a Weybridge native—while traveling to Vermont to visit friends. They became close, and Charity decided to permanently remain in Weybridge to be with Sylvia in 1807. Over their 44-year relationship, records of diaries, letters, and business papers show that “the women came to be recognized as a married couple, or something like it. Charity took the role of husband, and Sylvia of wife, within the marriage.” 1 As Charity’s nephew, the poet William Cullen Bryant, commented of their relationship, “they have shared each other’s occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other in sickness…I could tell you how they slept on the same pillow and had a common purse, and adopted each other’s relations.” 2 “One reason people viewed Charity and Sylvia’s relationship as marital,” the historian Rachel Hope Cleves explains, “was that the women divided their domestic and public roles according to the familiar pattern of husband and wife. Throughout their lives together Charity always served as head of the household,” while “Sylvia performed the wifely work of cooking and keeping house.” 3

The women’s tailoring business was very successful, and enabled them to expand the home they had built together so that they could accommodate “a number of young girls as apprentices.” The two were also well-respected by their neighbors, who William Cullen Bryant described as ”people of kind hearts and simple manners” who “seem[ed] to take pleasure in bestowing upon them … friendly relations” and called them “Aunt Sylvia” and “Aunt Charity”. 4 Sylvia moved in with her brother nearby upon Charity’s death in 1851, and “followed the widow’s convention of wearing only black.” 5 When Sylvia passed away sixteen years later, Charity’s grave was opened to allow them to “rest together in the local cemetery under a single headstone as any married couple would.” 6 Their love story challenges today’s ideas of sexuality in early America, showing that same-sex marriage “was both more diverse and more accommodating” than we might otherwise imagine. 7 As the historian Jan Albers writes, “They show us that there were couples of the same sex long before our time, ‘married’ in their love if not in their rights. And by their example we see that it was possible for some such people to live quiet, respectable lives as members of their communities. There is nothing new under the sun.” 8

Notes:

  1. Cleves, Charity and Sylvia.
  2. Washington, History of Weybridge, Vermont.
  3. Cleves, Charity and Sylvia.
  4. Washington, History of Weybridge, Vermont.
  5. Cleves, Charity and Sylvia.
  6. Henry Sheldon Museum, “Charity & Sylvia.”
  7. Cleves, Charity and Sylvia.
  8. Albers, “Sylvia and Charity.”