Sarah Clay, A Vintage Vignette
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
October 15, 2007
Madison had some powerful and influential women during its history. There was Sarah Orrick Chilton Pickett, whose daughters married governors of the state, and Susannah Claiborne Withers married Clement Comer Clay, who became the 8th governor of the state. Numerous others quietly exerted their skills, advising and exhorting their husbands to public accomplishments while they stayed behind the scenes and raised children to prominence. Another illustration of the powerful women of Madison’s history is seen in the life of Sarah A. Clay.
Census records indicate that Sarah was born before 1830 in Alabama. According to Robin Brewer, Director and owner of the Clay House Museum, Sarah was the twin of Nancy Russell, who married a Holt and lived in Athens. Sarah’s first marriage was in 1841 to Robertson Webb in Limestone County. Their neighbors in the 1850 census included Hezekiah B. Cartwright (pioneer John Cartwright’s son), James and son Richard Matthew Fletcher (future Civil War era doctor of Madison area), Nicholas Floyd (brother of later Madison Mayor John B. Floyd), Thomas J. Cain (senior member of the Cain families of Madison 30 years later), and Waddy Tate (likely a son of the prominent founder of Triana). Their homes were in the area between “Nubbin Ridge” and Shoal Ford, a few miles northwest of where Madison was founded in 1857.
The 1850 census showed that Robertson Webb was 65 years old, whereas Sarah was only 24. Their household included a son John R., at age 22, produced by his first wife, Phoebe, who died in 1840. With Sarah, Robertson had children Wiley, Catharine, and Ann. In the early 1830s Robertson was appointed guardian of the minor children of Nancy Webb Clay when Nancy obtained a legal separation from her husband (a senior Thomas Clay). Among these minor children were brothers Andrew J., Theodorick S., and Thomas J. (first postmaster of Madison) Clay. After Robertson died Sarah married his ward Andrew J. Clay, who was closer to her own age. They bought Col. Egbert Jones’ house in Limestone County. They had a son Walter born in 1859 and a daughter Maggie Jane born in 1863, just before Andrew died during the Civil War. In her 1876 will, Sarah named as heirs Maggie Clay and Ann (Webb) Robinson, leaving most of her estate to Maggie and token possessions to Ann. Walter (Clay), Wiley (Webb), and Catharine (Webb) apparently had either died or otherwise missed any mention in the will. Ann must have married poorly, as she and her husband N. T. Robinson were mentioned as “utterly insolvent”, and still Sarah saw no reason to add cash or land to their situation.
Sarah had significant holdings to bequeath to her children, as the will listed 480 acres in Limestone County plus a house and lot in Madison and notes of obligation totaling around $1000. In fact, Sarah must have been a good money manager, as she paid $1500 in gold for her house and lot in Madison in 1866, just after the Civil War, when almost everyone else was destitute. Sarah purchased the Madison property from Jane Paralee Harrington Curtis (but clearly recorded as “Custis” in the deeds). Jane obtained the property via her trustee Micajah Pope. That adds credence to the Custis name, since the Popes and George Washington’s ancestors were closely connected, and George Washington married Martha Dandridge, whose first husband was Daniel Parke Custis, with whom she had 4 children. Robin Brewer has compiled data that shows Jane as a daughter of Susan Harrington, but the name of Jane’s husband, whether Curtis or Custis, is unknown.
Sarah Clay designated William Russell to be the executor in her will, with back-up by Herman Humphrey. William Russell as an “overseer” in his 20s was listed in the 1860 household of Andrew and Sarah Clay in the Shoal Ford district. Whether or not this was the same William Russell or even if he was a brother of Sarah is unknown at this time, but records show that the executor’s attorney was W. L. Clay. It seems that Russell and Clay families of the area were connected in a number of ways.