An uncommon household: The history of an early American same-sex marriage

Rebecca Onion – Boston Globe – Friday, 20 June 2014 (originally published 13 Jun)

Drake-Bryant silhouettes
Drake-Bryant silhouettes Image: Henry Sheldon Museum

In a graveyard in the village of Weybridge, Vt., stands an unusual headstone. It is inscribed with the names of two women, Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant, who were born during the Revolutionary era and died in the middle of the 19th century. The women were pillars of their community for four and a half decades, living together in a small house, running a tailoring business, teaching Sunday School, and acting as surrogate mothers and caregivers to hundreds of nieces and nephews. They were also, according to their own understanding and that of those around them, a married couple.

Historian Rachel Hope Cleves, of the University of Victoria, came across their story while reading a biography of William Cullen Bryant, Charity Bryant’s nephew. Bryant was a poet, abolitionist, and editor, and a major figure in 19th-century letters. The poet described his aunt’s partnership with Sylvia Drake in a letter about a visit he had made to western Vermont. “It was beautiful, it was poetic, and it was also very explicitly describing a marriage between two women,” Cleves said of the letter.

 Ten years after the first legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, much has been made by supporters of how pioneering the underlying court decision was; critics meanwhile, portray it a new and radical upending of traditional values. But the lives of Drake and Bryant suggest that the story is not so simple: Such relationships have existed, in various forms, through American history. And more than that, what Cleves found in her research was that an early American community could genuinely recognize a same-sex relationship as a household, even in an era that couldn’t have imagined a legal marriage between two women . . .