Marriage Contracts in the Spanish Colonies

This court document shows how a married woman in the Spanish colonies used her marriage contract to escape an unhappy marriage.

Document Text


In early September 1700, Doña María del Pino Argote and her daughters moved into a convent. She asked the Church court for an annulment of her marriage, and began the process of legally confiscating her husband’s property. Her husband, Don Josef Caballero, petitioned the court to have his daughters and estate returned to him. Doña María’s attorney responded: The judge should give Doña María full custody because she is already caring for her children.
“Your Highness should revoke it, replace it, and amend it, protecting and supporting my client regarding her custody of the two daughters, which should be done as a general rule of law. And because my client is in possession of her two daughters—educating, raising, and feeding them—she should not be deprived of them, but rather protected and supported by the rule of royal law which stipulates: If for just cause there is a divorce or separation, the children should stay in the care and custody of the innocent spouse, supporting themselves at the expense of the guilty spouse . . . The law states that when a divorce takes place, children should live with the innocent parent.
Don Josef Caballero does not have a house nor the means by which he can support his daughters because the fortune that he managed and squandered belongs to my client . . .” Don Josef cannot support his daughters because any money he had and lost belonged to Doña María.

Matrimoniales, September 20, 1700. Translated by Alan C. Taylor. Archivo Nacional del Ecuador, Quito.


Women in the Spanish colonies of the Americas had more economic and legal rights than their neighbors in the Dutch and English colonies. Unmarried Spanish women could own, inherit, and manage their personal property. If a woman married, she could protect her property by having a dowry and an arras included in her marriage contract. A dowry consisted of any property a woman brought with her to the marriage; an arras was a gift of property given to the woman by her new husband. It should be noted that, in this case, property could mean anything a woman owned: land, jewelry, money, businesses. The dowry and arras were legally hers—a husband could manage his wife’s property, but if the marriage ended or the husband mismanaged the accounts, he was legally bound to repay his wife the full value of her property from his own money. If a husband did not have the money to repay his wife, she was legally entitled to take whatever property he owned. The dowry and arras were included in the marriage contracts of women of all races and social classes in the Spanish colonies. Only women with no property of their own marrying equally poor men would waive the right to protect their economic interests.

About the Resources

This document demonstrates how the Spanish legal approach to the dowry and arras afforded women the ability to escape unhappy marriages. Doña María could leave her husband and still support herself and her daughters because she had a pre-existing and protected fortune. She is also able to counter her husband’s custody claim by arguing that any fortune he has left is legally hers to make up for the dowry he squandered. Without access to his own money, her husband would not be able to support his daughters, or even hire a good attorney to fight Doña María in court.


  • arras: A gift of property given to a bride by her new husband.
  • annulment: Legal and spiritual termination of a marriage.
  • convent: A community of nuns.
  • custody: Guardianship.
  • Don: The title for a Spanish man of rank.
  • Doña: The title for a Spanish woman of rank.
  • dowry: Property a woman brought with her to the marriage.
  • petition: A written request submitted to a powerful person.
  • revoke: Put an end to something.
  • squander: Waste.
  • stipulate: Specify.

Discussion Questions

  • How did the dowry and arras enable the independence of women in the Spanish colonies?
  • What arguments does Doña María del Pino Argote’s lawyer make on her behalf? What do they reveal about the status of women in the Spanish colonies?
  • In what ways did the legal rights of married women in the Spanish colonies differ from those of married women in the Dutch and English colonies?

Suggested Activities

  • Invite students to use the document to create a short play about the court battle between Doña Maria and her husband. What demands does her husband make? How does Doña Maria’s attorney respond? What do they imagine the judge decided in the case?
  • Combine this document with the life story of Doña Teresa de Aguilera y Roche for a lesson that highlights the powers and limitations of married women in New Spain.
  • Compare and contrast the legal and economic rights of English, Dutch, French, and Spanish women by coupling this document with the will of Joseph Grover, the life story of Johanna de Laet, and the life story of Charlotte-Françoise Juchereau de Saint-Denis.



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Source Notes