The practice of coverture made it difficult for married women to own and operate businesses in the English colonies. Most female-owned businesses were operated by widows who had either been fortunate enough to inherit their husband’s business or received a license from the city as a form of charitable support. The majority of female business owners, who came to be known as “she-merchants,” ran taverns or small retail shops, and were able to support their families. A select few were able to grow their businesses over time and establish themselves as major players within the business community.
Mary Alexander was one of these exceptional women. A descendent of the wealthy Dutch DePeyster family, Mary married merchant Samuel Provoost in 1711. Provoost invited her to be an active partner in his business, and when he died after nine years of marriage, he left the business to his wife. Mary married wealthy lawyer James Alexander within two years of Samuel’s death, and with his permission, she continued to manage the business for the rest of her life. At the time of her death in 1760, Mary Alexander had accumulated enough wealth to be one of the wealthiest people in the colony. Adjusted to today’s currency, she would have been a millionaire.
In this letter we see that Mary Alexander was a savvy and tough businesswoman. She oversaw both the importation of goods from around the world and the sale of those goods through her store in New York City. Her customers came from as far away as New Jersey and Albany. Mary’s business stands as a testament not just to the history of women in business, but to the wealth and prosperity of English colonial trade.