In 1825, John Sprowe sent a letter from Natchitoches, Louisiana to a judge in Huntsville, Alabama. He thought of his youth and of his travels and tribulations. Mostly he thought of Elizabeth Sprowe.

William Ray stood before the happy couple. Rural Kentucky offered few priests to “solemnize the rites” and he stepped forward to fill the role “of his mere voluntary pleasure.” After all, it was 1799, he’d been to church before. You just say something about Jesus, gesture at the crowd, and nod slowly.

Besides, they needed some kind of parson to sanction their commitment of marital acts. “Well, I’m some kind of parson,”thought William Ray the non-parson, “and I mean, Hell, what could go wrong?”

Well, it was 1805 now, and the Sprowes committed enough marital acts between them to produce three children and a lot of fighting. They still lived in Cumberland county, Kentucky and often managed to agree that they married each other some six years prior. It made life easier.

Eventually, John Sprowe grew tired of his wife and using the technicality that “said Ray was not authorized to solemnize the marriage,” sought to find a new one. Although nineteenth-century states compensated for rural couples, incapable of formal ceremonies, with marriage provisions based on common law, he felt confident in his decision. So, one day Elizabeth Sprowe went to bed married and woke up abandoned.

Soon she received news of John’s infidelity. He’d shacked up with a woman named Rachel Davis and their life continued this way for several years. Elizabeth Sprowe cared for their children while John Sprowe lived on the other side of the county.

Apparently he visited his family to check on his property and children. Especially after he heard rumors that Elizabeth Sprowe no longer recognized their fake marriage. During one of his visits he found Elizabeth Sprowe with the silversmith John Steward.

John Sprowe found his sometimes-wife engaged in marital acts with someone that she was not occasionally married to and expressed outrage at her violation of their least sacred bond. He gathered his three children and departed.

Eventually Cumberland county, Kentucky proved too much for him and he left Rachel Davis and headed south for Alabama. Where he lived for some time, amassing considerable wealth. It appears that the couple reconciled enough for Elizabeth Sprowe to eventually make the trek to Madison county to join her children and common law husband.

According to a witness named Bird Brandon, by the time he remarried John Sprowe owned seven hundred acres of land and enslaved six or seven people. Unfortunately for Elizabeth Sprowe another woman benefited from his considerable holdings.

Although the Sprowes lived together as a married couple, off and on, since 1799, John Sprowe chose to legally marry Pamelia Brown on April 11, 1822.

All court records indicated that they still resided in the same household when the marriage occurred and that he left their children with her before moving into Pamelia Brown’s home. Shortly afterwards he sold the seven hundred acres and purchased land in Louisiana. Even in his 1825 deposition from Natchitoches, John Sprowe admitted that he wished to continue living with Elizabeth Sprowe so long as they were “not bound.” One wonders what Pamelia might have thought of that.

The court eventually dismissed Elizabeth Sprowe’s petition for a divorce. John Sprowe continued to reside in Louisiana. They probably moved back in together a few years later.


Elizabeth Sprowe v. John Sprowe, Book A, 40-42 (1822).

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