Where Are the Women? Women Investors and Family Economic Networks in the Nineteenth-Century United States

Mandy L. Cooper

Cedar Creek Bridge, Raleigh & Gaston R.R., ca. 1865-1870. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“Where are the women?” As my colleagues, friends, and students will tell you, that is always the first question I ask about any historical subject. During the nineteenth century, women in elite families were active participants in their families’ economic endeavors. And yet, somehow, in my recent JER article that is all about how specific families used and shaped government authority and included government as part of their family networks, women are barely there, relegated largely to the footnotes. So, to turn my own question back on myself: Where exactly are the women, anyway?

To more fully answer that question, I have to start at the beginning. My fascination with the Raleigh and Gaston Rail Road (and the blurred boundaries between public policy and private interests) began when I noticed the similarities between the way that women called out family members’ failure to fulfill obligations in correspondence and the Raleigh and Gaston’s president’s reports to stockholders and the General Assembly. When George Mordecai stated that the company had unsuccessfully attempted to procure a $200,000 subscription from the Assembly and Duncan Cameron followed up a year later with a complaint that the Assembly had subscribed to stock in other railroads, their statements echoed the guilt trips that close friends Sarah Nash and Catherine Ruffin traded in the 1820s. Sarah informed Catherine that she was “the very shabbiest girl I have ever seen” for only writing a short note after being gone for a month. Compounding that insult was the fact that Catherine had written multiple letters to another friend during that time and had sent her love to Sarah in those letters.[1] Only when George and Duncan’s statements are placed next to Sarah’s statements does the implication become clear: In both cases, one member of the family failed to fulfill their obligations to another and compounded the insult by publicly fulfilling their obligations to another family member.[2]

But, women were much more than mere methodological inspiration; they were also actively involved in their family economic networks—including as investors in railroads like the Raleigh and Gaston. Women, like Duncan’s sister Mary Anderson, sometimes served as conduits, carrying payments from one family member to another during their visits.[3]

Both of Duncan’s daughters who survived to adulthood invested in the same stocks as the men in their family did, including railroads. For example, Margaret Cameron contracted to build part of the North Carolina Rail Road (NCRR), along with her father and brother, Paul.[4] Her younger sister Mildred held shares in three railroads: the Raleigh and Gaston, the NCRR, and the Wilmington and Raleigh.[5] While I have yet to come across an outright statement from either of the Cameron sisters in letters that indicate their taking an active role in managing their stock subscriptions, other women in similar circumstances did so. Betsy Coles of Virginia, for example, asked her brother-in-law to invest over $2,000 for her in the mid-1830s and expressed a preference for stock in the Fredericksburg Railroad.[6] Margaret and Mildred may have expressed similar preferences, or they may have left investment decisions in the hands of trustworthy male relatives or business advisors, as many of their male relatives did.

Inventory of Mildred C. Cameron’s Personal Property showing the number of stocks and bonds she held, along with the relative value of each. Courtesy of the author.

The Cameron family network continued their involvement in railroads during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Yet, in early 1862 after Paul resigned as president of the NCRR, The North Carolina Standard declared that it was not “a time for consulting the wishes of kinsfolks and class politicians” in choosing a successor. According to the paper, the time in which family connections had determined political and economic power was over.[7] In reality, that time was far from over, for both the men and women involved in such internal improvement projects. Paul was reappointed as railroad director in 1862, and elected as one in 1863. In 1862, Paul’s brother-in-law George Mordecai was re-elected as director of the Raleigh and Gaston.[8] Individual family members continued their involvement in railroads, including the Raleigh and Gaston throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The women in these families were no different. Margaret Cameron married George Mordecai in 1854, shortly after her father’s death. In her marriage settlement with George, she retained the right to sell her real and personal property, with George’s consent, indicating that she did, at least at times, take an active role in managing her property, including investments in various stocks.[9] Margaret continued her involvement in railroads during Reconstruction.[10] By the time of Mildred’s death in 1882, she held 112 shares of Raleigh and Gaston stock, along with 17 shares of NCRR stock, along with 33 bonds for the Raleigh and Gaston and 8 for the NCRR.[11]

As Margaret and Mildred Cameron’s cases suggest, women in elite families were both major stockholders and creditors for railroad corporations. Moreover, as Betsy Coles’s situation shows, some women took an active role in managing their investments in railroads and other corporations. Women invested side by side with their male friends and family members, forming an important part of the vast economic networks that continually leveraged the state’s economic resources to simultaneously stabilize their precarious fortunes and promote the public good. If we expand our vision to include the women in elite family networks like the Camerons, we see that women’s investment strategies and decisions look remarkably similar to those of men. Considered together, the investments of both the men and the women in the Cameron family network reveal the very real ways that women were involved in familial business endeavors. It’s only by including women in the story that we can truly see that these economic networks and the corporations they formed were true family enterprises that included both men and women as active participants.


[1] Sarah K. Nash to Catherine Ruffin, Oct. 4, 1824, Folder 4, Ruffin, Roulhac, and Hamilton Family Papers #643, Southern Historical Collecion, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

[2] In this case, an intimate friend counted as family, as I discuss in the article.

[3] Duncan Cameron to Thomas Ruffin, Aug. 8, 1814, Thomas Ruffin Papeors #641, SHC, Southern Historical Collection, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (hereafter cited as Thomas Ruffin Papers #641, SHC). Others outside of the Cameron family network did much the same. Isaac Coles of Virginia sent a payment on a stock installment to his brother-in-law John Rutherfoord by his sister Betsy, who was traveling to visit the Rutherfoords. Isaac A. Coles to John Rutherfoord, Nov. 24, 1836, Box 1, Folder 4, John Rutherfoord Papers Collection, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University (hereafter cited as John Rutherfoord Papers, DU).

[4] “Expenses on Rail Road Contract in which Duncan, Paul, and Margaret Cameron are equally interested,” Aug. 1851–1853, Folder 3663, Vol. 125, in the Cameron Family Papers #133, SHC.

[5] Mildred Coles Cameron, “This book exhibits a List of M.C.C. bonds, stocks, &c. in the care of C. Dewey Esq.,” 1853–1854, 1857, Folder 3664, Vol. 126, in the Cameron Family Papers #133.

[6] Betsy Coles to John Rutherfoord, July 2, 1836, Box 1, Folder 4, John Rutherfoord Papers, DU.(In a joint letter from both Betsy to John Rutherfoord and her niece S. F. (Sarah) Rutherfoord to John Rutherfoord).

[7] “North-Carolina Railroad,” North Carolina Standard [Raleigh, NC], Feb. 8, 1862.

[8] “Rail Road Directors,” North Carolina Standard, June 25, 1862; “North-Carolina Railroad,” North Carolina Standard, July 14, 1863. Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual Meeting of the Stockholders of the Raleigh & Gaston Rail Road Company, Held in Raleigh, Thursday, July 3d, 1862, with the Reports of the President, Treasurer, &c., (Raleigh, NC, 1863), 5.

[9] Marriage Settlement of George W. Mordecai and Margaret B. Cameron, 1853, Folder 2208, Box 99, Cameron Family Papers #133, SHC.

[10] See, for example, “Notice from Raleigh & August Air-Line Railroad Company,” June 1, 1873, marked in pencil for Mrs. Geo. W. Mordecai, Folder 1378, Box 56, Cameron Family Papers #133, SHC.

[11] “Inventory of the estate of Mildred Coles Cameron by Paul Cameron, May 1882,” OP 133/35, Cameron Family Papers #133, SHC. Essentially, as both a stockholder and bondholder, Mildred, like others in her family, was both an investor in these railroads and one of their creditors.

27 September 2021

About the Author

Mandy L. Cooper is a lecturer at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

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