August 26 is Women’s Equality Day, designated in 1971 to observe and commemorate the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, granting women the right to vote. This was the culmination of a massive, peaceful civil rights movement by women that had its formal beginnings in 1848 at the world’s first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York.
In addition to voting, women were seeking equality in all facets of life. State laws control how married couples owned property. In general, the United States followed “coverture,” where the woman’s property became the property of her husband, including income, interests and rents. New York’s Married Women’s Property Act of 1848 set precedence for married women to own and control their own property including real estate. By 1900 married women were legally able to buy/sale/trade real estate independently from their husbands.
However, in Texas, Spanish law regulated property and contractual rights giving specific limited rights to married women. Single women could not vote, but had the right to own and control property, enter contracts and sue or be sued. Research by Mary Burkholder in her two King William books indicates that many women - married, widowed or single - were purchasing land, getting bank loans and entering contracts to construct houses in the King William area.
One example of a married woman who owned real estate in the King William area is Emma Merck Altgelt (1833-1922). Born in Prussia, Emma was raised as an only child as her father and sibling died before she was five. Emma’s maternal grandmother and aunt raised her. Enchanted by stories of Texas, she arrived in Galveston in 1854, and, within a year, she married German immigrant Ernst Altgelt and moved to Comfort. After the Civil War, the Altgelt family moved to San Antonio. Ernst acquired land on today’s King William Street, and is credited with naming the street after Kaiser Wilhelm I. They lived at 236 King William, then 226 King William. Ernst died in 1878 leaving Emma a widow with six children.
Between 1878 and 1922, eleven records were identified in the Bexar County records where Emma was the Grantor selling property. In one transaction the wording states, “Emma Altgelt widow of Ernst Altgelt, dec’d.” Another reads, “That I, Emma Altgelt, for myself and as sole heir and legalee of Ernest Atlgelt, deceased and as heir at law of A Murck, deceased.” In a 1913 warranty deed, the language changes to “Emma Altgelt, a feme sole,” with the paperwork typed instead of handwritten.
- Cherise Bell