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Mary Jane Warfield

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Mary Jane Warfield, born in 1815 and died in 1900, was married to the Kentucky politician Cassius Marcellus Clay and supervised the construction of White Hall, a plantation located in Richmond, Kentucky.[1]

Warfield was born in Lexington, Kentucky to Maria Barr and Dr. Elisha Warfield. She was the second of ten children. Her father worked as a doctor and thoroughbred breeder.[2] She attended Shelby Female Academy in Lexington.

Warfield met Cassius Clay when she was 16 and he was earning his undergraduate degree at Transylvania College. They married on February 26th, 1833, after Clay returned to Lexington from Yale University where he finished his undergraduate degree. The pair had ten children over the course of their 45 year marriage.

Warfield supported her husband’s anti slavery activism and traveled with Clay on his political outings to the midwest in her late 20s.[1] She wrote detailed letters to her friends and family about the food she encountered, specifically the fruits. She described the color, size, and taste of plums, peaches, and grapes.[1]

After Clay joined the U.S. Army in the Mexican American War, Warfield was met with a substantial amount of debts incurred by Clay. She traded cattle, negotiated the price of hogs and mules, and cultivated fruits and vegetables on two separate properties.[3][4] She moved her growing family from Lexington to their farm house outside Richmond in 1846 in an effort to help pay off the debts. While Clay was gone, Warfield continued to run the household, raise and educate her children personally, and offer support local charitable causes. Warfield emphasized the importance of education in her young daughters' lives, an uncommon occurrence in the late 19th century.[5] Once Clay returned from the Mexican War, after being held hostage by Mexican forces and maintaining an affair with a young woman, Warfield welcomed him back to Richmond and he took over his position as head of the house again.

In 1852, a banking company based out of Cincinnati failed, causing the family’s finances to spiral. Clay was forced to auction off his possessions in a private sell two years later. Warfield’s wealthy father, Dr. Elisha Warfield, refused to help alleviate the family’s debts. When Dr. Warfield died in 1859, Clay refused to attend his funeral, causing more issues to rise in the couple's marriage.[1] In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Clay to the position of American minister to Russia and Warfield agreed to move the family to Saint Petersburg. However due to the declining health of Warfield's young daughter and Warfield’s longing for home, Warfield left Russia in 1863.

Once she returned to the Bluegrass State, she found her state in the midst of the Civil War. Warfield opened up her home in Richmond for soldiers to stay. She also allowed for thousands of Union horses and mules to graze on White Hall's grasslands. However, her aid to the Union army left her vulnerable to Confederate attacks. In late July 1864, her carriage house and lumber house were burned to the ground by Confederate forces.

By the time Clay returned to Kentucky in 1869, Warfield personally oversaw the cultivation and expansion of the 2,500 acre farm. She was also able to pay off a substantial amount of Clay's debts. She earned an estimated amount of $80,000 through property rental and the sale of livestock and crops. While Clay was in Russia, Warfield developed suspicions about his infidelity due to rumors of an extramarital affair with a Russian ballerina. The couple were on icy terms after his return, which was further aggravated by Clay's decision to visit with friends in New York for one year before returning to his family in Kentucky.

While in New York, Warfield wrote Clay and stated her desire to purchase a cemetery lot in the Lexington Cemetery where their children were buried, which was a clear sign that she had no interest in being buried with her husband with his relatives in Richmond. Clay regarded this action as a “proclamation of perpetual war”. Once he returned to Kentucky, Clay was unimpressed by the renovations of White Hall and after a fight, Warfield left the home she had invested a substantial amount of work and time into. After living apart for five years, Clay filed for divorce on the grounds of desertion. Warfield did not contest the suit and the marriage was terminated on February 7th, 1878.

Warfield fared much better than other divorcees of her time, for her father left her a substantial amount of money so she could maintain a comfortable lifestyle. However, due to Kentucky law, married women held no legal title to their spouse’s property, thus she was not eligible for financial support from her former husband nor the property she invested her time and energy into. Warfield’s reputation was also damaged by Clay in his memoir in 1886 in an extended rant and stated that he regretted marrying her. [6]Warfield did not leave behind any written word of her feelings towards Clay.

Instead, Warfield focused her energy on activism for women’s rights within the state of Kentucky with her youngest daughters, Annie and Laura Clay. In 1879, Warfield made her home in Lexington a hub for suffrage activism. She and her daughters travelled door to door to recruit supporters for their goal of female suffrage. She also lobbied for the passage of a law that protected and allowed women to pursue a divorce for a marriage. Laws were already in place to terminate marriages in the event of physical abuse, but Warfield wanted to expand the protection to economic exploitation as well. With the help of the Clay daughters and various volunteers, Warfield was able to see this goal materialize with the passage of the Married Woman’s Property Act in 1894[7]. This law gave wives control over their own landholdings, wages, and personal property. It was able to protect women from economic uncertainties like Warfield had experienced.

After a long illness, Warfield died on April 29th, 1900. Susan B. Anthony wrote to Mary Barr Clay: “My love and respect for your dear mother and all of her girls have grown with the years - so that today I am dipped into sympathy with all of you - almost as if it were my very own mother whose ebbing life-tide were going out. The world is indeed the poorer to us who can no longer say mother!”[8]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Kentucky women : their lives and times. McEuen, Melissa A., 1961-, Appleton, Thomas H., 1950-. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 2015. ISBN 978-0-8203-4752-3. OCLC 908324670. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  2. "Beechmore". Pewee Valley Historical Society. Retrieved 2020-02-29.
  3. "Clay, Mary Jane Warfield (1815-1900)". www.lexcem.org. Retrieved 2020-02-29.
  4. Savage, Mike. "A Moment In Kentucky History: Mary Jane Warfield". www.weku.fm. Retrieved 2020-02-29.
  5. Roe, Amy. "Laura Clay (1849 – 1941)". ExploreKYHistory. Retrieved 2020-03-06.
  6. Clay, Cassius Marcellus (1886). The Life of Cassius Marcellus Clay: Memoirs, Writings, and Speeches, Showing His Conduct in the Overthrow of American Slavery, the Salvation of the Union, and the Restoration of the Autonomy of the States ... J.F. Brennan & Company. Search this book on Amazon.com Logo.png
  7. "Moments in Kentucky Legislative History". apps.legislature.ky.gov. Retrieved 2020-03-05.
  8. Susan B. Anthony to MBC, April 21, 1900, Cassius M. Clay Papers.

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