Freedom Suit Claiming Indian Descent of an Enslaved Family, 1814
Throughout the history of slavery in Virginia, some American Indians were held as slaves. Seventeenth-century acts of assembly allowed enslavement for limited time periods of Indians captured in battle and lifetime slavery for Indians purchased from other colonies. In 1691 the assembly outlawed the enslavement of Indians. Nevertheless, people of Indian descent were still held as slaves, and laws concerning the enslavement of Native Americans changed several times, leading to confusion and lawsuits to determine whether people descended from certain Indians were legally free or enslaved. In 1662 the General Assembly had passed a law stating, "Whereas some doubts have arrisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or ffree . . . all children borne in this country shalbe held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother." In Virginia then, the status of a mother was passed to her child. Therefore enslaved women gave birth to enslaved children regardless of the status of the father of the children. But the same was true of free women, their children were automatically free.
One path to freedom for a slave held in Virginia was to prove maternal descent from an illegally enslaved Indian woman. Many people gained their freedom by showing that their mother or grandmother was an Indian and therefore was or should have been legally free. In the May 1772 case of Robin v. Hardaway, the General Court ruled that for most of the seventeenth century it had been illegal to enslave Indians who had been brought into Virginia. That case, on which Thomas Jefferson, a young attorney, took notes, resulted in freedom for twelve Dinwiddie County descendants of Indian women who had been sold into slavery in Virginia between 1682 and 1748.
Some cases like the one of Charles Evans and others v. Lewis B. Allen used evidence proving descent through many generations, back to the original Indian ancestor. This genealogical chart and petition listing the descendants of Jane Gibson, an enslaved Indian, were submitted in evidence during a Lynchburg court proceeding that began in 1814 to secure the freedom of her numerous descendants who had also been held in slavery for their entire lives. That case was never resolved. The court-appointed lawyer for Gibson's descendants suffered a nervous breakdown and failed to follow through on the case, leaving the unrepresented plaintiffs enslaved.
1. What does the chart show? Have you ever seen a chart similar to this one?
2. Who is the oldest ancestor on the chart?
3. What were Beck's sisters' names?
1. Why were Native Americans able to escape bondage more successfully than people of African descent? What environmental and social factors contributed to this reality?
2. Native Americans and African Americans suffered from oppression and marginalization in early American. Compare and contrast the experiences of these two groups. How are their experiences similar? How are they different?
Lauber, Almon Wheeler, Indian Slavery in Colonial Times within the Present Limits of the United States. New York: Columbia University; London: P. S. King, 1913.
Kegley, Mary B . "From Indian Slavery to Freedom" Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society 22, no. 1 (2003): 29–36.
Wallenstein, Peter. "Indian Foremothers: Race, Sex, Slavery, and Freedom in Early Virginia." In The Devil's Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South. Edited by Catherine Clinton and Michele Gillespie, 57–73. New York: Oxford University Press 1997.