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Were African Americans held as indentured servants in colonial Virginia?

Lesson Images

Gowen petition to Governor Berkeley.

Undated petition of Phillip Gowen to Governor Sir William Berkeley, ca. 1675, Colonial Papers, Folder 19, No. 2, Record Group 1, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. (Transcription | Elementary Transcription | High Res)

Standards Of Learning

USI.1, USI.5, VS.1, VS.3, VS.4, VUS.1, VUS.3

Historical Information:

This document provides a unique look at the status of African laborers in Virginia by clearly illustrating that fixed terms of indentured servitude existed, but also that they could be violated. In 1675 Phillip Gowen, an African American indentured servant, petitioned the governor of Virginia for release from servitude. In his petition, Gowen gave a detailed history of his life in bondage and the injustice he was currently experiencing. In 1664, Amy Beazley, Gowen's original owner, provided in her will that after serving her nephew, Humphrey Stafford, for eight years, Gowen was to be set free and given the usual “freedom dues” for an indenture, corn and a set of clothes. Gowen indicated that Stafford sold him and his remaining indentured time to Charles Lucas. Gowen claimed that Lucas, instead of freeing him at the end of his eighth year of servitude, forced him to serve three additional years. Even worse, Gowen claimed that Lucas threatened him and forced him to sign an indenture for another twenty years.

Indentured servants, both black and white, were subject to exploitation by their masters. Many could not read and write, which made their situations even more challenging. This document was probably written by an attorney on behalf of Phillip Gowen because it follows the traditional form of petitions of the time, with which, as a servant, Gowen himself probably would not have been familiar. Despite their low status, servants did have the right to petition the courts for help, as this document shows. Records indicate that the General Court of Virginia freed Gowen on June 16, 1675, and ordered Lucas to pay him three barrels of corn and court costs. The court also invalidated the twenty-year indenture Gowen claimed that Lucas had forced him to sign that was on file with the Warwick County Court.

Phillip Gowen's petition offers a window to explore the development of chattel slavery in colonial America. While Africans were brought to North America as captives, most were treated like indentured servants and were freed after their terms of service. Gradually, during the 17th and 18th century, Virginia began to pass laws that made slavery—servitude for life—a reality for most people of African descent. Below is a brief timeline of such legislation and legal cases which show a decrease in freedom for African Americans:

• 1639—African Americans were excluded from being required to have firearms.

• 1640—John Punch, an African American indentured servant, was sentenced to a life of servitude after being caught running away from his master. The two white men who were with him only received one additional year on their indentures.

• 1643—Owners were taxed on African American women, but not white women laborers.

• 1662—The law declared that a person's status depends on the status of the mother. This meant that children born to enslaved women would be slaves for life, under the law.

• 1667—The law declared that being a baptized a Christian did not change a person's status as a servant or slave.

• 1669—A new law was established that it was not a punishable crime for a master to kill a slave in the process of “correcting” that slave.

• 1705—The law provided that “Negro, Mulatto, and Indians slaves” were considered to be property, or real estate, under the law. This same statute also declared that all Africans were considered to be slaves.

Supplementary Resources:

• Gowen petition to Governor Berkeley – full transcription.

• Gowen petition to Governor Berkeley – abstracted transcription.

• Gowen v. Lucas (1675). Transcription from Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia, 441. Edited by H. R. McIlwaine, Virginia State Library, 1979.

Vocabulary Words:

♦ compel—to force or overpower.

♦ expiration—to come to an end.

♦ indenture—a contract binding one person into service of another for a specified term.

♦ petition—to make a request, especially formally.

♦ slave—one bound in servitude as the property of a person or household.

♦ testimony—verbal supportive evidence or proof of a particular truth or fact.

♦ void—having no legal force.

Lesson Activities


♦ Pretend you are the governor. Write a response to Phillip Gowen.

♦ Pretend you are Mr. Lucas. Write to the governor and defend your actions in your own petition.

♦ Following the structure of Phillip Gowen's petition to Governor Berkeley, write your own petition to your parents or your teacher asking for something you want. Be sure to give specific reasons why your request should be granted.


♦ DEBATE: Debate whether Phillip Gowen should be granted his request for freedom.

♦ MOCK TRIAL: Put on a mock trial, with the governor being the judge and classmates serving as the jury. Decide whether Phillip Gowen should be set free and given his “three barrels of Corne & a suit of Clothes” by Mr. Lucas or not. After your students have concluded their discussion, share with them the court verdict included in Gowen v. Lucas (1675).

Research and Discussion Questions:

♦ What was the difference between an indentured servant and a slave?

♦ What means could Mr. Lucas have possibly used to “force” Phillip Gowen into extending his period of servitude?

♦ What was happening in Virginia's economy and society in 1675 that may have affected Phillip Gowen's status as an indentured servant?

♦ Using the timeline, discuss the changes in Virginia's laws and customs in regard to people of African descent. What patterns do you see? What is the significance of these laws? What ultimate effect did they have?

Suggested Materials

Billings, Warren M. “The Law of Servants and Slaves in Seventeenth-Century Virginia.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 99 (1991): 45–62.

Davis, T. R. “Negro Servitude in the United States: Servitude Distinguished from Slavery.” Journal of Negro History 8 (1923): 247–283.

Vaughan, Alden T. “The Origins Debate: Slavery and Racism in Seventeenth Century Virginia.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 97 (1989): 311–354.

William Waller Hening, ed., The Statues at Large; Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619 (New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond, Va., 1819–1823).

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