Education from LVA

Freedom Suit Claiming Indian Descent

  • Freedom Suit Claiming Indian Descent of an Enslaved Family, 1804
  • Freedom Suit Claiming Indian Descent of an Enslaved Family, 1804
Related documents:
  • English and Powhatan Indian Treaty
    Treaty Between the English and the Powhatan Indians, October 1646
  • Phillip Phillip Gowen Petition
    Phillip Gowen Petition, June 16, 1675
  • Deed of Manumission
    Deed of Manumission for Francis Drake, May 23, 1791
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Freedom Suit Claiming Indian Descent of an Enslaved Family, 1804

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, who was described as "an Indian woman," were submitted in evidence during a Lynchburg court proceeding that began in 1804 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.

For Educators


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?

Further Discussion

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?

Suggested Reading

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.

Jane Gibson, an Indian woman
   the ancestor
   /   |   \
 George Gibson, her   Jane Gibson,   + Morris Evans
 son    the younger married  who married
     Morriss Evans  Jane Evans the younger 
     Frances Evans who went
     into New Kent 
    /    \
  Thomas Evans bound    Frances Evans bound
  to Lightfoot    to Lightfoot of New
      / |  \
      Tom Tomson Sarah Coley + a slave
           of Col
        / |  \ Ed Carter
        Hannah Beck Amey
       The Plantiff

To the honorable, the judge of the Richmond chancery-district-court
 The petition of Charles Evans Amy Evans, Sukey Evans, Sinar Evans, Solomon Evans, Frankey Evans, Sally Evans, Milly Evans, Adam Evans and Hannah Evans holden in slavery by Lewis Allen, of the county of Halifax humbly sheweth: that your petitioners are descendants from Jane Gibson, a free Indian woman, who and most of whose posterity have obtained their freedom by judgments of different courts: that there is a great danger of their being removed out of the commonwealth by the said Allen; as some of the same blood have been sold by the said Allen in the state of North Carolina.
      Your petitioners therefore pray that they may be permitted to sue in forma pauperum &c

   March 5, 1804
    I beg leave to certify it to be my opinion, that the above allegations are supported by documents in my possession, and that the petitioners are intitled to freedom.
   Edm: Randolf, a counsel in the said court.
Evans &c } petition