“hundreds of the descendants of Indians have obtained their freedom:” Freedom Suits in 18th & 19th Century Virginia

  Thomas Nast's celebration of the emancipation of Southern slaves with the end of the Civil War, circa 1865.

A small slip of paper on display in the Library of Virginia’s latest exhibition You Have No Right: Law and Justice in Virginia, running 24 September 2012-18 May 2013, was of immense importance to twelve people. It discloses, even though it does not state the fact in so many words, that on 2 May 1772 they gained their freedom after being held in slavery since each of them was born. The piece of paper and the fates of those Virginians illuminates a disturbing and little-known part of Virginia’s history, the enslavement of American Indians.

The paper came into the possession of the Library of Virginia in 1988 when it acquired a copy of volume two of John Tracy Atkyns, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the High Court of Chancery in the Time of Lord Chancellor Hardwicke . . . (London, 1765–1768) that had once been in the library of the colonial government in Williamsburg. One of the librarians in the cataloguing section showed it to me, knowing of my interest in that library. When she lifted it from her desk to hand it to me, a piece of paper that had been slipped between leaves in the middle of the volume fell out and fluttered to the floor. We were surprised, and I was even more surprised when I saw what it was. It was a 1780s or 1790s copy of the judgment in Robyn v. Hardiway (or Robin, or Hardaway), an unusually important case decided in the General Court of Virginia. The librarian and I presented the judgment to the archivists who added it to the meager surviving records of the colonial General Court.

Copy of the judgment in Robyn v. Hardaway, 2 May 1772, Virginia General Court (Colonial) Judgment, 1772 (Accession 33700).

The court case had two parts. First, attorneys argued about whether a 1682 law that allowed for the lifetime enslavement of Indians imported from other colonies had been repealed in 1684, 1691, or 1705. For decades Virginia’s courts had assumed that the 1684 invalidated the 1682 law, and “under that persuasion,” one of the attorneys informed the court, “hundreds of the descendants of Indians have obtained their freedom, on actions brought in this court.” The court concluded the first part of the case by deciding that the 1682 law had remained in effect until 1705.  This decision enlarged the number of residents of Virginia who could not hope to gain their freedom by claiming to be descendants of Indian women illegally enslaved between 1684 and 1705.

A jury trial then established that the twelve people were descendants of an Indian woman who had been illegally enslaved. The jury awarded Robin, Hannah, Daniel, Cuffie, Isham, Moses, Peter, Judy, Autry, Silvia, Davy, and Ned, all of unstated age, one shilling in damages. Each received one penny, but each also received freedom.

Some excellent 21st-century scholarship demonstrates that English-speaking Virginians enslaved many more Indian residents of Virginia in the 17th century than earlier historians believed and that the enslavement may very well have taken place in spite of the laws or in the absence of laws governing the enslavement of Indians. Because almost all of the records of the colonial General Court burned in the fire that destroyed the state court house and much of the business district of Richmond in April 1865, the specific record of the outcome of the important 1772 freedom suit naming the persons freed is especially rare and valuable.

It was critically important that the twelve plaintiffs were descendants of “Indian women,” not of Indian men. In 1662 the Virginia General Assembly had passed a law that arose from a case that Elizabeth Key filed in the Northumberland County Court. She was the daughter of Thomas Key, a white man who had been a burgess in the 1630s, and one of his enslaved female laborers of African origin or descent. Elizabeth Key claimed her freedom as the daughter of a free man and won her case, but the assembly then changed the law. The act of 1662 explained that because “some doubts have arrisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or ffree” it declared “that all children borne in this country shalbe held bound or free only according to the condition of the mother.”

Docket of Rachel vs. John Draper, 13 May 1820, Powhatan County (Va.) Judgments (Freedom Suits), 1807-1844 (Barcode 0007283660).

Two other pieces of paper on exhibition in You Have No Right demonstrate that descendants of enslaved Indian women continued to file freedom suits in Virginia courts well into the 19th century. In May 1820, after seven years of tedious and delayed proceedings in the courts of Wythe and Powhatan Counties, Rachel Findlay won her freedom for the second time. When she was a girl in 1773, one year after the General Court issued its judgment in Robyn v. Hardiway, the court ruled that she and her family, too, were entitled to their freedom as descendants of an illegally enslaved Indian woman. But her owner, who lived in the part of Cumberland County that in 1777 became Powhatan County, sold rather than freed her. She lived in slavery in far-away Wythe County for forty years until learning in 1813 that she should have been freed in 1773.

When the Powhatan County Court finally issued its ruling in the May 1820 judgment Rachel vs. John Draper, Sr. that Rachel Findlay was a free person, she was an old woman with thirty or forty descendants, all of whom had lived all of their lives in slavery and should have always lived free. It is not known whether any or all of her children and grandchildren and perhaps great grandchildren ever learned that they, too, should have been living in freedom and not in slavery since their births or whether any of them actually became free as a result of her persistent pursuit of her law suit. A court judgment was not self-enforcing, especially for a group of people like Rachel Findlay’s descendants who probably lived in wide dispersion, perhaps some of them outside of Virginia. Some of them may have lived the remainder of their lives in slavery, too, as she did for forty-seven years.

About the time that Rachel Findlay won her freedom for the second time, members of the Evans family lost a freedom suit in Lynchburg in Charles Evans, etc. vs. Lewis B. Allen, 1821-033. Their story is truly tragic. In preparation for their case, members of the family or perhaps their court-appointed attorney compiled and submitted to the court a genealogical chart that demonstrated how the family members were related to one another. That sheet of paper is also on display in the Library of Virginia’s exhibition and together with other evidence might have persuaded a court that they were entitled to their freedom. However, their attorney, former Congressman Christopher Henderson Clark, had a stroke sometime in 1820 and failed to appear in court on behalf of his clients. As a consequence of the case not being presented when scheduled, the court dismissed it in 1821, leaving all of the people and the descendants of the females stuck in slavery for the remainder of their lives.

Slavery and the laws that created and protected it were cruel and unjust. Adding to the cruelty and injustice were the many unpredictable factors, like the illness of an attorney, that could prevent people from presenting their cases in court, or like the sale of Rachel before she could become free. It is now clear that colonial Virginians enslaved more Indians than historians once knew about, and it is evident that many more people had been illegally enslaved than historians once believed. Men, women, and children of African, American Indian, and also of European and mixed ancestry like Elizabeth Key fell victim to the system of slavery that sustained Virginia’s economy and society from the early years of the colonial period to the end of the American Civil War.

It is also now convenient for the first time to do thorough research on some of the freedom suits that people filed after the American Revolution. People who filed suits seeking freedom and alleging illegal enslavement often sought justice through local courts of chancery. The record of each surviving court case contains unique personal stories about the enslavement of one or more Virginians and the conditions under which they lived and how they attempted to gain their freedom. As part of the Library of Virginia’s project to preserve and make available to researchers the records of the commonwealth’s local chancery courts, archivists at the library have to date digitized thousands of case files containing several million pages of documents, including more than one hundred freedom suits. They are processing and digitizing more every day. The records of the cases that have been digitized can be viewed online in the Chancery Records Index.

Clerks of court did not know or use the surnames of the people who filed freedom suits, so to identify freedom suits it is necessary to search for chancery causes in which the style, or title, of the case does not include a surname. In the search field for the surname for the plaintiff(s), simply enter a tilde ~ which will return a list of cases in which the surname of the plaintiff is not part of the official name of the case.

-Brent Tarter, Founding Editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography

5 Comments

  1. Thomas Hay said:
    26 September 2012 at 3:09 pm

    Having known of Robin v Hardaway for years, I find it interesting that freedom could be judicial awarded but wonder about damages for years of unlawful bondage. Was that ever sought?

    • Bari said:
      5 October 2012 at 2:02 pm

      Thanks for reading the blog and commenting! Freedom suits generally awarded one penny in damages with the decision. The court system in Virginia made it difficult enough for slaves to successfully sue for their freedom, and we have never come across a case in which a former slave went back to court to sue for further damages.

      • Cecilia said:
        17 August 2014 at 8:03 am

        This is my Family Chart!!!…wow… I’ve been searching and searching to strike Gold!!! History.!!!

  2. BELL Melungeon said:
    7 October 2012 at 9:41 pm

    1 PENNY!!! How do you get change for that? Keep your lousy penny Im outta here! … p.s. What a sad and shameful past this country has!

  3. r.chandler said:
    9 October 2014 at 10:41 am

    MY GOD, this is heartbreaking to read (yet fascinating)! Don’t even bother asking how i came upon this site, but I’m glad i did. Will certainly be sharing among my facebook circle. I’m a Virginia native as well, and doing research on my own family, it’s a wonder how they dodged such an oppressive system!

One Trackback

  1. By Freedom Suits in Virginia | Native Heritage Project on 2 October 2012 at 8:09 am

    [...] article, “Hundreds of the Descendants of Indians Have Obtained Their Freedom”: Freedom Suits in 18th and … discusses several of these suits, the history behind them, and near the end, how to use the [...]

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