Freedom Suits in Virginia

The current exhibit at the Library of Virginia, “You have no Right:  Law and Justice in Virginia”  delves into the issue of Indian slavery in Virginia, both legal and illegal.  Many Native people were wrongfully enslaved.  They and their descendants were held as slaves when in fact they should have been free.  In some cases, the descendants of these women filed suits and sought their freedom decades after the originally wrongfully enslaved person had died.  You can see an example of that in the pedigree chart, submitted above as part of one of these suits.  The original wrongfully enslaved person was “Jane Gibson, An Indian Woman, the Ancestor,” shown at the top of the chart.

People in Virginia took the status of their mother.  If the mother was a slave, so was the child, even if fathered by a free person.  If the mother was free, so was the child, even if fathered by a slave.  If a woman was wrongfully enslaved, that means her children, and their children, were as well.  This law went into effect in 1662 after an individual fathered with an enslaved woman by a free white man gained their freedom.

In Virginia, in 1682, a law allowed the lifetime enslavement of Indians imported from other colonies.  It was repealed in 1684, supposedly, and in 1691, and again in 1705. It was determined that the 1705 repeal was the “real” one, which meant that Indians captured or purchased by traders between 1684 and 1705 had been legally enslaved. It was only people enslaved after 1705 that could, if they knew about the law and had the means, file for their freedom.  In many cases, that took decades and could be easily derailed by things like the attorney not showing up for court, or dieing, as is demonstrated by some of the examples.

This article, “Hundreds of the Descendants of Indians Have Obtained Their Freedom”: Freedom Suits in 18th and 19th Century Virginia discusses several of these suits, the history behind them, and near the end, how to use the chancery records online search capability to find these freedom suits.

Kudos to the Library of Virginia for their ongoing efforts to bring the chancery and other previously obscure records into the digital age and into the hands of people who need access to them.  Maybe one of your ancestors is waiting there for you.

About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
This entry was posted in History, Slaves, Virginia. Bookmark the permalink.

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