Born free, but still needing to be freed by courts in 1655

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:, or follow me on Twitter.

Interesting story. Apparently slave children with white fathers were considered free in the 1600s. And then they changed the law in 1662 to make it far more oppressive.

Elizabeth’s father, Thomas Key, was charged with fathering Elizabeth, which he at first denied, and as result he was brought to court to be forced to support her and arrange for apprenticeships so that she could learn skills. That was the protocol at the time for anyone seeing to get a “bastard” acknowledged. Thomas was forced to acknowledge Elizabeth as his natural daughter because there “were witnesses who testified to his paternity,” whatever that means, and she was baptized.

…After Mottram died, Elizabeth and her son with William, John, were listed as Negroes by Mottram’s widow, making them part of the estate. Grinstead decided to sue the estate claiming Elizabeth was a free woman, who had served over 10 years past her indentured term and her son was also freeborn.

“They sued for her freedom on the basis that her father was free and also because by then, in the mid-1600s, she had become Christian. And in English common law, you cannot, the paternity or the status of a child derives from the father. And it was also against English common law to enslave a Christian.”

Due to this, the colonial court ruled in her favor in 1655 and she was freed. Not only that but the Mottram estate had to pay Elizabeth in corn and clothes for the years lost. She and Grinstead married when his indenture ended 1656.

As a result of this, the in December 1662 the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a colonial law that introduced the principle of partus sequitur ventrum. It required that black women’s children’s freedom was decided by them, not by their father, which was a departure from the social status of a child being defined by the father. This freed white fathers from having to acknowledge or support their mixed-race children or freeing them.

The case of Elizabeth Key is important because it shows how American society changed its laws in order to facilitate slavery in this country. Changing the laws to change the way social status was determined was only done to ensure that white men were able to rape slave women without having to take any kind of responsibility, and it ensured that the cattle element of American slavery would be able to sustain itself after the slave trade itself ended. All of the responsibilities men as fathers were supposed to provide under English common law were denied to their mixed-race black children because it was disruptive to the system they were creating.

Post external references

  1. 1