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Shaping Public Opinion -Slave or Free?


Shaping Public Opinion

Women's Organizations



Service to Country

Votes for Women


Where are the Women:
Examples from the LVA Collections



Related Resources

Temperance | Slavery: Two Points of View | Opponents of Slavery
Slave or Free? | Writing Virginia’s History

In 1662 the General Assembly 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." During that same decade and for the remainder of the century, laws concerning enslavement of Native Americans changed several times, leading to confusion and law suits to determine whether people descended from certain Indians were legally free or enslaved.

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.

There were several such successful suits for freedom. In 1773 Samuel Findlay, his sister Rachel, and Rachel's daughter Judy, who lived in Cumberland County, won a similar suit after proving that they were descended from Native Americans. Samuel Findlay received his freedom, but the man who had held them in slavery, knowing that he was going to lose the case, sold Rachel and Judy to his son, Mitchell Clay, who moved to southwestern Virginia and in 1774 sold them to John Draper. Rachel Findlay was illegally held in slavery from 1773 until 1820. When she was nearly sixty years old and living in Wythe County, Rachel Findlay first learned about the outcome of the 1773 law suit and began a heroic struggle to obtain documents, establish her identity, and win her freedom. In 1820 Rachel Findlay received the freedom to which she had been entitled since 1773. By then she had nearly forty descendants who were entitled to their freedom, too.

Judgment in the case of Robin, et al v. Hardaway. 2 May 1777. Manuscript. RG 104, Virginia General Court (Colonial), Judgment, 1772. State Government Records Collection. Acc. 33700, The Library of Virginia

Genealogical Charts of the Gibson Family. 1821. Digital reproduction of manuscript. City of Lynchburg Court Records. Chancery Records, Charles Evans and others v. Lewis B. Allen. (Chancery Cause 1821–033)

These genealogical charts listing the descendants of Jane Gibson, another enslaved Indian, were submitted in evidence during a Lynchburg court proceeding that began in 1814 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.

Reports of cases determined in the General Court of Virginia. From 1730, to 1740; and from 1768, to 1772. Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville: F. Carr, 1829. Bound volume. The Library of Virginia