During the eighteenth century, the Rodrigues da Cruz and the Vieira da Costa families rose to relative prominence in the comarca of Rio das Velhas, a judicial district of the captaincy of Minas Gerais (Figure 1). Both families had as their patriarch a wealthy Portuguese man whose fortune was built on the gold-mining industry that dominated the regional economy in the early part of the century. Both families were also the product of relationships between Portuguese gold miners and slave women. The second and third generations of the two families similarly comprised freed or free persons of mixed European and African descent whose own standing in society relied in part on their families' ability to manage the social and legal implications of the circumstances of their birth. The Rodrigues da Cruz and Vieira da Costa families were thus part of a large and rising population of pardos (light-skinned persons) or mulatos (persons of mixed descent) in eighteenth-century Minas Gerais—not of solely Portuguese origin or descent (brancos), solely African origin (preto), nor solely African descent but born in Brazil (crioulo). Their ambiguous social standing could lie somewhere between the elite status of most brancos and the slave status of most pretos or crioulos.
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