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Marriage on the Margins: Free Wives, Enslaved Husbands, and the Law in Early Virginia


In 1725, Jane Webb, a free woman of color, sued Thomas Savage, a slave owner and middling planter, in Northampton County Court, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Webb v. Savage was an unusual lawsuit, the culmination of over twenty years of legal wrangling between two parties who had an uncommon and intimate connection. The case originated in a 1703 contract between the pair, and at the time it was written, its terms, assumedly, were clear and mutually agreed upon. Two decades later, however, a tangled skein of circumstances obscured the stipulations of that original agreement. Over the course of those same years, the legal meaning of freedom for individuals like Jane Webb had fundamentally changed. Both fraught interpersonal relations and the evolution of race-based law mattered to the 1725 chancery case for one simple reason: Thomas Savage owned Jane Webb's husband. Despite the fact that Webb's spouse, named only in the records as Left, was enslaved, their marriage was legally recognized, and the seven children born to the couple, following the legal doctrine partus sequitur ventrum, took their free status as well as their surname from their mother.

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Gwendolyn Midlo Hall , “African Women in French and Spanish Louisiana,” in The Devil's Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South, ed. Catherine Clinton and Michelle Gillespie (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 247–61

Kimberley S. Hanger , Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769–1803 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 8997

Thomas N. Ingersoll , “Free Blacks in a Slave Society: New Orleans, 1713–1812,” William and Mary Quarterly 48 (1991): 173200

Hendrik Hartog , “The Constitution of Aspiration and ‘The Rights That Belong to Us All,’” Journal of American History 74 (1987): 1013–34 as a beginning point

Ariela Gross , What Blood Won't Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 11

William E. Nelson , The Common Law in Colonial America, Vol. 1. The Chesapeake and New England, 1607–1660 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 35

David Cressy , Birth, Marriage and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 233335

Robert Olwell , “Becoming Free: Manumission and the Genesis of a Free Black Community in South Carolina,” Slavery and Abolition, 17 (April 1996), 117

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Law and History Review
  • ISSN: 0738-2480
  • EISSN: 1939-9022
  • URL: /core/journals/law-and-history-review
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