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Book Title: In the Matter of Color: The Colonial Period.

Contributors: A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. - author. 

Publisher: Oxford University Press. 

Place of Publication: Oxford, England. 

Publication Year: 1980. Page Number: 19.

Questia Media America, Inc. www.questia. com




Penny Ferguson found this information about early colonial slavery and posted it to another group.  


I'm reposting it here. In addition, I am finding a great deal of information about early slavery or both blacks and indians in early Barbados and Bermuda.  Both of those early colonial efforts spilled over into Virginia, with many of those families being the same ones who we find early in Virginia.  Many indian slaves captured in the Chesapeak where taken to the islands so they could not escape, where they intermingled with the black slaves and many were very likely retransported a generation or two later to Virginia and early NC.  This may have nothing to do with the Lost Colony, but then again, it might. It's important to understand the dynamics of the political and social scene at the time.

Something else I've taken note of is that the same boats and captains were servicing both locations, and one Capt. Powell is of the same surname as one of our Lost Colonists.  This may not be coincidence.


As the homeland of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, and Patrick Henry, Virginia justifiably claims that from the earliest years it singularly provided significant leadership for all the colonies. In many ways, relatively, it was a model of agricultural and economic success as one of the first colonies. It played a major role in precipitating the American Revolution and in shaping the destiny of the new nation after 1776. Yet, tragically, Virginia was also a leader in the gradual debasement of blacks through its ultimate institutionalization of slavery. It pioneered a legal process that assured blacks a uniquely degraded status—one in which the cruelties of slavery and pervasive racial injustice were guaranteed by its laws. Just as they emulated other aspects of Virginia's policies, many colonies would also follow Virginia's leadership in slavery law.

From 1619 to approximately 1660 there appears to have been no systematic effort in Virginia to define broadly the rights or nonrights of blacks. The decisions produced in the occasional judicial cases heard often failed to make clear whether they were simply based on a finding of the facts, of significance only to those involved in that particular litigation, or were they judicial announcements of binding legal principles that unmistakably set precedents upon which the legal status of all blacks in the colony would be decided. The following pages first review the range of surviving decisions and demonstrate the difficulty in reaching definitive conclusions about the legal status of blacks in the early Virginia colonial era. Later we will see how the deprivations were solidified through the slave laws as Virginia completed the process of the debasement and dehumanization of blacks through a relatively rigid legal process. Finally, in the late eighteenth century it tried to restrain some of the cruelties while at the same time assuring the economic viability of a slavery system that inherently deprived blacks of basic human rights.


The Beginning about the last of August, there came to Virginia a Dutchman of Warre that sold us twenty Negers. 

1 John Rolfe, Secretary and Recorder of the Virginia colony, made the above entry toward the end of August, 1619. It survives as the earliest known record dating the arrival of blacks at an American colony. These first "Negers," who arrived in Jamestown a year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, had not volunteered for the voyage. Unlike the hopeful Pilgrims, they had been brought to America unwillingly, captives, in fact, of Dutchmen who had apparently seized them from a Spanish ship to sell them to the labor short colonists.

In 1619, when these first twenty blacks arrived in Jamestown, there was not as yet a statutory process to especially fix the legal standing of blacks. Although the American colonists seemed to have practiced from the very beginning the "same discrimination which white men had practiced against the Negro all along and before any statutes decreed it,"

 2 these first blacks were not exposed to the systematic degradation to which later blacks would be subjected. Yet they were not free. Where did they stand? After centuries of investigation and discussion scholars are still unable to agree.

Paradoxically, it has been argued that the capture by the Dutch ship of the twenty blacks who arrived in Jamestown in 1619 was a "godsend" to these blacks. Their removal from the Spanish slave ship altered their permanent slave status under Spanish rule to "something indeterminate and transitory, which 'faded out' or merged automatically ... into servitude analogous to that of the indentured white servants when they touched Virginia soil." 


3 In fact, the status of these first blacks in America was made even more  nebulous because of a fascinating mixture of Spanish and English law whereby a Spanish subject who had been christened or baptized was by that act enfranchised or set free under English law and admitted to the privileges of a free person. Since English law governed Virginia in 1619, and since most of the twenty blacks captured by the Spanish had been baptized by their captors, there was legal as well as moral force to the argument that they should be freed.

Although this enfranchisement doctrine was not reported in judicial opinions until the 1677 decisions of the Court of King's Bench in Butts v. Penny, 

4 the concept seems to have been implicitly recognized as early as 1612. A black man, John Philip, was reportedly "baptized" in 1612 in England. As a result, in 1624 the General Court of Virginia ruled that "John Philip A negro, ... was qualified as a free man and Christian to give testimony, because he had been 'Christened in England 12 years since.' " 

5 There is, however, no surviving record of freedom suits instituted by blacks for the short period during which the colonists continued to recognize this special situation in English law.

As far back as 1896, for instance, Philip A. Bruce had asserted that the blacks brought to Virginia in 1619 came as slaves, whereas only six years later, J. C. Ballagh, in A History of Slavery in Virginia, contended that they were servants whose statutory enslavement did not begin until 1660. 

6 More recently, John Hope Franklin has authoritatively stated, "there is no doubt that the earliest Negroes in Virginia occupied a position similar to that of the white servants in the colony," 

7 and on this same point, Mary and Oscar Handlin note that initially both blacks and whites in Virginia (and in the other colonies) were relatively unfree, that "almost everyone, including tenants and laborers, bore some sort of servile obligation," and that although many of these classes of individuals gradually gained their freedom before 1660, those both black and white who had not were identified and treated as servants rather than slaves. 

8 There is sufficient evidence, then, to consider at least the possibility that these first black Jamestown arrivals, as well as many of those blacks who followed them in the next few decades, were treated by the early Jamestown colonists more or less as additions to the already existing social class into which whites had often been pressed—that of indentured servant. Some scholars have argued that for at least half a century the status of blacks in America remained incompletely defined—socially somewhere at the bottom of the white servant class perhaps, but nowhere near chattel slaves.Helen Catterall has suggested that an analysis of cases adjudicating the rights and nonrights of poor whites, blacks, and Indians reveals that in a relatively short period judicial recognition of the following strata, in order of social precedence, became apparent.


1. White indentured servants
2. White servants without indentures (of whom there were two classes, those who came voluntarily and those who came involuntarily)

3. Christian black servants
4. Indian servants
5. Mulatto servants (with black or Indian parentage)
6. Indian slaves
7. Black slaves 


9 Just how then did the legal process, haltingly at first and later without hesitation, help fix those social prejudices by which an individual's status was determined solely on the basis of race? For an answer we must look not only at those judicial decisions and legislative enactments setting out the rights and obligations of blacks and slaves in this early period but, as important, at the legislative and judicial restraints applied against whites, including those that first defined the rights and obligations of white indentured servants. *


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