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  • The Many Faces of Native Bonded Labor in Colonial Virginia
  • Kristalyn Marie Shefveland (bio)

After an expedition into the southwest piedmont of the Virginia colony, Indian trader William Byrd returned with a young boy named Taythee that he sold to Thomas Harris in 1673. The four year old Native was clearly a slave as the document states bluntly, "to him the said Thom-as Harris his heirs for ever."1 Labor relations in Virginia in the seventeenth century, by all accounts, were a complex set of laws and realities wrapped in antagonisms over class and racial assumptions. Forced labor, in the form of English indentured servitude, was the first major institution to fulfill the demanding tasks of the fledgling plantation economy. Although promised an indenture and opportunity for advancement, most servants in the early years of the colony died or faced "legal contrivances" that prolonged their servitude. This remained the case until midcentury when life expectancy rose accompanied by a demand for land ownership.2

To supplement their English laborers, Virginians began to use more Native laborers, particularly after the close of the Anglo-Powhatan Wars and the 1646 Peace with Necotowance, weroance of the Pamunkey representing the former Powhatan chiefdom.3 The fragmented colonial record does not always indicate whether these laborers had rights as indentures or were indentured in name only—in other words, that they were slaves. This article examines the debate over labor and enslavement of Native southerners in Virginia and posits that there were considerable differences between the assumptions and opinions of the average Virginian colonist versus the elite lawmakers of the colony over the rights of Native peoples. Evidence from the colonial record highlights how Virginia leaders experienced concerns over the issues of Indian [End Page 68] servitude and slavery, seeking to find a way to define and codify their own interaction with the Virginia Natives.

The constant revision of laws regarding Indian servitude and slavery suggests changing opinions in Virginia about how to categorize such laborers. Should they be servants or slaves? If they were servants, for how long should their indenture be? Could they legally be enslaved? Should enslavement be a result of war? Should tributary Indians (the remaining Powhatan groups) have a fixed indenture or were they subject to enslavement as well? Were all Indians regardless of origin subject to slavery? If they were instead serving as servants did they have any legal rights? These questions about Indian labor provoked debates within the colony, debates mirrored in frequent amendment of the laws governing Indian labor.

Studying Indian labor and slavery, alongside any study of the emergence of chattel slavery and the plantation economy, in colonial Virginia can be a complicated task.4 The records reveal a myriad of legal statuses for all types of laborers in the colonial period. Labor in Virginia did not simply transplant traditions of servitude adopted from legal cultures of England, instead, a "stratified legal culture which accommodated distinct regimes of work" came to be applied to forced labor.5 According to Christopher Tomlins, the legal culture that the Virginians adopted from their English forefathers was focused primarily on "manorialism, hierarchical social relations, strong county elites, powerful justices of the peace, powerful county courts, and a comparatively atomized population that had few centers of countervailing authority."6

In the case of Indian labor and slavery, the record provides a chaotic story of the Virginia elite (the county courts, the governor, and the House of Burgesses) appearing powerless at times to regulate and control the trade in Indian slaves and servants. They thus allowed the trade at some times, and profited from it themselves, while at other times they sought to outlaw it. In a study of the government under Governor Sir William Berkeley, Alexander Haskell posits the argument that Berkeley sought to look "especially responsible" and made "concerted efforts to appear as such." Although referencing laws concerning the poor in the colony, the reference to appearances is apt as the acts of the Governor and his lawmakers seeking to regulate and ban forced Indian labor had little to no effect and his successors did virtually nothing to reverse this trend.7

The shift to chattel slavery serves...


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