white slavery

White Slavery – A Story Behind the Index

Editor’s note: In this groundbreaking work, Without Indentures: Index to White Slave Children in Colonial Court Records, Richard Hayes Phillips has collected the names of more than five thousand children kidnapped from Ireland, Scotland, England, and New England, and sold into white slavery in Maryland and Virginia, c. 1660-1720.

As this topic tends to be largely under reported, save for the predominantly inaccessible historical records, Without Indentures brings forth the names of those children bound into white slavery so they can be placed into context within their family histories.

Please enjoy the following behind the scenes look on the making of the book, written by the author, Richard Hayes Phillips, Ph.D.

The Story Behind Without Indentures: Index to White Slave Children in Colonial Court Records

By Richard Hayes Phillips, Ph.D.

I do not seek out controversy.  It finds me.  I do have an inquisitive mind, and one thing leads to another, but I didn’t know genealogy could be so controversial.

When I was a very young man, my elders in Kansas took notice that I was interested in family history.  It was decided then and there that all the family records should eventually be passed on to me.

For the longest time we didn’t even know my great-great-grandfather’s name.  He generally went by his initials.  Even his gravestone says “J. H. Phillips.”

And then, eleven years ago, I received in the mail a full page obituary of Joseph Harmon Phillips (“A Kansas Pioneer is Gone,” The Western Spirit, Paola, Kansas, February 8, 1907).  It said “he was born in Randolph County, North Carolina, December 1st, 1831,” which led me to his birth place.  It turned out that his father was an orphan, but there was a marriage record, so I knew his mother’s maiden name, and this led me back to two generations of Scottish slaves — the father a prisoner of war sold into slavery at a sawmill on the coast of Maine, the son a kidnapped child sold into slavery at a plantation on the northern neck of Virginia.

The son was James Hambleton.  He was born in New Hampshire, the youngest of eight boys; he married Grace, they both died in Virginia, they had two sons and one daughter.  That’s all we knew.  So I hitchhiked to Montross, Virginia to photograph the wills, and to see what else I could find in the records.

There he was, in the Court Order Book, on April 26, 1699, as a child, being sentenced to slavery.  And it wasn’t just him.  There were twenty-six kids brought to Westmoreland County Court the same day, “adjudged to be” nine to eighteen years of age, and “ordered to serve according to law.”  And these were white kids.  They all had surnames, different from those of their masters.

It was all “according to law.”  I wondered what law that might be.  I spent a lot of hours searching the laws and records of England and Virginia.  It must have taken me a year to figure it out.  Under English law, any two or more constables could capture children found begging and vagrant, convey them unto any port, and ship them to the plantations as servants without indentures, without their consent, against their will.  Under Virginia law, the County Courts were empowered to examine children arriving without indentures, adjudge their ages, and sentence them to slavery for a number of years.  There were age brackets.  The younger the child, the longer the sentence.  The same was true in Maryland.

The story haunted me for years.  How come we never heard about this?  How could I get the story out?  Would anyone believe me if I did?

I went back to Montross, Virginia to see how many white slave children I could find in the Court Order Books.  There were more than three hundred.  Then I went to the Library of Virginia to find out how many counties there were for which the seventeenth-century colonial court records had survived.  The records were complete or nearly so in ten counties, and there was partial coverage in a few others.  That is when I decided to call up Genealogical Publishing Company.

You’re not supposed to do that, just call them up out of the blue.  You’re supposed to send a letter of inquiry, or better yet, have an agent.  But I’ve never had an agent.  I don’t even know any agents.  So when the receptionist answered the phone, I asked her to whom I should send a letter of inquiry.  “Joe Garonzik,” she said.  “Would you like me to put you through to him?”

“Uh, yeah,” I stammered.  So she did.

Joe didn’t seem surprised to hear the story.  Not at first.  He knew about convict laborers, transported to America and sold into slavery as punishment for their crimes.  But these were kids.  They were not being charged with any crimes.  And, I told him, I had three hundred names.  There was a prolonged silence.

“You have three hundred names?”

“Yes.  And that’s just one county.  There are ten counties in Virginia where the colonial court records have survived.  And I haven’t even looked at Maryland.”

He told me to write a one-page proposal, and that he would get back to me the next week.  I sent him a page and a half, and he got back to me in two days.  “Expand your data base,” he said.  “We’ll publish your book.”

So began my voyage of discovery, to see how many names I could find, to single out these hapless, abused, discarded and forgotten children, and enshrine them in a history book devoted exclusively to them — Without Indentures: Index to White Slave Children in Colonial Court Records.  We have five thousand names, from incomplete records.  Not all of the colonial court records have survived.

In Virginia I mostly used transcriptions of the court records, filling the gaps by examining microfilms.  In Maryland I was often using the original handwritten books, some of which had not been examined for centuries.  My hands tingled as I touched them.  These white slave children were hidden in plain sight.  Their spirits cried out for recognition.  No one had cared to look for them, until now.

Image credit: Fannie Virginia Casseopia Lawrence – a redeemed slave child, 5 years of age – redeemed in Virginia, by Catharine S. Lawrence. Library of Congress.

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