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Colonial Virginia Laws on Slavery and Servitude (1639-1705)

From the earliest days of the Virginia colony, laws governing the ownership of enslaved people were put in place to define the legal status of enslaved people and their enslavers and regulate interactions between them. In this series of laws dating from 1639 to 1705, the legal foundations of colonial slavery were established and codified. An enslaved person's status as property is established early on, as is their enslaver's complete legal dominion over them (including the freedom to murder runaway or insubordinate slaves without fear of punishment), while laws forbidding the "abominable mixture" of the races and defining the legal status of mixed-race children suggest both the frequency of such liaisons and the increasing enmity with which they were viewed.

1639: All persons except negroes to be provided with arms and ammunition or be fined at pleasure of the Governor and Council.

1660: Be it enacted that in case any English servant shall run away in company with any negroes who are incapable of making satisfaction by addition of time, Be it enacted that the English so running away in company with them shall serve for the time of the said negroes absence as they are to do for their own by a former act.

1662: WHEREAS some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or free, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother, And that if any christian shall commit fornication with a negro man or woman, he or she so offending shall pay double the fines imposed by the former act.

1667: WHEREAS some doubts have risen whether children that are slaves by birth, and by the charity and piety of their owners made partakers of the blessed sacrament of baptism, should by virtue of their baptism be made free; It is enacted and declared by this grand assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptism doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom; that diverse masters, freed from this doubt, may more carefully endeavour the propagation of christianity by permitting children, though slaves, or those of greater growth if capable to be admitted to that sacrament.

1669: WHEREAS the only law in force for the punishment of refractory servants resisting their master, mistress or overseer cannot be inflicted upon negroes, nor the obstinacy of many of them by other then violent means suppressed, Be it enacted and declared by this grand assembly, if any slave resist his master (or other by his masters order correcting him) and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not be accounted felony, but the master (or that other person appointed by the master to punish him) be acquit from molestation, since it cannot be presumed that prior malice (which alone makes murder felony) should induce any man to destroy his own estate.

1670: WHEREAS it hath been questioned whither Indians or negroes manumitted, or otherwise free, could be capable of purchasing christian servants, It is enacted that no negro or Indian though baptised and enjoined their own freedom shall be capable of any such purchase of christians, but yet not debarred from buying any of their own nation.

1691: WHEREAS many times negroes, mulattoes, and other slaves unlawfully absent themselves from their masters and mistresses service, and lie hid and lurk in obscure places killing hogs and committing other injuries to the inhabitants of this dominion . . . it is hereby enacted . . . in case any [of the] aforesaid shall resist, runaway, or refuse to deliver and surrender him or themselves . . . it shall and may be lawful for [any person or persons authorized to recover runaways] to kill and destroy such negroes, mulattoes, and other slave or slaves by gun or any otherwise whatsoever.

. . . And for prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue which hereafter may increase in this dominion, as well by negroes, mulattoes, and Indians intermarrying with English, or other white women, as by their unlawful accompanying with one another . . . it is hereby enacted, that for the time to come, whatsoever English or other white man or woman being free shall intermarry with a negro, mulatto, or Indian man or woman bond or free shall within three months after such marriage be banished and removed from this dominion forever. . .

And be it further enacted . . . That if any English woman being free shall have a bastard child by any negro or mulatto, she pay the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, within one month after such bastard child be born, to the Church wardens of the parish where she shall be delivered of such child, and in default of such payment she shall be taken into the possession of the said Church wardens and disposed of for five years . . . and that such bastard child be bound out as a servant by the said Church wardens until he or she shall attain the age of thirty years...

And forasmuch as great inconveniences may happen to this country by the setting of negroes and mulattoes free, by their either entertaining negro slaves from their masters service, or receiving stolen goods, or being grown old bringing a charge upon the country; for prevention thereof, . . . it is hereby enacted, That no negro or mulatto be after the end of this present session of assembly set free by any person or persons whatsoever, unless such person or persons, their heirs, executors or administrators pay for the transportation of such negro or negroes out of the country within six months after such setting them free . . .

1705: VI. Provided always, That a slave's being in England, shall not be sufficient to discharge him of his slavery, without other proof of his being manumitted there. . . .

XV. That no person whatsoever shall, buy, sell, or receive of, to, or from, any servant, or slave, any coin or commodity whatsoever, without the leave, license, or consent of the master or owner of the said servant, or slave..

XIX. And for a further prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue, which hereafter may increase in this her majesty's colony and dominion . . .That whatsoever English, or other white man or woman, being free, shall intermarry with a negro or mulatto man or woman, bond or free, shall, by judgment of the county court, be committed to prison, and there remain, during the space of six months, without bail; and shall forfeit and pay ten pounds current money of Virginia, to the use of the parish, as aforesaid.

XX. That no minister of the church of England, or other minister, or person whatsoever, within this colony and dominion, shall hereafter wittingly presume to marry a white man with a negro or mulatto woman; or to marry a white woman with a negro or mulatto man, upon pain of forfeiting and paying, for every such marriage the sum of ten thousand pounds of tobacco . . .

XXXV. That no slave go armed with gun, sword, club, staff, or other weapon, nor go from off the plantation and seat of land where such slave shall be appointed to live, without a certificate of leave in writing.

XXXVI. That baptism of slaves doth not exempt them from bondage; and that all children shall be bond or free, according to the condition of their mothers, and the particular direction of this act.

XXXVII. And in case any slave, . . . as aforesaid, stay out, and do not immediately return home, it shall be lawful for any person or persons whatsoever, to kill and destroy such slaves by such ways and means as he, she, or they shall think fit, without accusation or impeachment of any crime for the same: And if any slave, that hath run away and lain out as aforesaid, shall be apprehended by the sheriff, or any other person, upon the application of the owner of the said slave, it shall and may be lawful for the county court, to order such punishment to the said slave, either by dismembering, or any other way, not touching his life, as they in their discretion shall think fit, for the reclaiming any such incorrigible slave, and terrifying others from the like practices.

XXXVIII. Provided Always, That for every slave killed, in pursuance of this act, or put to death by law, the master or owner of such slave shall be paid by the public . . .

Source | Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia, ed. William Waller Hening, vol. 1 (Richmond, Va.: Samuel Pleasants, 1819–23).
Creator | Various
Item Type | Laws/Court Cases
Cite This document | Various, “Colonial Virginia Laws on Slavery and Servitude (1639-1705),” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 5, 2023,

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