Indigenous Freedom Suits and the Problem of the Law

Zoe Zimmermann

Petersburg, Va. Courthouse. 1865. Photograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

One of the many paradoxes of Indigenous enslavement is that, in many regions, the practice flourished well after it was supposedly abolished. The Stolen Relations research team is constantly astonished at the number of cases we discover after colonies and states passed laws against enslaving Indigenous people and even after the 13th amendment. Slaveholders used a variety of tactics to keep Indigenous people in bondage, such as claiming that they were actually African, relying on arcane and confusing legislation, refusing to keep written records, and even selling their slaves out of state if anyone became suspicious. As the condition of slavery was passed between generations, identifying those who were free by law became an exceptionally difficult task. 

Still, there are numerous instances of enslaved Indigenous individuals and families who managed to trace their lineage to a wrongfully enslaved ancestor and prove their freedom in court. These cases, known as “freedom suits,” are the subject of this blog post. In British America and the United States, most claims to freedom depended on a legal premise known as partus sequitur ventrem, which meant that the legal status of children would always follow the mother. Thus, the children of enslaved women would always be legally enslavable, but the children of free women should legally be free, regardless of the father’s status. While partus sequitur ventrem was most typically used to keep the children of enslaved women in slavery, over time enslaved Indigenous people used it to gain their freedom by demonstrating that they had a free maternal ancestor (and then therefore that freedom should have been passed along to successive generations). In some cases, questions of free maternal ancestors intersected with questions of legal enslavement in the first place, making court decisions and determinations even more complicated. And proving one’s family history to an often unsympathetic court with little or no written evidence could be next to impossible. 

In 1807, these hurdles to freedom were made abundantly clear to Pallas, an Indigenous man who sued for his freedom in Virginia. Maddeningly complicated legal issues, a lack of resources, and even the threat of death were challenges faced by anyone attempting to find freedom in the courtroom. Pallas’ story is one in which the shortcomings of an obtuse colonial bureaucracy nearly sentenced a man and all of his relatives to a life of slavery.

It seemed like Pallas had a good case for his freedom. He was descended from Bess, an Indigenous woman who was enslaved in 1703, seemingly from somewhere outside Virginia. Though Pallas never knew his ancestor, the legal status of her enslavement formed the central dilemma for his case. Indigenous enslavement was presumed to be illegal in Virginia in 1807, when the court heard Pallas’ case, but whether it was illegal in 1703 was another question altogether. Because legal records were poorly maintained, no one really knew exactly when Indigenous enslavement had been outlawed in Virginia. Pallas’ attorneys supposed that it was in 1691, but the opposing counsel denied that. Neither side could be proven right, though, because no one could find the law in question.

The circumstances under which this law “went missing” are sketchy at best—attorneys claimed that since destruction was “naturally incident to books and papers of this kind,” then “it could not reasonably be presumed that many copies…would still be found in existence.” Yet this seemingly minor discrepancy meant the difference between freedom and slavery for Pallas. Without evidence, the lower court ruled in favor of Pallas’ owner.

Yet Pallas and his fellow plaintiffs would not give up so easily; they appealed their case to a higher court, despite the fact that that process could take several years. By this point, many of Pallas’ relatives living on other plantations had gotten wind of the fact that they, too, may have been able to claim their rightful freedom. These other descendants of Bess—Bridget, James, Tabb, Hannah, Sam, and many others whose names do not appear in the court records—filed individual freedom suits against their respective owners in Petersburg around the same time. Their collaboration offers a window into the kin-based communication networks amongst enslaved families in nineteenth-century Virginia as they likely shared legal advice, resources, and support right under their owner’s noses. 

When these cases reached the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia, the court saw all six at once. At the trial, Pallas’ attorney, the prominent Virginia lawyer George K. Taylor, finally produced evidence of the 1691 act. In order to find it, Taylor had traveled to Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson, to procure a manuscript version of the act. Nevertheless, the court still doubted the law’s authenticity and went as far as to analyze the handwriting in order to figure out if it had ever been officially enacted. It was not until the following year that yet another copy of the same law, also from 1691, would be discovered. At that point, the court determined that it would be too much of a coincidence to find two fraudulent acts from the same year, and thus finally ruled that the 1691 act was legitimate. 

After several long years of judicial confusion, Pallas and his family were finally granted freedom. But the horrible irony about it is that the “missing law” was, in fact, not missing at all—it had even been cited in a separate freedom suit just a few decades prior. It was only the oversight of the judges and attorneys involved in the case that caused the debate to drag on for multiple years.

Despite all the trouble the “missing law” caused, these convoluted legal details reflected in the court records only scratch the surface of the difficulties that enslaved families faced throughout the multiyear court process. The details provided in the record do not even begin to provide answers about how people were able to trace their genealogy, secure resources, or find sympathetic lawyers—let alone do these things all while protecting themselves from the wrath of a master who would not have been keen on losing labor. 

Every once in a while, though, the dangerous stakes of freedom suits poke out in the record. One of Pallas’ other relatives, Abner, likewise attempted to sue his owner, Thomas Hardaway in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. His case, though, never made it in front of the court—Hardaway murdered Abner before any legal proceedings could occur. 

I am not inclined to believe that Abner was the only person who suffered a terrible fate in attempting to file a freedom suit. It seems more plausible that household abuse would only have magnified upon a slave’s claim to freedom, but these are stories that we almost certainly will never know. We are lucky that Abner’s story still exists—ironically, the report of his murder in another freedom suit was ruled to be hearsay and stricken from the record. 

Despite the innumerable risks posed by the quest for freedom, dozens of freedom suits were taken up throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, court records, while detailed and thorough from a legal perspective, almost completely erase the words of the enslaved individuals themselves, providing at best a dim glow onto their actual lived experiences. By centralizing these stories, Stolen Relations offers a way to see past the scant archival evidence and connect families across political boundaries and generational divides. We’ve amassed dozens of offhand remarks and genealogical references from freedom suits which, together, clearly prove that kinship and identity persisted among enslaved communities in the face of legal scrutiny. Within the database, we are able to map relationships among these complex and largely unknown communities, such as Pallas’ extended network of freedom-seekers. As we conduct further research, these networks will only expand, allowing us to more fully reconstruct and understand the movements, relationships, and livelihoods of enslaved Indigenous people in American history.


Pallas v. Hill, 12 Va. 149, 2 Hen. & M. 149 (1807), Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia;

For further reading on Indigenous freedom suits: 

Fisher, Linford. “A ‘Spanish Indian Squaw’ in New England: Ann’s Journey from Slavery to Freedom,” in Slave Narratives in French and British North America, eds. Trevor Bernard and Sophie White (Routledge, 2020).

Ray, Kristofer. “‘The Indians of Every Denomination Were Free, and Independent of Us’: Anglo-Virginian Explorations of Indigenous Slavery, Freedom, and Society, 1772–1830.” American Nineteenth Century History 17, no. 2 (May 3, 2016): 139–59.

Sachs, Honor. “‘Freedom By A Judgment’: The Legal History of an Afro-Indian Family.” Law and History Review 30, no. 1 (February 2012): 173–203.

A Brief Background on Indigenous Enslavement

The reality that Indigenous people were enslaved in large numbers was new to me when I first learned about it, and it may be to you, too. This is understandable, since it is a topic that is not really taught at all in secondary schools and even many college level classes. Most people know something about African slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, although even then, specific details are fuzzy. But Indigenous enslavement? That is news to most people. Even if the scholarship on Indigenous enslavement is growing rapidly, academic research on any topic takes time – years, a generation, at times – to filter into textbooks and classrooms in ways that shifts the conversation (please see our growing bibliography for a larger listing of suggested resources; we’ve also listed a few resources as a starting place at the end of this post). That is one of the goals of this project: to bring visibility to a history that has for too long been overlooked.

Wagner, H. R. “Manuscript Atlases of Battista Agnese,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, XXV (1931), p. 1-110.

Scholars now estimate that between 2.5 and 5 million Indigenous people were enslaved in the Americas between 1492 and 1900. (Andrés Reséndez, in his terrific book The Other Slavery, has some excellent educated estimates in the appendices for those who are interested in seeing where those numbers come from region by region.) This is an enormous figure, by any measure. Although the comparison is imperfect, it is helpful to realize that between 10.5 and 12 million enslaved Africans were forcibly brought to the Americas as a whole. So, no, Indigenous enslavement was never as large in scale as African slavery, but it was equally important in terms of the processes and ideologies of settler colonialism.

As recent scholarship has decisively shown, coerced labor and knowledge of Indigenous people were central to the colonization of the Americas. Europeans met, traded with, fought, and enslaved Native people everywhere they stepped foot in the Americas. Indigenous labor and land were made to be essential components of European colonial pursuits in every colony. By the time English merchants dropped anchor in a land they called Virginia in 1607, the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English had been crisscrossing the Atlantic for over a century. They routinely stole Indigenous people off of the coasts in some locales, and—in the case of the Spanish and Portuguese—decimated entire populations and enslaved hundreds of thousands of Native people to perform the hard work of mining silver and gold and working sugar plantations and large farms.

Each European colonizing power in the Americas enslaved Natives or in other ways coerced their labor over time. In Brazil, Indigenous people were enslaved by the tens of thousands and forced to work on sugar plantations, as scholar John Monteiro has shown. In the Spanish Caribbean, Central, and South America, conquistadores and colonial administrators commandeered the labor of Native Americans to work the land (on encomiendas, for example, but also larger plantations) as well as to work in the dangerous gold and silver mines. French colonists used enslaved Natives in households in New France and on plantations in the Caribbean. The same was true for the English and the Dutch, who had colonies in North America and the Caribbean.

Each colonial context had a different set of laws that either licensed or tried to regulate Indigenous slavery over time. In some cases, this was in conjunction with African slavery; in other cases, it was handled separately. The most famous debates about the enslavement of Natives was in Spain, where officials, jurists, and priests debated how the Indigenous populations of the Americas should be treated, and whether enslavement or coerced labor should be permitted. This led to a series of New Laws in 1542, but as Andrés Reséndez and others have shown, these laws were not effective over time.

Indigenous peoples were enslaved through a variety of processes – outright warfare against them; slave raids; incentivizing other Indigenous nations to slave raid for Europeans by offering high prices or desired trade goods; slavery as a punishment for crimes; slavery as a means to pay off debt; bounties in wartime; and, in some notable cases, receiving enslaved Indigenous peoples as a sign of an alliance with other Native groups.

Indigenous slavery did not perfectly map onto African slavery; it had its own origins, rising and falling, and resurfacing over time. In North America, for example, although the outright and active enslavement of Native Americans had mostly ceased on the East Coast, the ongoing westward American colonialism under the United States brought a whole new round of Native coerced labor in New Mexico, Utah, and California, as Americans enslaved, bought, and sold Indigenous populations, even in supposedly free states. Although the Thirteenth Amendment ended legal Black slavery in the United States, it was not until a 1867 separate act of U.S. Congress that the various forms of Indigenous servitude and slavery were officially outlawed as well.

Even so, some Indigenous scholars and elders have noted that the various forms of coerced labor continued on well into the twentieth century in other forms, including the forced residential schooling system.

Powwow — Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. “Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.” Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. 2014.

One of the most important aspects of this history, and one that we hope to highlight with this project, are the perspectives and experiences of Indigenous nations. For them, enslavement was integral to the process of the invasion of Europeans. Whenever Europeans stole or captured individuals or whole groups from their homes, it had a devastating effect on individuals, families, and communities. When Europeans enslaved and stole Indigenous people, they were chipping away at the sovereignty and political autonomy of those same tribes. Enslavement led to smaller populations over time, and land loss, which made it harder for Native nations to adequately stand their ground in the face of settler colonialism. All of this has directly contributed to the historical trauma that so many Indigenous people and communities experience today. And yet, despite all of this, Indigenous peoples today have survived; they remain culturally vibrant, and are still here, fighting for their sovereignty and rightful place on these continents.

In this way, then, these stories that we are recovering in this project are not just about the past; they are also about the present, now, and about the kinds of futures that are possible when we together start fully acknowledging the past.

Linford Fisher

For further reading:

Gallay, Alan, ed. Indian Slavery in Colonial America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

Monteiro, John M. Blacks of the Land: Indian Slavery, Settler Society, and the Portuguese Colonial Enterprise in South America. Translated by James Woodard and Barbara Weinstein. Cambridge, United Kingdom ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Newell, Margaret Ellen. Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015.

Reséndez, Andrés. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

Rushforth, Brett. Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.