Elizabeth Key Case: The illegitimate daughter of an enslaved black mother and a free white settler father, Elizabeth Key spent the first five or six years of her life at home. Then in 1636, ownership of Elizabeth was transferred to another white settler, for whom she was required to serve for nine years before being released from bondage. At some point, ownership was transferred again, this time to a justice of the peace. When this owner died in 1655, Elizabeth, through her lawyer, petitioned the court, asking for her freedom; by this time she had already served 19 years. The court granted her her freedom. Unfortunately, the decision was appealed to a higher court. The court overturned the decision, ruling that Elizabeth was a slave. Elizabeth and her lawyer didn't stop there. They petitioned the General Assembly, which appointed a committee to look into the matter. The committee sent the case back to the courts for retrial. Elizabeth was ultimately freed.



The Case of Elizabeth Key, 1655/56Northumberland County Record Books,
1652-1658, fols. 66-67, 85,1658-1660, fol. 28; Northumberland Counry Order Book,
1652-1665, fols.40, 46, 49.
The Court doth order that Col. Thomas Speke one of the overseers ofthe Estate of Col.
John Mottrom deceased shall have an Appeale to theQuarter Court next att James Citty in
a Cause depending betweene thesaid overseers and Elizabeth a Moletto hee the said Col.
Speke givingsuch caution as to Law doth belong.Wee whose names are underwritten
being impannelled upon a Jury to trya difference between Elizabeth pretended Slave to
the Estate of Col.John Mottrom deceased and the overseers of the said Estate doe
findethat the said Elizabeth ought to be free as by severall oathes mightappeare which we
desire might be Recorded and that the charges ofCourt be paid out of the said Estate.
[names of the jury omitted]Memorandum it is Conditioned and agreed by and betwixt
Thomas Key onthe one part and Humphrey Higginson on the other part [word
missing]that the said Thomas Key hath put unto the said Humphrey one NegroGirle by
name Elizabeth for and during the [term?] of nine yearesaftel the date hereof provided
that the [said?] Humphrey doe find andallow the said Elizabeth meate drinke {and?]
apparrell during the saidtearme And allso the said Thomas Key that if that if [sic] the
saidHumphrey doe dye before the end of the said time abovespecified thatthen the said
Girl be free from the said Humphrey Higginson and hisassignes Allsoe if the said
Humphrey Higginson doe goe for Englandwith an Intention to live and remaine there that
then hee shall carry[the?] said Girle with him and to pay for her passage and likewisethat
he put not of of[f] the said Girle to any man but tc keepe herhimselfe In witness whereof I
the said Humphrey Higginson Sealed anddelivered in the presence of us Robert Booth
Francis Miryman 20thJanuary 1655 this writing was Recorded.Mr. Nicholas Jurnew aged
53 yeares or thereabouts sworne and ExaminedSayth That about 16 or 17 yeares past this
deponent heard a flyingreport at Yorke that Elizabeth a Negro Servant to the Estate of
Col.John Mottrom deceased was the Childe of Mr. Kaye but the said Mr. Kayesaid that a
Turke of Capt. Mathewes was Father to the Girle and fur-ther this deponent sayth not
signed Nicholas Jurnew20th January 1655 Jurat in Curia [i.e., "sworn in court"]Anthony
Lenton aged 41 yeares or thereabouts sworne and Examined Sayththat about 19 yeares
past this deponent was a servant to Mr. HumphreyHigginson and at that time one
Elizabeth a Molletto nowe servant tothe Estate of Col. John Mottrom deceased was then a
servant to thesaid mr. Higginson and as the Neighbours reported was bought of
mrHigginson with the said servant both himself and his Wife intended avoyage for
England and at the nine yeares end ( as the Neighboursreported ) the said Mr Higginson
was bound to carry the said servantfor England unto the said mr. Kaye, but before the said
mr Kaye wenthis Voyage hee Dyed about Kecotan, and as the Nei,ghbours reported
thesaid mr. Higginson said that at the nine yeares end hee would carrythe said Molletto
for England and give her a portion and lett hershift for her selfe And it was a Common
report amongst the Neighboursthat the said Molletto was mr Kays Child begott by him
and furtherthis deponent sayth not the marke of Anthony Lenton 20th January 1655Jurat
in CurlaMrs. Elizabeth Newman aged 80 yeares or thereabouts sworne and exam-ined
Sayth that it was a common Fame in Virginia that Elizabeth aMolletto nowe servant to
the Estate of Col. John Mottrom deceased wasthe Daughter of mr. Kay; and the said Kaye
was brought to Blunt-pointCourt and there fined for getting his Negro woman with
Childe whichsaid Negroe was the Mother of the said Molletto and the said fine wasfor
getting the Negro with Childe which Childe was the said Elizabethand further this
deponent sayth not the marke of Elizabeth Newman 20thJanuary 1655 Jurat in CuriaJohn
Bayles aged 33 yeares or thereabouts sworne and Examined SaythThat at the House of
Col. John Mottrom Black Besse was tearmed to bemr Kayes Bastard and John Keye
calling her Black Bess mrs. SpekeChecked him and said Sirra you must call her Sister for
shee is yourSister and the said John Keye did call her Sister and further thisdeponent
Sayth not the marke of John Bayles 20th January 1655 Jurat inCuriaThe deposition of
Alice Larrett aged 38 yeares or thereabouts Sworneand Examined Sayth that Elizabeth
which is at Col. Mottroms is twentyfive yeares of age or thereabouts and that I saw her
mother goe to bedto her Master many times and that I heard her mother Say that shee
wasmr. Keyes daughter and further Sayth not the marke of Alice LarrettSworne before
mr. Nicholas Morris Igth Jan. 1655. 20th January thisdeposition was RecordedAnne
Clark aged 39 or thereabouts Sworne and Examined Sayth that sheethis deponent was
present when a Condition was made betweene mr. Hum-phrey Higginson and mr. Kaye
for a servant called Besse a Molletto andthisdeponents Husband William Reynolds nowe
deceased was a witness butwhether the said Besse after the Expiration of her time from
mr Hig-ginson was to be free from mr Kaye this deponent cannot tell and mrHigginson
promised to use her as well as if shee were his own Childand further this deponent Sayth
not Signum Ann Clark 20th January1655. Jurat in Curia Elizabeth Newman aged 80
yeares or thereabouts Sworne and ExaminedSayth that shee this deponent brought
Elizabeth a Molletto, Servant tothe Estate of Col. John Mottrom deceased to bed of two
Children andshee layd them both to William Grinsted and further this DeponentSayth not
Elizabeth Newman her marke 20th January 1655 Jurat in CuriaA Report of a Comittee
from an Assembly Concerning the freedome ofElizabeth KeyIt appeareth to us that shee
is the daughter of Thomas Key by severallEvidences and by a fine imposed upon the said
Thomas for getting hermother with Child of the said Thomas That she hath bin by verdict
of aJury impannelled 20th January 1655 in the County of Northumberlandfound to be free
by severall oathes which the Jury desired might beRecorded That by the Comon Law the
Child of a Woman slave begott by afreeman ought to bee free That shee hath bin long
since ChristenedCol. Higginson being her God father and that by report shee is able
togive a very good account of her fayth That Thomas Key sould her onelyfor nine yeares
to Col. Higginson with severall conditions to use hermore Respectfully then a Comon
servant or slave That in case Col.Higginson had gone for England within nine yeares hee
was bound tocarry her with him and pay her passage and not to dispose of her toany other
For theise Reasons wee conceive the said Elizabeth ought tobee free and that her last
Master should give her Corne and Cloathesand give her satisfaction for the time shee hath
served longer thenShee ought to have done. But forasmuch as noe man appeared against
thesaid Elizabeths petition wee thinke not fitt a determinative judgementshould passe but
that the County or Quarter Court where it shall benext tried to take notice of this to be the
sence of the Burgesses ofthis present Assembly and that unless [original torn] shall
appear tobe executed and reasons [original torn] opposite part Judgement by thesaid
Court be given [accordingly?]Charles Norwood Clerk AssemblyJames Gaylord hath
deposed that this is a true coppyJames Gaylord21th July 1656 Jurat in Curia 21th July
1656 This writeing was recordedAtt a Grand Assembly held at James Citty 20th of March
1655 Orderedthat the whole business of Elizabeth Key [and?] the report of theComittee
thereupon be returned [to the?] County Court where the saidElizabeth Key livethThis is a
true copy from the book of Records of the Order granted thelast AssemblyTeste Robert
Booth21th July 1656 This Order of Assembly was RecordedUpon the petition of George
Colclough one of the overseers of Col.Mottrom his Estate that the cause concerning a
Negro wench named BlackBesse should be heard before the Governor and Councell
Whereof inregard of the Order of the late Assembly referring the said caise tothe
Governor and Councell at least upon Appeale made to them These aretherefore in his
Highness the Lord Protector his name to will andrequire the Commissioners of the
County of Northumberland to Surceasefrom any further proceedings on the said Cause
and to give notice tothe parties interested therein to appear before the Governor at thenext
Quarter Court on the fourth day for a determination thereof.Given under my hand this 7th
of June 1656. Edward Digges 21th 1656This Writeing was Recorded.Whereas mr.
George Colclough and mr. William Presly overseers of theEstate of Colonell John
Mottrom deceased were Summoned to theis Courtat the suite of Elizabeth Kaye both
Plaintiffe and Defendant beingpresent and noe cause of action at present appearing The
Court doththerefore order that the said Elizabeth Kaye shall be non-suited andthat
William Grinsted Atturney of the said Elizabeth shall by thetenth of November next pay
fifty pounds of tobacco to the said over-seers for an non-suite with Court charges else
Execution. Whereas thewhole business concerning Elizabeth Key by Order of Assembly
was Re-ferred to this County Court. According to the Report of a Comittee atan
Assembly held at the same time which upon the Records of this Coun-ty appears, It is the
judgment of this Court that the Said ElizabethKey ought to be free and forthwith to have
Corne Clothes and Satisfac-tion according to the said Report of the Comittee. Mr.
William Thomasdissents from this judgment.These are to Certifie whome it may
concerne that William Greensted andElizabeth Key intends [sic] to be joyned in the Holy
Estate of Matri-mony. If any one can shew any Lawfull cause why they may not be
joynedtogether lett them Speake or ever after hold their tongues SignumWilliam
Greensted Signum Elizabeth Key 21th July 1656 this Certificate was Published in open
Court and isRecorded
I Capt. Richard Wright administrator of the Estate of Col. JohnMottrom deceased doe
assigne and transfer unto William Greensted amaid servant formerly belonging unto the
Estate of the said Col. Mott-rom commonly called Elizabeth Key being nowe Wife unto
the said Green-sted and doe warrant the said Elizabeth and doe bind my Selfe to savehere
[i.e., her] and the said Greensted from any molestation or trou-ble that shall or futurely
arise from or by any person or persons thatshall pretend or claime any title or interest to
any manor of service[original torn] from the said Elizabeth witness [my ha]nd this 21th
ofJuly 1659Test William Th [omas] Richard Wright James Aust[en]B.

Source: University of Chicago