People wait until they have a need for some history and then they customize it to suit their purposes.
-Neil Stephenson, REAMDE

In 1640, a black man named John Punch worked as indentured servant for a farm. He ran away with two other indentured servants – both white – to Maryland, but were captured; the Virginia court ordered the two white men to be whipped and given four more years of servitude. Punch, however, was ordered to “serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural Life here or elsewhere” – in other words, he became a slave for life and maybe even in death.

In 1654, John Casor, an African, became another “slave for life” in Virginia. Since Africans were not English citizens by birth, they were not covered by English Common Law. Casor claimed he was only an indentured servant to another black man, Anthony Johnson. This is one of those “huhs?” of American history that few people know about. Yes, Virginia, there were several indentured Africans who had been brought to the colonies in 1619. Johnson was one of them and had earned his freedom and had bought property. He was doing well and had several indentured servants, Casor among them. But Casor wanted his freedom, so he went to work and live with a white colonist, and Johnson took him to court.* The court used a pretty heavy hammer and told Casor to not only return to Johnson’s farm – but also punished him by making them a slave for life.**

Elizabeth Key Grinstead successfully gained her freedom in the Virginia courts in 1656 by claiming to be the baptized Christian daughter of free Englishman Thomas Key.

But that had opened up another can of worms, which the conservative colonists moved quickly to seal back up. White Englishmen cannot marry black women! So, about 1660, Virginia banned marriages (not necessarily sex) between black slaves and whites. But there was a loophole – the law pertained to slaves only – so that was super-glued up in 1691 with a law that forbade ALL blacks, free or otherwise, and whites to marry each other. In due course, all of the colonies followed suit.  (Note: these are the types of laws that were still on the books until…wait for it…1967 – the famous Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case.)

In 1662 Virginia passed a law that children of enslaved women took the status of the mother, rather than of the father. In other words, mom a slave, child a slave. Dad a free white dude. The law freed white men from any legal responsibility to acknowledge or support their children, and helped shush up any possible scandals of mixed-race children within the slave quarters.

The Virginia Slave Codes of 1705 defined slaves as those people imported from nations that were not Christian. To seal the deal, the codes included Native Americans who were sold to colonists by other Native Americans.

Am I the only one who thinks it’s pretty weird that the first laws in America – passed by both the Spaniards and the Brits – were about slaves?

*Of course, this has to be contrasted with what white slave owners would do to transgressing black slaves a couple of hundred years later: run them to the ground with dogs, brand them, hang them…

**This court case seemed to have brought some unwanted scrutiny: in 1699, Virginia ordered all free blacks deported, virtually defining as slaves all persons of African descent who remained in the colony. I don’t know how many free blacks there were, or where they ended up.