White Women and Indentured Servants

 Index of Virginia Law

This item shows the punishment given to a white woman or servant who had a bastard child by a black man, yet another example of the very racially specific laws at the time. 

Miss Polly Baker's Speech

This is an excerpt from a speech given by Polly Baker to the court on the charge of bastardy which she had received for the fifth time.

White women show the most differences when it comes to the impacts of bastardy laws. There are three main groups of white women that are affected by these laws and each faces different a different severity of punishment. Free white women suffered the most socially. Bastardy was a humiliating feat when it did not result in a marriage. This became a burden on the family because if they could not marry their daughter off, they would suffer socially and financially. Cynthia Kierner explores this effect of bastardy on social life in Scandal at Bizarre, a book that addresses the accounts of Richard Randolph and his part in the alleged murder of a child born by his sister-in-law. A true “scandal," this had a dramatic effect on both Richard and Nancy as members of the social elite. As gossip spreads from the enslaved to the rest of the town, many of the townspeople turn against Richard and Nancy as the accused try to prove their innocence of both crimes.[1] Nancy is still able to find a husband; however, her life is not nearly as easy as it could have been without the charges brought against her and its effect on her reputation. The typical punishment for this crime was typically public humiliation and some form of financial obligation. However, if a white woman were to have a bastard by a black man, either free or enslaved, she would face harsher punishment. Like in the situation presented earlier with the black woman, race played an important part in the punishment. In the Statutes at Large book of Virginia law the punishment for a free white women having a bastard with a negro of any kind is 15 pounds sterling. Both servant and free white women in the same situation are subject to five years of service if the payment is not made.[2] In each case, the resulting child has to serve 30-31 years of its life in the church.[3] Indentured servants were charged more frequently with bastardy and fornication.[4] This has to do with the cost of labor and what it means for a women to get pregnant during her years of service. If an indentured servant were to have a child by her master, she would be sold to the church where she would have the child for 1000 pounds of tobacco.[5] In this scenario, it is very easy to see the vast differences in punishment that change by demographic.

[1] Kierner, Cynthia. Scandal at Bizarre. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004.

[2] William Waller Hening, Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature (1819-1823). (New York: R. & W. & G. Bartow, 1820), 87.

[3] William Waller Hening, Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature (1819-1823). (New York: R. & W. & G. Bartow, 1820), 87.

[4]  Kevin Mumford, “After Hugh: Statutory Race Segregation in Colonial America, 1630-1725.” The American Journal of Legal History, vol. 43, no. 3. (Jul 1999): 280-305.

[5]  William Waller Hening, Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature (1819-1823). (New York: R. & W. & G. Bartow, 1820), 167.