In discussions of slavery, much attention is paid to white men who raped enslaved women or held them as concubines or second wives. According to geneticists working on the popular public television series Finding Your Roots, African-Americans today average about one-quarter European descent, and in most cases their European DNA goes back only along the Y-chromosome (male) line.
Far less is said about white women who married or otherwise bore children to enslaved black men. Though few in number, compared to the total African-American population, the descendants of such unions accounted for a large percentage of the earliest free African-Americans in the first colonies, where chattel slavery originated. These families, therefore, are among the oldest free families in African-American history. They are also unusual in preserving for many generations a matriarchal name and line of descent, rather than patriarchal descent–a necessity if their white ancestry was going to help them to gain or maintain their freedom.
This page centers on the family of Priscilla Gray (b ~1708), a mulatta woman indentured in servitude to Sarah Magruder, widow of Samuel Magruder, Alexander the Immigrant’s son. Also introduced are descendants of Susanna Grimes (b ~1670) whose 4 year-old daughter Isabella Grimes was sold to Edward Willet. Willet was a London-born pewterer turned Maryland planter, a close neighbor and friend of the Magruders. He witnessed Samuel Magruder’s 1711 will, and his descendants intermarried with Magruders. I also mention, though not in detail, the family of Mary Wedge (b ~1709) a white servant of Thomas Harwood, and her husband Daniel, who was held in slavery on a neighboring plantation. An enslaved man surnamed Graham also pops up, but I have done no research to identify him.
The principal source of information about families headed by these women comes from Paul Heinegg, whose Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware from Colonial Period to 1810 is available both in print and on line. Heinegg treats each family in detail and provides accurate sources in the court records, so you can find and follow up on the primary sources. For Maryland records, you should be able to find these on line. Other details and statistics in my account come from public records and historians mentioned in this article or listed at the bottom of the page. See also the “Slavery & Freedom” list under the Bibliography tab at the top of every page on this site.
Sarah and Samuel Magruder had twelve children, eleven of whom lived to adulthood, married, and bore children of their own–sometimes ten or more children per family. Thus Samuel and Sarah are the ancestors of a large percentage of Magruder descendants today.
Priscilla is also the ancestor of many descendants, though their number and their names are harder to trace. Some of her descendants won their freedom, while others remained in slavery to Magruder families in Maryland and Washington, D.C. (and probably in other states, as well) until Emancipation–more than 150 years.
To white Magruders: what you will read here does not present our Magruder families in a happy light. It does, however, present them in a true light, so I hope you will keep reading and learn a bit more about our history.
To African Americans who are descended from Priscilla Gray, or from other women caught in the web of laws that ensnared Priscilla, her daughters, and her granddaughters, I hope this information will help you better understand your family’s history and their courage under adversity.
Corrections and additions to this account are always welcome. Use the comment box at the bottom of the page, or the Contact tab at the top right corner.
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In early Maryland, laws governing “bastardy” (yes, that was the name of the crime) imposed harsh penalties on both mother and child. Laws governing “mulatto bastardy” carried the heaviest penalties. From 1681 onward, marriage between a white woman and an enslaved man was illegal, as was marriage between any indentured woman (white or mulatta) and an enslaved man. Common-law marriages among enslaved or indentured people held no force under the law. By law, therefore, all mulatto children were illegitimate by definition, unless both parents were free and legally married to each other–a privilege few enjoyed.
In Prince George’s County, my principal area of research, the number of women prosecuted for mulatto bastardy was fairly small. Smaller still was the number of women who repeated the offense and were brought to court repeatedly for bearing unsanctioned children. According to historian Allan Kulikoff, in the 1720s and 1730s sixteen white women were convicted in the county of bearing 25 mulatto bastards. Twelve of the women were indentured servants; four were the daughters of poor white farmers. Only five of them were convicted for bearing more than one child. One of the five was Mary Wedge, a servant of Thomas Harwood, whose husband Daniel was a slave on a near-by plantation (Kulikoff 386-87). Mary and Daniel had seven children and their descendants can be traced in census records through the 19th c. when the Wedge and Harwood families would intersect in complicated ways with the Magruders–but that is a story for another day. Another of the five repeatedly convicted was Sarah Magruder’s servant, Priscilla Gray.
After 1740, the number of convictions in the county dropped to just thirteen births in twenty years. Of those thirteen children, four were born to Priscilla Gray and her daughters, nearly all the others to the daughters and granddaughters of Susannah Grimes, held in servitude by the Magruders and by neighboring families with whom they intermarried. It would be comforting to believe that these children were born into common-law marriages condoned or encouraged by our ancestors and their relations, in which some degree of normal family life was enjoyed. For some, this may have been true; but court records make clear that in some cases newborn and very young children were separated from their mothers and placed into servitude with a different family, on a different farm–perhaps the home of the child’s father, perhaps not; we have no way of knowing.
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To understand the Gray family history we must first remember that few Maryland “plantations” were more than large-ish farms, and most slaveholders held a relatively small number of people. The result was that family formation within a plantation’s enslaved population was not common. Most slaves formed relationships or common-law marriages with people from neighboring plantations, which greatly complicated any attempt at family life, and also complicates our efforts today to reconstruct those families and relationships.
Tracing the Gray family, and others mentioned on this page, also requires a crash course on how Maryland law treated mixed race people who could trace their ancestry back to a white woman. The status of a child followed that of his or her mother–so, if your mother was a free woman, you were (at least technically) also free. However, because the sentence for illegitimacy was a long period of indenture for both mother and child, that freedom was highly conditional and sometimes impossible to obtain.
The first law specifically addressing “mulatto bastardy” was passed in 1664. In its first version, any “freeborne English women forgettfull of their free Conidicon” who intermarried with Negro slaves were sentenced to join their husbands in slavery for life. Children of these unions were also enslaved for life. In 1681, however, a famous case involving Lord Baltimore led to the law’s first amendment. Eleanor “Nell” Butler, an indentured Irish servant brought to Maryland by Lord Baltimore, married an enslaved man identified only as “Negro Charles.” Both Nell and Charles were bound to Major William Boarman of St. Mary’s County. Lord Baltimore attended the wedding and warned Nell of the consequences, but she remained faithful to Charles and went ahead with the marriage. A hundred years later, neighboring families were still telling the story of how Nell told Lord Baltimore, to his face, that she would sooner lie with her slave husband Charles than with His Lordship himself (Hode, 34). This scene may have been embellished in the telling, but it captures the startling power of Nell’s rebellion in a time when racial ideology was in its formative years and when white women were in such short supply that many white men who wanted a wife could not find one.
Whatever exactly transpired on Nell’s and Charles’ wedding day, Lord Baltimore did see quickly to the law’s amendment. Within months, the colonial assembly had reduced the penalties for both mother and child. The law was further amended in 1692, 1715, and 1728. Under these laws, marriage between white women and black men was outlawed, as was any marriage with a slave–thus making all mulatto children illegitimate, unless both their parents were free and were married to each other. The penalty for a women giving birth to a mulatto child was reduced, however, to seven additional years of indenture. The child was sentenced to 31 years of indenture if the father was a slave, or 21 years if the father was a free man.
One reason for the constant tinkering with this law is that unscrupulous slave holders saw in it an opportunity to breed mulatto slaves by housing their white serving women with black enslaved men. As the law evolved, it tried to address this practice by setting all parties free immediately if the master or mistress could be proven to have instigated or procured the illicit union. However, penalties were also steep–so steep they were never imposed–on anyone who knew of such a birth and failed to bring the woman to court. Thus, no matter what conditions or contrivance had preceded the birth, to avoid penalty all a slaveholder needed to do was present the woman at court for prosecution.
If you consider the length of a mulatto child’s indenture–31 years if the father was a slave–you see that the law served the interests of masters in two ways. First, the master had use of a young person’s best laboring years–in fields, in the house, or in skilled crafts. At 31–having done a man’s work for at least fifteen years–a man might obtain his freedom, but was likely to leave behind him a lover or common-law wife and one or more children, all enslaved for life. An indentured woman contributed her years of labor and, in addition, was likely to bear children before she reached 31. For each child’s birth she would be sentenced to another seven years, perhaps not escaping bondage until old age. This is what happened to Priscilla Gray, and to most of her daughters.
According to a court record of 1732, Priscilla Gray was a “mulatta born of a white Woman.” She first appears in the court records in November, 1727, when she confessed to having had an illegitimate child by “a negroe.” Indentured first to Sarah Magruder, and later to Samuel and Sarah’s son William, Priscilla was brought to court seven times for the crime of childbearing. In six cases, her indenture was extended by seven years and the child was sold for 31 years, indicating that the father was a slave. In one case, her punishment was five lashes of the whip and just nine months of additional servitude, while her son was sentenced to 21 years of indenture–so in that case the father was a free man, perhaps a white man. That son, Dick or Richard Gray, was purchased in infancy by Lingan Wilson, a neighbor whose family would soon intermarry with the Magruders. So Dick grew up apart from his mother. This suggests the possibility that Wilson or another white man on his plantation was Richard’s father–but that is speculation. In all, Priscilla served an additional 35 years of indenture beyond the initial 31 years to which she had been sentenced at birth. Born around 1708, if she ever got free she was at least 66 years old, and Maryland was on the eve of revolution.
Three of Priscilla’s children were born during Sarah Magruder‘s lifetime. In Sarah’s 1734 will, she left “my serving girl Prissy” to her son William, making no distinction between Priscilla and the nine slaves she also named in the will. William Magruder presented Priscilla to the county court for giving birth at least four times. William died intestate, so at his death the principal trail of relationship between Priscilla and the Magruders is lost.
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Priscilla Gray’s children were–
[Unknown] b. 1727, father “a negro.”
Richard or Dick Gray, b. 1730/1, father unknown.
- “Dick” was sold to Lingan Wilson to serve to the age of 21, so it appears that Dick’s father was a free man, possibly a white man. Lingan Wilson was a neighbor, whose family intermarried with the Magruders for at least a couple of generations. Priscilla was sentenced to 5 lashes and an additional 9 months of servitude. If the law was followed, Richard was freed around 1751.
- In 1800, Richard Gray appears in the census as a “free Negro” head of a Prince George’s County household of 3 “other free” people (that is: non-whites). In 1810, the household includes 5 “other free.”
William Gray, b. 1732, father was “Malatto George belonging to Mr. William Digges.”
- Digges was also a neighbor. William was bound for 31 years and Priscilla sentenced to an additional 7 years.
- William would have been freed about 1763. Paul Heinegg identifies him as probably the William Gray, mulatto, who was prosecuted in Charles County in 1770 for killing a hog.
Hannah Gray, b. 1735, father unknown
- In 1756, Hannah Gray, servant of Enoch Magruder (grandson of Sarah & Samuel, through their son James Magruder+Barbara Coombs), confessed to the Prince George’s County Court that she had given birth to an illegitimate child named Benjamin. There is no direct evidence that Hannah was Priscilla’s daughter, but it is highly probable.
- Benjamin was bound to Enoch Magruder to the age of 31. In 1800, Benjamin was the head of a Prince George’s County household of 6 “other free.” In 1810, his household had dropped to 4 “other free.”
- Hannah was probably also the mother of Elizabeth Gray, b. about 1760, who was head of a Baltimore household of 6 “other free” in 1800. Elizabeth may have been the mother of Phillis Gray, who in turn was the mother of Ruth Gray, by Ezekiel Williams. Paul Heinegg says Ruth was baptized on 12 March 1804 in St. Paul’s Parish, Baltimore (Heinegg, 154).
Joseph Gray, b. 9 August 1738, bound to William Magruder for 31 years.
- In 1810, Joseph was head of a Montgomery County household of 1 “other free” person.
Catherine Gray, b.~August 1745. In this case, Priscilla was presented to the court as “Priscilla Grimes, alias Gray,” indicating that she may have had a common law marriage with a man named Grimes. Here is a nutshell of the Grimes family story. (For more detail, see Heinegg).
- In 1690, a mulatta child named Isabella Grimes (daughter of Susanna Grimes) was born on a neighboring farm owned by Edward Willet, and sold for 21 years to Sarah Magruder. Edward Willet was a close family friend and a witness to Samuel Magruder’s 1711 will. His descendants would later intermarry with Magruders.
- In 1711, when Isabella Grimes’ indenture to Sarah Magruder expired, Sarah delivered her to the court who sold her to Major Thomas Sprigg for seven years, as punishment for an earlier conviction for mulatto bastardy.
- It is probable, though unprovable, that the father of Catherine Gray was the son of Isabella Grimes, who would have been living on the Magruder plantation along with Priscilla.
- Isabella Grimes also bore a child in 1713, who was sold to John Henry for 31 years. John Henry married Isabella Magruder, daughter of Samuel’s brother James Magruder (son of Alexander the immigrant).
Returning to Priscilla’s daughter, Catherine Gray… she is known or believed to be the mother of at least three children–
- Another Catherine Gray (b~1778), who obtained a certificate of freedom in Prince George’s County on 21 September 1809.
- Mary Gray (b~1781), was the “free negro” head of a household of 5 “other free” in 1800. She obtained a certificate of freedom on 19 June 1821. She was the mother of John Gray, b~1800, whose certificate of freedom bears the same date as his mother’s.
- Rezin Gray (b. ~1787), who obtained a certificate of freedom in Prince George’s County on 7 April 1807.
Ann Gray, b. 1750, about whom neither Heinegg nor any other source provides further information.
Other free people named Gray, who may or may not be Priscilla’s descendants, appear in the 1800 and 1810 census records of several Maryland counties, including Issac Gray, Henry Gray, Cate Gray, Milly Gray, Thomas Gray, Peter Gray, and Simon Gray (Heinegg, 155). I have found one additional name in the Prince George’s County Certificates of Freedom, a Gregory Gray, born free ~1793 (Card #376).
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However, not all of Priscilla’s descendants were able to gain their freedom. There were at least two ways this could come about. The first was refusal by those who held them in bondage to grant their freedom once the term of indenture had expired. Once such case involved a granddaughter of Susanna Grimes.
- Susanna’s first child, Isabella Grimes, born ~1690, was sold for 21 years to Sarah Magruder, and was probably the grandmother of Catherine Gray.
- Susanna’s second child, Elizabeth Grimes, was born on 15 October 1700 and sold to her mother’s master, Edward Willet. Elizabeth was convicted for the birth of six children, one of whom was identified in court as her “white daughter” and sold to Willet for sixteen years. This daughter may have been Catherine Grimes, who was a servant of William Bowie when convicted for the birth of her first child in 1745. Two of her sons were surnamed Graham, one of whom, Charles Graham, was head of a Prince George’s County household in 1800. (Heinegg 160). I have not identified this William Bowie; he may have been one of the Bowies who married with Magruders.
- Others among Elizabeth’s children were also identified as having been fathered by free men. (See Heinegg 158-59 for detail.)
- Susanna’s third known child was Lettice Grimes, born ~1728 and bound to Willet for 31 years. Lettice’s father was said by the court to be “a Certain Negro or Malatto Frank at William Digges‘.”
- Lettice also was prosecuted for the birth of several children. In 1764 she petitioned for her freedom in Frederick County, MD, as the descendant of a white woman. Her mistress at that time was Isabella Willet, a descendant not only of Edward Willett but also of John Henry and Isabella Magruder, who had held her cousin and other relatives in servitude. Lettice won her suit against Isabella Willet, but the court promptly sentenced her to another seven years of servitude, sold to another neighbor, Samuel Beall–the Bealls being another prominent Maryland family intertwined with Magruders. I have not identified this Beall man, so do not know if he is also a Magruder descendant. Lettice, we pray, was freed in 1771 when her indenture to Beall expired.
No record survives to say if Susanna Grimes (born ~1670), originator of this family, was white or mulatta. Either way, she and her descendants on the female line were all technically free women. Despite this fact, Magruders and their kin held 22 of Susannah’s descendants in servitude for at least 112 years. Given that the records I have surveyed end before 1800, we can assume this shameful tyranny continued under various legal guises until emancipation, and perhaps beyond.
The other way Priscilla Gray’s (and Susanna Grimes’) descendants remained in slavery was by descent on the male line. Each time one of Priscilla’s male descendants married or otherwise fathered a child with an enslaved woman, that child was by definition a slave for life. Status followed the mother, so when each of the Gray men was released from servitude at age 31 (assuming he was released, as the law required) he left behind his wife, children, and future grandchildren in perpetual slavery.
This is why we see descendants, many generations after Priscilla, calling themselves and their children “Gray,” rather than the surname of their fathers, maintaining a tenuous legal claim to freedom.
Remember Nell Butler, that white servant who defied Lord Baltimore to marry an enslaved man named Charles? Over the generations, more than forty petitions for freedom were filed by Nell’s and Charles’ descendants, some of which initially succeeded but were later overturned by the courts. Finally, in 1787, one petition survived appeal and a woman named Mary Butler, Nell’s great-great granddaughter, won her freedom–a case whose connection to Lord Baltimore guaranteed notoriety.
Though most petitions for freedom based on descent from a white woman failed, in the 19th c. they became one of a cluster of strategies by which Maryland’s enslaved workers agitated for their freedom. Abolitionists filed and funded suits on behalf of slaves (who did not have legal status to sue on their own behalf), tying up slaveholders’ time and money. A slave whose status was in legal question was difficult to sell, and could not be sold across state lines, so freedom petitions also afforded protection against being sold to the deep south, where life and work conditions were far worse than they were for most in Maryland. (Whitman, 63-66)
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19th Century Manumissions
As mentioned above, I lost the trail of the Gray family‘s relationships with Magruders when William Magruder died intestate, and again in the estate of William’s nephew, Enoch Magruder. Grays surface again, however, in the 1827 will of Elizabeth Magruder, in Washington, D.C., and again in the will of her niece Eliza Hamilton, who died in 1860.
Elizabeth was a great-granddaughter of Sarah and Samuel Magruder, descended through their son John (called “John of Dunblane“) and John’s son Nathaniel. She was the sister of John Smith Magruder, of whom I also have written on this site.
For a slightly more cheerful postscript to the Gray-Magruder relationship, see details of people named Gray who were mentioned and manumitted by Elizabeth Magruder and Eliza Hamilton, on my pages devoted to their wills and estates. I believe, but cannot prove, that all these people–Lucy Gray, Toby Gray, George Gray, William “Bill” Gray, Silvester Gray, Thomas Gray, and Amelia Gray are Priscilla’s descendants, probably by male descent.
Both women manumitted their slaves. Elizabeth freed only four people immediately–including Lucy Gray and her son Toby–committing the rest to terms of service to her two nieces, Eliza Hamilton and Maria Watterston. Maria Watterston and her husband both died intestate and I have found no record of what became of their slaves. In 1860, Eliza Hamilton freed all her slaves immediately upon her death and committed a significant portion of her estate to providing for their well-being.
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For full citations of these sources, see the “Slavery & Freedom” list under the Bibliography tab at the top of every page on this site. Other sources listed there are also highly recommended.
Archives of Maryland Online, Vol. 1. Proceedings & Acts of the General Assembly, January 1637/8-September 1664. An Act Concerning Negroes and other Slaves. pp 533-34. http://aomol.msa.maryland.gov/000001/000001/html/am1–533.html. For subsequent amendments to the law, see Vol. 7:203-205 (1681); Vol. 13:546-49 (1692); Vol. 30:289-90 (1715); Vol. 36:275-76 (1728).
“Decoding Our Past through DNA.” Finding Your Roots, Season 2, Episode 6. 25 November 2014. Can be viewed online through 26 December 2014.
Paul Heinegg. Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware from Colonial Period to 1810. Also available free online.
Heinton, Louise. Searching for Ancestors Who Were Slaves: An Index to the Freedom Records of Prince George’s County, Maryland, 1808-1869. Cards for people surnamed Gray begin with image 347. http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/stagser/s1400/s1411/000007/html/s141107-347.html
Hode, Martha. White Women, Black Men. For the story of Nell Butler’s retort to Lord Baltimore, see page 34.
Allan Kulikoff. Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800.
Provine, Dorothy, compiler. Registrations of Free Negroes 1806-1863, Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Provine, Dorothy, compiler. District of Columbia Free Negro Registers 1821-1861. 2 vols.
Whitman, T. Stephen. The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland. Everyone should read this book.