Life Stories, Local Knowledge, and the Law in Eighteenth-Century North America

Friday, January 4, 2013: 8:30 AM
Preservation Hall, Studio 7 (New Orleans Marriott)
Terri L. Snyder, California State University, Fullerton
This paper focuses on the intersections of biography, race, and the law in eighteenth-century America through the lives of Jane and Elisha Webb.   Jane Webb, born around 1682, was a free, mixed-race woman active in Virginia’s local courts in the first quarter of the eighteenth century.  She was legally married to an enslaved man, however improbable that may seem, and together they had seven children.  In the late 1730s, one of their daughters, Elisha (b. 1716) boarded a ship and headed up the eastern seaboard.  Along the way, she was illegally was sold into slavery; but in 1740, she successfully sued for her freedom in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.   What might we learn by bringing the stories of mother and daughter together? Both Jane and Elisha Webb were legal anomalies, and their lives illustrate the range of marital, family, and household arrangements of the most marginalized of early American women.  Moreover, both women used the law instrumentally in order to negotiate the slippery border between slavery and freedom.  They frequented local courts, seeking immediate and more enduring protections for themselves and their families; they also faced attempts by the state to regulate their intimate domains and households.   Neither acted only as lone legal agents.  Both mother and daughter alike invoked local networks and called upon local knowledge, and in Elisha’s case, a set of inter-colonial connections, to support their claims to justice.  Finally, while analysis of Jane and Elisha Webb illustrates their particular life histories, I will use the paper to explore more generally approaches to early American women’s biography.
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