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In 1757, officials in Fort St. Jean Baptiste at Natchitoches, Louisiana initiated a criminal investigation to look into the theft of textiles and other goods stolen from French settlers. According to the court record, the accomplices in the robbery were all working under the direction of an enslaved woman named Marion who deployed goods both as a business (which spanned French and Spanish settlements), and as a form of patronage. The scale and brazenness of her commercial activities expands the definition of freedom. Marion secured an impressive measure of autonomy all the while remaining legally enslaved. Her freedom may well have been relative, temporary and impermanent, yet for an unspecified number of years she succeeded in establishing herself as a formidable entrepreneur with liberty to trade between French and Spanish settlements, and with authority over many others, both slave and free. While her reign lasted, she made room for enslaved men and women in Natchitoches, and some free ones, to earn additional funds, to procure and design apparel to their own taste, and to feast with conviviality on beignets, grilled chicken and wild game washed down with suitable libations.
Hannah was the daughter of a woman named Judith, an Apalachee Indian raised in Spanish Florida who was taken captive by the English in 1704 and sold as a slave in South Carolina and taken to Virginia. Judith remained enslaved by Coleman until her death. In the 1770s, some of Judith’s children claimed freedom before the courts, an act that propelled Virginia’s legal system in a long, drawn-out dialogue over the legacies of the Indian slave trade, the legality of Indian slavery, and the rights of slave plaintiffs before the courts. For Hannah and her co-plaintiffs in the Robin v. Hardaway case, this singular facet of their identity shaped their claims to freedom. Establishing connection to a maternal Indian ancestor continued to sustain litigation for subsequent generations of their families – well into the nineteenth century – even as regimes of race and slavery shifted around them. While their lived experiences in a multiracial world of slavery and freedom grew increasingly complex, Judith, Hannah, and others deployed specific, selective, and skillful strategies to self-fashion narratives about race, rights, and family in their efforts to claim freedom.
In 1732, a twenty-three-year-old enslaved woman named Sarah Chauqum ran away from New London, Connecticut and headed for South Kingstown, Rhode Island. In two successful pathbreaking legal actions, Sarah and her lawyers not only exposed the seamy regional system of human trafficking that turned free people of color into slaves in New England, but also laid the groundwork for freedom suits that would follow. In the first, Sarah established her legal freedom. In the second, Sarah filed what is possibly the first reparations case in New England—and won. In the process, Sarah also reclaimed her Indigeneity from her owners’ intentional efforts to erase it by categorizing her as a person of African ancestry. Sarah's post-escape success in claiming freedom created the legal files that contain what we know of her history, which is not much. The story of her enslavement helps us understand the larger phenomenon of Indian slavery in the colonial period. It also points to the ways in which Indian slavery and the slave system more broadly in New England changed as the number of enslaved Africans imported to the region grew over the course of the eighteenth century.
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