Beyond the pale: Interracial Relations in Colonial America

A tale of gender double standards

When genealogy decides to throw me a curve ball, it doesn’t hold back. The curve ball that recently came my way was through a bit of unspoken colonial American history. It’s a slice of American history which simply hadn’t occurred to me. It’s certainly not taught in schools.

A revelation came when I was doing some research on my Turner ancestors  in Charles County, Maryland (Passing for white: ancestors who jumped the colour line: ) In that post, I covered how this ancestral line was noted by its ‘white’ appearance by the 1850s. Further research has pushed that attribute back a further generation to the 1820s. My assumption was that this was due to earlier generations of interracial relations between white males and mulatto women.

Digitised colonial Maryland court records have revealed an unexpected and equally plausible alternative. It was an alternative I wasn’t prepared for.

Whilst nowhere near as common as interracial relations between white men and black or mulatto women – white women, typically immigrant indentured servants, had relations and sometimes married black and mulatto male slaves.  When these relationships were discovered, usually through the woman becoming pregnant, the penalties for the woman were harsh.

It wasn’t long before my research into these relationships revealed a double standard based on gender. It wasn’t a surprising revelation. White men who had mulatto children were not ostracised or penalized by their society. It was a colonial case of “boys will be boys”.  Perhaps this is because there was no societal inconvenience. The children from these unions took the status of their mothers. If their mother was a slave or indentured, the child was also a slave or indentured.  The status quo was maintained.

A white woman who produced mulatto children in colonial times experienced a different fate.   It was rare for a woman to own property in her own right. An indentured servant would also be poor – certainly not able to afford the fine which was levied against her for producing mixed-race children. So at best, she would have her period of indentured servitude extended. She might also be put in the public stocks and publicly humiliated for a few hours. More severe would be a period in the county jail. If she was truly unfortunate, she would be publicly flogged.  No matter what form her punishment took, her mulatto children would be sold into indentured service.  The period of their indentured servitude would typically last until their early 30s, whereby they would gain their freedom.

Women who continued to bear mulatto children could almost be guaranteed a severe public flogging. Each child she bore would be bound to indentured servitude, again, typically until they were in their 30s.

There seems to be a few underlying reasons for the disparity of treatment between white men and white women who produced mulatto offspring:

  • No matter how poor they were or how humble their origins, European women were seen as paragon of purity and virtue. Unmarried women were expected to remain in a state of ‘unblemished purity’ until they married.
  • Mulatto children with white mothers would eventually be free, with all the rights of free colonial subjects
  • The number of free mulattos steadily increased in colonial American.  There was a fear that a significant increase in the number of free mulattoes, as well as enslaved blacks and mulattos, would outnumber European colonists. Therefore measures and deterrents were required to limit the number of free mulattoes as well as free blacks.
  • As mulatto men and women became free and contributed their skills and labour to their colonial society, most became respected members within their communities. More than a few prospered. This raised awkward questions about the institution of slavery. The ability to depict black and mulatto slaves as property (and the usual propaganda levied against them) increasingly became tenuous as mulattoes born of white mothers and black fathers took their place as upstanding free men and women within colonial society. In short, they called into question the morality and ethics of slavery.

Interestingly, colonial law did not directly address the enslaved black fathers of these mulatto children.  Some were flogged. On the whole, the court records are silent to their fate. The onus for such transgressions, as they were seen, lay entirely with the white mothers.

History also seems to be equally silent about the genesis of these relations. How did the couples meet? How did what we think of as romantic love begin and flourish under such difficult circumstances? How did these relationships survive (in a few of the documented cases I’ve studied, some couples remained together)? The official documents provide no clues.  Then again, they wouldn’t  These were prosecution cases concerned solely with punishment. The likelihood is that one or both parties were illiterate, incapable of writing at all…much less writing moving love letters. If such letters do exist, my research hasn’t found them (although I continue to look for them!)

I’m still puzzling over why children born of white mothers and black fathers should be indentured for so long a period. 30, 31 and 32 seems to be the usual age when this class of indentured servants were freed. Perhaps it was to cover the cost of raising them before they were of an age to work (these children were taken from their mothers almost immediately). A more cynical view would be that the female children of these unions wouldn’t make attractive marriage partners when they reached and surpassed the age of 30.  Women married and produced children young in these times.  Making them old maids before they were free would diminish their marriage prospects – this is speculation and admittedly cynical speculation at that.

The Maryland state archive has a number of documents which cite the stories of white mothers who bore mulatto children:  There is an account of a Mary Turner, an Irish indentured servant, and a William Turner, who is thought to be one of her children. Mary’s punishment was particularly brutal: 62 lashes (31 lashes each for the two children she bore her black partner Joe).

Serendipity has put these two names on my radar for the past two years.  I’d always dismissed Mary as she wasn’t what I was expecting in my genealogical search.  Or, to be honest, she just wasn’t the ancestor I thought I was looking for. My expectation in researching this family line was a mulatto woman, not a white one; specifically a mulatto woman with a connection to an Irish male immigrant, or a colonial man of Irish descent.

When time and circumstances conspire to keep re-presenting the same names regardless of the databases, records and tools you use to your research…well, sometimes you have to put your seat in the upright position and take note.

Am I 100% certain that Mary Turner is the grand-mother of my great-great grandfather Patrick Turner? No. Can I continue to discount her as I have done for the past two years? No. All I can do is keep an open mind…and take note that research keeps pointing back to her.

If you’re interested in the experience of Maryland born mulatto children with white mothers and black fathers, this is an interesting document to read: Ball, Carlos, A. 2008. The Blurring of the Lines: Children and Bans on Interracial Unions and Same-Sex Marriages. Fordham Law Review, Volume 76 | Issue 6 Article 4  (The first half of this document covers interracial relationships).

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7 thoughts on “Beyond the pale: Interracial Relations in Colonial America

  1. America was once a male-dominated country. Those were different times and that’s also probably a good reason why you found a double standard. Men were expected to reproduce and have “relations.” Women were as well but only in the confines of marriage. There was the underlying tone that ‘men will be men’ which still permeates society on some level today.

    I’m not sure where your heritage here lies but when I was researching my own I found that in Virginia there were many massacres and at one point the remaining settlers entered an Indian village, killed the men and took the women and children as their own. One of those women is in my direct bloodline and all the family ever knew about her was that she had dark skin and dark hair. She wasn’t talked about much, she wasn’t photographed. It’s as if they took her then felt ashamed which is very sad indeed. There was also more race mixing among white races (European, British, etc.) Though most Americans wouldn’t think of that as interracial, it is.

    1. Hello,
      The mulatto daughters of these White women were bound for 30 years, because these were a women’s most productive child bearing year. Hence, any subsequent children born to these mulatto(s) before they arrived at the age of 31 years, were legally bound to the mother’s Master as well. When mulatto women, became “Free”, they often forced off the master’s plantation leaving their children behind. Mulatto males born to these White women were usually bound for 21 years.

  2. “Whilst nowhere near as common as interracial relations between white men and black or mulatto women – white women, typically immigrant indentured servants, had relations and sometimes married black and mulatto male slaves. ”
    How do you know that the wf/bm pairings were not “near as common”
    based on what ??

  3. This is interesting and might be helpful for me. I don’t know if this thread still exists or if anyone would be willing to shed light on the possibilities in my family tree. I’m white with my DNA results showing mainly GB/Irish/Wales/Scandinavia/Iberian, etc. I have been contacted by a “moderately accurate” match (5th-8th cousins) who is an African American and she’s trying to trace her 4th great grandparents which she thinks we may have in common. Our ancestry both goes back to Mississippi in the 3-4 generation. She’s unable to go any further. However I have info further back. Her DNA shows most African heritage with Scandinavian/GB/European trace amounts. We do have a potential matching name from approx 1790. What I’m wondering is if we could share 4th or 5th grandparents? And if we do, then would we only share DNA from the “white” ancestry side? I’m assuming inter-racial marriages in the 1700s were possible. Or, is it possible that a child born from an inter-racial relationship would assume the surname of his mother so that we would make the connection in our ancestry tree? Is it likely that my ancestor’s sibling had an inter-racial child so that would be the connection? Thanks anyone who might be able to shed light on the possibilities here.

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