The First Official Slave
Slavery already more than a century in practice in the Americas did not begin as a racially driven practice but instead as indentured service. Indentured service essentially made participants, typically poor people, servants (slaves) for a contracted period. Most indentured servants were poor white Europeans paying passage to the New World or those seeking to gain land but there were also black indentured servants. Whether black or white, indentured servitude was harsh and many servants didn’t survive. Indentured servants did have rights under the law; however, the law often favored disputes between servants in favor of the masters and this bias indicates the direction towards slavery and racial bias towards slaves. The John Punch reflects the shift in this bias from servitude to racial driven slavery.
On July 9, 1640, a Virginia Court identified the first official slave of the Thirteen Colonies, John Punch. This case represents the shift from indentured servants to racial slavery but more than likely this change in law and view of slavery already began in the years prior. Prior to 1661, slavery was not codified in Virginia and this designated the John Punch case as a pivotal point showing the transition from servitude to slavery.
The case reports a farmer’s three slaves ran to Maryland and two were white and one black. Captured in Maryland, they were returned to Jamestown to receive punishment (PBS, 2021). The two white servants were given thirty lashes and required to serve their master for one extra year beyond their required servitude. Three years of service to the colony were also required after their servitude ended (PBS, 2021). John Punch, being of African descent, received thirty lashes and ordered into lifelong service, essentially slavery (PBS, 2021).
The John Punch case is the earliest case known of slavery being impacted by race and although this more than likely occurred in other unknown cases, there is a clear shift in the law, showing courts taking into race as an important factor in determining slavery. This distinction would eventually lead to many slave laws that restricted African servants from becoming free. In 1661 slavery entered into Virginia law, distinguishing white servants from black servants in the context of fleeing servitude. By 1662, the law began distinguishing free-born children according to the mother’s status (PBS, 2021). By 1705, African Americans would be codified into slavery with restriction against interracial sexual relations to prohibit mixed children, which ultimately presented challenges to slavery based on race (Finkelman, 1985).
The case of John Punch would set the standard for the treatment of blacks until the end of slavery. Slavery would become increasingly more racially fueled and restrictive. The court decision involving John Punch marked the beginning of the end for African slaves hoping for legal freedom in the colonies.
Finkelman, P. (1985). Slavery in the courtroom. Washington DC: Library of Congress.
PBS (2021). Virgina recognizes slavery 1661–1663
Photo By Collectie Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, CC BY-SA 3.0