You Have No Right: Jane Webb’s Story
The colonial era Northampton County court records tell a fascinating story of a woman
named Jane Webb. She was “a free mulatto formerly Jane Williams & baptized the name
Jane.” Her mother was a white woman. In 1704 Northampton County, Jane Webb had “a
strong desire to intermarry with a certain negro slave … commonly called and known by
the name of Left.” Webb informed Left’s owner Thomas Savage, a gentleman of the
county, of her desire to marry Left. Jane Webb made an offer to Savage. She would be a
servant of Savage’s for seven years. And, she would let Savage “have all the children that
should be bornd (sic) upon her body during the time of (Jane’s) servitude” but for how
long they were to be bound to Savage is not clear. In return, Savage would allow Jane
Webb to marry his slave Left. After Jane’s period of servitude ended, Savage would free
Left. Also, Savage nor his heirs could claim any child born to Jane Webb and Left after
her period of servitude. Savage agreed to Jane Webb’s offer. An agreement was written
and signed by both individuals.
Jane Webb fulfilled her part of the agreement. She served Savage for seven years. During
that time, she had three children by her husband Left: Diana or Dinah Webb, Daniel
Webb, and Francis Webb. After she completed her term of service in 1711, Jane Webb
“in a kindly manner” demanded her husband from Savage as well as her children.
Apparently, Jane Webb and Savage were at odds on how long the children she bore
during her servitude were suppose to be bound to him. He refused to free Left and the
children. In April 1711, Savage submitted a letter to the County Court of Northampton
requesting that Jane Webb’s children be bound to him and his heirs to which the court
Eleven years later, Jane Webb filed a petition with the court pleading to the justices to
free her children. She told the justices that she was a free mulatto born of a white woman.
Webb pointed out to the court her agreement with Savage. She beseeched the court that
the “children being born in lawful wedlock may not be judged to servitude.” She prayed
that the court would not “enslave your petitioner’s children born as aforesaid. And your
petioner humbly craves an order of court in Justice & favour to the said children and your
petitoner.” Thomas Savage was unable or refused to appear in court to answer Webb’s
petition. On one occasion, he informed the court that he was too sick to attend. And so,
the case was continued until the next term, and the next term, and the next term, until it
was finally dismissed by the court. Reason given? “Plaintiff’s argument dismissed as
In February 1725, Thomas Savage petitioned the court to have two of Jane’s children,
Lisha and Abimelech, to be bound to him. Both were born after Jane completed her term
of service. When you read the petition you will notice that part of it has been marked out.
Fortunately, one can make out the words.” (T)he said Jane hath two children named Lisha
& Abimelech the former of which hath long lived with your Petitioner but hath lately
been decoyd (sic) away from your Petitioner’s house & is detaind (sic) by her said
mother from your Petitioner.” Since Jane had no means to support the children, “they
may be induced to take ill courses” and for that reason, Savage argued, he had the best
right to the children and not their mother. Savage’s action was in violation of their 1701
agreement as understood by Jane Webb. However, Savage claimed that 1701 agreement
permitted him to bind any child born to Jane Webb and Left, even children born after
Jane’s seven years of servitude. Savage never produced the agreement as evidence in the
case. He provided two witnesses who informed the court that they had seen an indenture
between Savage and Jane Webb “that therein it was agreed that the said Jane was to serve
seven years & all her children born in the lifetime of her husband Left should serve the
At the same time the court was hearing Savage’s petition, Jane Webb tried to win the
freedom of her husband and children in the chancery court where decisions are based not
on common law but on fairness and equity. In March 1725, Webb filed her bill of
complaint against Thomas Savage in which she recounted the agreement the two made.
Webb also accused Savage of holding in bondage children born to Webb and Left after
1711, a further violation of their agreement. She accused Savage of concealing the
written agreement which made it difficult for her to prove her case in the previous suit.
She asked the chancery court to issue a writ of subpoena to Savage “commanding him” to
personally appear before the court to answer her complaint and produce the written
By July 1726, Savage had yet to respond to Jane’s complaint in the chancery court. On
July 12, the justices made their decision on Savage’s petition regarding Lisha and
Abimilech. Both were bound to Savage. On that same day, Jane Webb was arrested on
the charge of uttering dangerous words “tending to the breach of the peace” which was
heard by several individuals. They swore “that the said Jane had declared that if all
Virginia Negroes had as a good as heart as she had they would all be free.” The court
ordered that she receive ten lashes “well laid” on her bare back at the whipping post and
that it was to be done immediately.
Savage finally responded to Jane Webb’s bill of complaint in November 1726. He
informed the court that he never consented to freeing Left. The children born to Jane
Webb and Left during and after her time of servitude were to be bound him but he could
not recall how long. Once again, Savage did not produce the 1701 agreement. The court
put the burden on Jane to produce the evidence on how long her children were to serve
Savage. They ordered that she do so at the next term of court. If she could not, the court
would dismiss her bill. Jane appeared at the next court held in December 1726 with
witnesses to give evidence on her behalf – African-American witnesses. None of the
testimony exists. The reason why is there was some confusion on the part of court
concerning whether the testimony of African-Americans should be admissible. The order
book entry reads “the court being divided about Negro evidence offered ordered the same
to be referred to the next court.” In April 1727, the court ruled “that none such (Negro
evidence) ought to be allowed.” With no evidence to support her complaint, Jane Webb
realized she had no chance of winning her suit. She fails to appear in court the next time
the case was heard in July 1727. The court dismissed the case from the docket. Her
husband Left remained a slave and all her children and, by now, grandchildren remained
bound to Savage and his heirs.
Information for this story was gathered from the following Northampton County Court
Records found at the Library of Virginia:
Northampton County (Va.) Judgments, 1655-1816. Jane Webb versus Thomas Savage,
1723 January, Barcode number 1154682. Local Government Records Collection,
Northampton Court Records. The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.
Northampton County Chancery Causes, 1721-1816. Jane Webb versus Thomas Savage,
Northampton County Chancery Cause, 1727-001. Local Government Records Collection,
Northampton Court Records. The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.
Northampton County (Va.) Criminal Causes, 1722-1799. Warrant for Jane Webb, 1726
July, Barcode number 1168307. Local Government Records Collection, Northampton
Court Records. The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.
Northampton County (Va.) Judgments, 1655-1816. Petition of Thomas Savage, 1726,
Barcode number 1154685. Local Government Records Collection, Northampton Court
Records. The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.
Northampton County Order Book No. 18, 1722-1729 (copy), Barcode number 1123591.
Local Government Records Collection, Northampton Court Records. The Library of
Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.