Were My Ancestors in an Interracial Love Triangle?

Tracing Your Roots: A reader tried to connect the dots between her kin and a complicated family situation in the 17th century.

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Dear Professor Gates:

My research into my family origins reveals that in the 1680s, Maudlin Magdelen Magee, an Irish woman who was married to a white man, George Magee, had a baby girl by an enslaved African man, Sambo Game. The Magees had come to Somerset, Md., from Ireland, and had two sons of their own when Maudlin gave birth to Sambo Game’s baby daughter, Fortune. Sambo Game was an enslaved man, held in bondage by a Peter Douty, who later freed him.

Fortune was, by virtue of her mulatto status, ordered to be an indentured servant until the age of 31. When emancipated, she had several freeborn children, among them Sarah Fortune, who may have been the mother of Thomas Forten of Philadelphia, and grandmother of James Forten, and great-grandmother of Charlotte Forten Grimke.

My question: My grandmother was Ella Fortune, born in 1882 in Brooklyn, N.Y., the daughter of Philip P. Fortune, born in Virginia. We were told that our Fortune family had always been free. I am DNA-matched on Ancestry.com with other Magee/McGee DNA matches, at least one of whom is linked to Maudlin’s son, John (born 1675 or 1686), and to a Fortune descendant.

I would like to know how my great-grandfather Philip P. Fortune is linked with the family, and if James Forten and Charlotte Forten Grimke are also my ancestors. —Sharon Lawrence Harper

Your search has taken you back to a time in American history where the customs and laws governing free, indentured and enslaved status were shifting in order to address unions between people of mixed status—particularly those between black men and white women, and the children that resulted. At stake were the property rights—as in human property—of white men who owned slaves or held indentures.

The Repercussions of Mixed Unions in Colonial Times

We began our search into your roots by locating the marriage record for Maudlin and George Magee. We found them mentioned in Maryland Marriage Evidences, 1634-1718. They were living in Somerset, Somerset County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. According to your description, both were from Ireland and were white. However, Maryland Marriage Evidences states: “George Magee, Negro, m. by 1702/05, Maudlin Magee, white woman.” Their status—free, indentured or enslaved—is not mentioned. The book cites the sources as Paul Heinegg’s Free African Americans of Maryland and Delaware From the Colonial Period to 1810, as well as Somerset County Judicial Court records and Kent County land records.

To put their marriage in context: in 1664, the same Maryland law that rendered “all Negroes and other slaves” slaves for life and made bondage a status children inherited from their fathers, also imposed sanctions on any “freeborn English woman” who, “forgetful of their free condition and to the disgrace of our nation, marr[ied] Negro slaves.”

The penalties for such mixed marriages were severe: Thenceforth, not only was a transgressive white wife to be forced to serve her slave husband’s master for as long as her husband lived, but any children their marriage produced would be slaves for life. The law was designed not only to draw a line between free whites and enslaved blacks in Maryland and to control the marital choices of white women, but also to protect slave owners, whether their male property produced children with other slaves or with white wives.

Interestingly, the law did not mention the situation of free black men (as George may have been) fathering children with white women or of white men who took black women, free or enslaved, as wives.

Apparently, the law also failed to anticipate the perverse incentives it created. Turns out, the 1664 law unwittingly gave slave owners an incentive to force freeborn white indentured servants to marry black male slaves so that they could “get more service from white women and to procure more slaves,” according to an article on the Maryland State Archives website, “Blacks Before the Law in Colonial Maryland.” To address the situation, a new law was passed in 1681 threatening to fine any slave master who tried to coerce mixed marriages and any solemnizer who made them official. It did not mean that Maryland had changed its tune on mixed marriages, however; it still abhorred them.

Thus, in 1692, the colony acted again by passing another law. Broader in scope, it punished free white women who took black husbands by forcing them into a seven-year indenture to their church parishes (while their husbands, if free, were to become parish slaves), and this time, it imposed the same penalties on white men taking black wives. In addition, the 1692 law, according to the Maryland State Archives website, reached outside of marriage to pull in children born to mixed parentage out of wedlock: “If the miscegenating couple was not married, the woman was to suffer the seven-year penalty, the child was to serve for twenty-one years, but, the husband, if free, was only to serve for seven years instead of life.”

So-called anti-miscegenation laws continued to be updated, the site states, until, “By the end of the colonial period in Maryland, the law of slavery had established the presumption that all blacks and mulattoes not born of white women were slaves for life…. Sexual intercourse across the color line… was subject to penalties of servitude for all white men and women, all black men and all free black women. Slave women were exempt from any such penalties, probably because any children they had would be valuable slaves. The children of all other cases of miscegenation were to be servants for 31 years.”

This legal timeline suggests that if Fortune Game/Magee was indeed born in the 1680s, she would have inherited her father Sambo’s slave status. Yet you describe her condition of indenture as one that was common later in Colonial Maryland. Either her approximate birth date or indentured status may deserve a second look, though there could be an explanation that we simply have not uncovered. Whatever the timing, one thing is clear: If the slave Sambo Game was Fortune’s father, and thus the progenitor of the Fortune family line, saying the “Fortune family had always been free” would be a denial of his existence.