1760 court proceedings against Sarah Summers
Kent County, Md., court record

Dear Professor Gates:

My Colonial ancestor was a woman named Sarah Summers, who I believe was from England and sentenced to serve seven years in the America[n] plantations for an unknown offense. I believe her to have been a “seven-year passenger,” who arrived in Virginia in 1756, according to a mention in Peter Wilson Coldham’s book series, Bonded Passengers to America

Advertisement

Somehow she ends up in Maryland as a servant of an Edward Kelly, who took her to court in Kent County, Md., in November 1760 for having had a “Molotta Bastard” child. She was subsequently sentenced to an additional seven years of servitude. A couple of archivists that I spoke with think that she could have been a Caucasian. 

I have attached the excerpt of court proceedings from freeafricanamericans.com. In addition, I have also attached the original Kent County Criminal Proceedings reference with a court transcript that is mostly hard to decipher.

Her whereabouts afterward are speculative; I researched Kelly’s probate estate and Inventory records but to no avail concerning more about Sarah. However, I think she is located in the Vital Records of the Jesuit Missions of the Eastern Shore, 1760-1800, Page 13, where she married a Thomas Prell with one of the witnesses being her son, James.

Advertisement

Incidentally, I descend from her son, James Summers, a free man, as well as his son Vincent Summers and his daughter Elizabeth Summers. Please assist me with determining her racial identity and any other information you may find. Martha Alexander Paskins

The research you have done to learn more about Sarah Summers prior to her 1760 court case appears to be accurate, and definitely supports the timeline of events that you have laid out. The Sarah Summers referenced in Coldham’s book Bonded Passengers to America arrived in Virginia in 1756 from England. A servant arriving in Virginia but serving his or her indenture in Maryland was not uncommon, and the Sarah Summers who arrived in 1756 would still have been indentured in 1760 when she was brought to court.

What the Court Case Says About Race and Labor in Colonial America

Your ancestor’s so-called crime and the punishment delivered illustrate the nature of servitude during that period, as well as growing legal prohibitions against “miscegenation,” or interracial procreation. Given that the average African American is about 24 percent European, and that the white ancestry is more likely to come from relations between an enslaved black female and a white male who owned or otherwise had power over her, it’s clear that white women and black men bore the brunt of the miscegenation laws.

For instance, your ancestor’s story is strikingly similar to that of the white ninth-great-grandmother of comedian Wanda Sykes, whom Professor Gates featured in the first season of Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr. An article about it on The Root recounts that Sykes’ forebear was “punished with ‘thirty-nine lashes, well laid’ for ‘fornication & Bastardy with a negroe slave,’ according to a stark June 20, 1683, court document from York County, Va.

Sarah Summers’ life also illustrates a form of servitude that already was on the wane when she arrived from England. Indentured servitude was a way for poor people to travel to America in search of a new life—as soon as they paid off their debt in labor. As described on the website for PBS’ History Detectives: Special Investigations: “Servants typically worked four to seven years in exchange for passage, room, board, lodging and freedom dues.”

Indentured servants were a popular source of labor in the 1600s; however, by 1700, indentured servitude was largely replaced by slavery. Indentured servants still traveled to the United States, but these servants were usually European rather than African. The fact that Summers was indentured doesn’t automatically make her white, but as an article on the Library of Congress’ American Memory website describes, “Around the middle of the 17th century, Colonial laws began to reflect differences between indentured servants and slaves. More important, the laws began to differentiate between races: the association of ‘servitude for natural life’ with people of African descent became common.”

Advertisement

Indentured servants did have some rights, but they also lived under many restrictions. According to History Detectives, “An indentured servant’s contract could be extended as punishment for breaking a law, such as running away, or in the case of female servants, becoming pregnant.” American Memory also notes a clause in a Virginia law that stated that if a white woman were to have a biracial or “mulatto” child, she would be forced to pay a fine or be placed in servitude for a term.

Other slave states had similar laws outlining relationships between people of different races, and this could very well have been the situation for Sarah. Back to the court case:

In the court case brought by Edward Kelly, Sarah Summers eventually confessed to the charge in 1771. This case may have been written about in local newspapers; Colonial newspapers contain a wide variety of articles and pieces of news. The Maryland State Archives contains several online newspapers for you to browse.

Advertisement

You can search the archives for a potential newspaper that may contain information pertaining to Edward Kelly and Sarah Summers. Digitized editions of the Maryland Gazette, dated from 1728-1839, are browsable on the Maryland State Archives website.

To see if we could locate a record of Summers’ court case, we searched the newspapers published in November 1760, as well as the papers published in March 1771, when Sarah Summers confessed. When we searched the papers for those two months, we were unable to locate an article related to Sarah Summers or Edward Kelly. However, it may be beneficial for you to continue searching additional months around the date of the court case, since information on the case could have been provided a few months before or after the case.

Seeking Leads Through Her Spouse and Kin

Because you believe that Sarah Summers married a man named Thomas Prell, learning more about him can perhaps lead us to find out more about her. The 1783 Maryland Tax Assessment has been transcribed and is available at the Maryland State Archives. The tax assessments exist for 12 counties, including Kent County and those surrounding Kent. We searched the tax lists for the 12 counties, but could not locate a Thomas Prell being taxed there in 1783.

Advertisement

We searched the 1790 and 1800 U.S. censuses for the household of Thomas Prell but were unable to locate him in either record. We also tried to locate James Summers in the 1800 census to see whether his mother could be enumerated with him. James Summers is listed (subscription to Ancestry.com required to view) as residing in Mispillion Hundred, Kent, Del., in 1800, with five free people; however, their age and gender are unknown.

The marriage location of Thomas Prell and Sarah Summers can lead to additional information about the couple. Since their marriage is published in Vital Records of the Jesuit Missions of the Eastern Shore, 1760-1800, Catholic Church records may provide additional information about Thomas and Sarah, such as death dates and information pertaining to a funeral. If Vital Records of the Jesuit Missions of the Eastern Shore, 1760-1800, lists a place of residence, research can be done to locate Catholic churches around where the marriage took place.

Determining Her Racial Identity

The language of the case brought against Sarah Summers suggests that she was white. The court case states that she is a servant, rather than a slave, and that her punishment was an additional seven years of servitude. These points (and the fact that she came from England!) all indicate that she was most likely a white woman.

Advertisement

On a more basic level, the fact that she was brought to court at all is an indication of her race. Because she was charged with giving birth to a “Molotta Bastard,” the focus of the court case appears to have been on the fact that the child was biracial (aka mulatto), not necessarily that the child was born out of wedlock. If Sarah Summers were a white Englishwoman whose child was noticeably non-English in appearance, it would explain why she would have been brought to court on the unfortunate charge of “mulatto bastardy.”

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also co-founder of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

Advertisement

This answer was provided in consultation with Katrina Fahy, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.