Toward the Racial Binary: Race, Property and the Dispossession of Indians in Early Virginia

Royce Gildersleeve

Advisor: Rosemarie Zagarri, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Randolph Scully, Joan Bristol

Johnson Center, #337
April 25, 2018, 02:00 PM to 04:00 PM


The dispossession of Virginia Indians took the form of a long confrontation over the cultural power of legal Indianness. In the aftermath of the Powhatan wars of the early 17th century, Indian tribes that had been members of the Powhatan confederacy found themselves categorized as tributary Indians, placed upon reservation land, and bound to the strict laws of a fledgling Virginia colony. Tribes not associated with the Powhatan confederacy were categorized as non-tributary, and for a time existed on the periphery of the Jamestown area, what was then the center of Anglo-Indian Virginia. Both of these groups became embroiled in legal contests that saw their work ethic questioned, their identity as an Indian people challenged, as well as other obstacles—such as having their children systematically taken away from them by the state for use as indentured servants. These communities, all living “behind the frontier,” in close approximation to both Euro-Americans and African-Americans, were constantly defending their identity as an Indian people in order to fight off attempts at dispossession. These attempts, in which there are examples throughout Virginia during the colonial and early Republic era, are based in a European understanding of agrarian property and an anxiety over racial difference.