Sunday, February 19, 2012

Elizabeth Key Grinstead

The story of Elizabeth Key Grinstead is an amazing one. It is a story calling out to be made into a movie, or at least featured on a program such as the upcoming Finding Your Roots. Elizabeth has the distinction of being "the first woman of African ancestry to sue for her freedom from slavery and win." I am a descendant of hers through my Mom's side. Our Virginia roots are very old on her side of the family.

Some of the things that strike me about this story are that Elizabeth was six when she was placed in the household of neighbor and godfather Humphrey Higginson as an indentured servant (the same age as my daughter is now); that Elizabeth was later transferred to Colonel John Mottrom and moved about 100 miles to the north in undeveloped Northumberland County, where she met and fell in love with a young English lawyer working in Mottrom's Coan Hall. That lawyer, William Grinstead, took up her freedom suit, which she won, then had overturned, before finally winning before the Virginia General Assembly in 1656. This allowed Elizabeth and William to marry, provided the financial support for their children, and set the stage for the story to be remembered and told to future generations.

There are many articles and writings on this story and I cannot claim to have completed my research. If there are other researchers who have additional information, please let me know. I am happy to share and discuss Elizabeth's story and those of her descendants.
[Photo source: Article by Anna Belle Pfau, 10 Feb 2011; searching for original image this picture is taken from & would be interested to know more about this image]

Daughter of Thomas Key

Elizabeth was born about 1630 in historical Warwick County, Virginia (modern Newport News), not far from Jamestown and Williamsburg in the original Virginia Colony. Her mother was a slave of African ancestry, and Elizabeth was the illegitimate child of Englishman and Burgess, Thomas Key. Thomas was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses during its March 1629/1630 session.
 [Source: Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1619-1658/59. McIlwaine, H.R. (Henry Read), 1864-1934, ed.; Kennedy, John Pendleton, 1871-, ed; Virginia State Library;]. Key represented Denbigh (Denbigh Plantation) in 1629/1630. Denbigh appears in red in the map below:

In records, Thomas Key is referred to as an "ancient planter", which meant that Thomas had arrived in the Virginia Colony before 1616, remained for a period of three years and paid his passage.

According to the Virtual Jamestown site, a Thomas Keie, age 30, arrived in Jamestown on the ship Prosperous in June 1619. His wife Sarah Keie arrived in 1622 on the ship Truelove. Both appear on the muster of 21 January 1624/25 (see database at If this was Thomas Key, father of Elizabeth, then he would have been born about 1594.

On 2 December 1626, Martha Key, wife of Thomas Key, was given a land patent for 150 acres lying on Warwicksqueake River, opposite the land of Nathaniel Basse, in Isle of Wight County (and on the opposite side of the James River from Denbigh). See Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents, Virginia Historical Magazine, 1894:

I think it is likely that Thomas Key set up his wife with the Isle of Wight property in exchange for being able to live with his servant and the mother of Elizabeth, without his wife being in the household. This is just an assumption on my part, but one I think is very plausible.

Thomas Key does not appear in the records of the House of Burgesses after 1630, which was around the time that Elizabeth was born.

Here is a later map of the James River and Warwick County area (dated 1781, by John Lodge,

In 1636, Thomas Key was fined by a circuit court in Blunt Point for fathering Elizabeth as an illegitimate child.

After this case, Key took responsibility for Elizabeth, arranged for her baptism and placed her in the custody of Humphrey Higginson by a nine-year indenture. Higginson was to act as her guardian, but she was to be free at the age of 15 [Banks, 820]. Thomas Key died in 1636, and Elizabeth was cared for by Higginson for the next four years.

In the household of Humphrey Higginson

According to the agreement with Key, Higginson was to provide Elizabeth with food, clothing during the nine-year term. If Humphrey were to die during the term, then Elizabeth was to be set free. If Humphrey returned to England, he was to take her with him. Higginson did return to England, but not with Elizabeth.

Higginson's land was located near the head of Archer's Hope Creek. Elizabeth would have lived on this property during her years with Higginson. He was apparently a large landowner, served as a tobacco inspector, and on the Council of Virginia in 1641.

During her time with Higginson and his family, it was clear that Elizabeth was known as a child of Thomas Key, as later witnesses would testify in 1655/56.

Transfer to John Mottrom & Move to Northumberland County

About 1640, Higginson transferred Elizabeth to Colonel John Mottrom. Mottrom was the first English settler in the area of Northern Neck, and founded Northumberland County. He became the first Burgess of the county in 1645. Elizabeth would have been 10 years old when she accompanied Mottrom to the county, and very likely never saw her mother or her birth home in Warwick County after moving 100 miles up the bay, near where the Potomac River empties into the Chesapeake.
Researcher Martha Hardcastle wrote in her 2003 article in the Dayton Daily News (see copy on Rootsweb) that in 1650 "Mottrom brought a group of 20 men, white indentured servants from England, to Coan Hall, his estate in Northumberland County. For every sponsored servant, a Virginian would receive 50 acres of land. Each indenture would serve six years."

"Among those indentures was a 16-year old William Grinstead, a young lawyer. Although Grinstead's parents are not known, it is likely he was a younger son of an attorney who learned his father's trade...Mottrom soon recognized Grinstead's value and had him represent him in legal matters."

Elizabeth and William Grinstead fell in love at Coan Hall, and between 1650 and 1656, the couple had two children. Because of Elizabeth's status, the couple were not permitted to marry.

Mottrom ran the territory of Northumberland County from his home at Coan Hall, which became the county seat. He was the justice, burgess of the county, grew tobacco, and led the community as protestants crossed over from Maryland to Northern Neck.

I have seen reference to legal action by William Grinstead against Mottrom, but need to look into this further. I haven't had time to go to the Library of Virginia or look at Northumberland County records other than what is available at the Barrett Branch of the Alexandria Library.

Mottrom died in 1655.

The Case & Appeals

When Mottrom died, Elizabeth brought suit against Mottrom's estate in Northumberland County for her freedom. Her case was heard before a jury on 20 January 1655/1656. The jury agreed that Elizabeth's father was Thomas Key, and that since he was an Englishman (and presumptively free), freedom passed by birth to Elizabeth [see Banks, 811].

The Mottrom estate challenged the decision in General Court. "The General Court met in Jamestown and had both original and appellate jurisdiction in all cases arising in the Colony." [Banks, 811]. Her case was heard in the March 1655/1656 session. The court found that she was a slave. Elizabeth appealed the decision and petitioned to the General Assembly for a hearing.

In her case, Elizabeth presented witnesses who described her transfer to Higginson. One witness testified that Higginson agreed he would care for her as if she were his own child. Another witness testified that she saw Thomas Key go to bed with Elizabeth's mother many times and that the witness heard her say that Elizabeth was Thomas Key's daughter [Deposition of Alice Larrett].

A transcription of the case can be found at and

On 21 July 1656, the General Assembly found that she was the child of a free Englishman, and that she was herself free. She was awarded "corn, clothes and satisfaction" from her years with Mottrom by the Mottrom estate. At the conclusion of the case, Elizabeth and William Grinstead were married. This is a remarkable decision, given the time and the status of mixed-race children in the Virginia Colony.

"These are to Certifie whome it may concerne that William Greensted and Elizabeth Key intends [sic] to be joyned in the Holy Estate of Matrimony. If any one can shew any Lawfull cause why they may not be joyned together lett them Speake or ever after hold their tongues Signum William Greensted Signum Elizabeth Key 21th July 1656 this Certificate was Published in open Court and is Recorded

I Capt. Richard Wright administrator of the Estate of Col. John Mottrom deceased doe assigne and transfer unto William Greensted amaid servant formerly belonging unto the Estate of the said Col. Mottrom commonly called Elizabeth Key being nowe Wife unto the said Greensted and doe warrant the said Elizabeth and doe bind my Selfe to save here [i.e., her] and the said Greensted from any molestation or trouble that shall or futurely arise from or by any person or persons thatshall pretend or claime any title or interest to any manor of service[original torn] from the said Elizabeth witness [my ha]nd this 21th of July 1659 [1656] Test William Thomas, Richard Wright, James Austen"

William Grinstead died in 1661 (he would have been about 27 years old). Elizabeth died about 1665, she would have been about 35.

In 1662, the Virginia General Assembly changed the law and proclaimed that the status of children follows that of the mother instead of the father [Banks, 814]. This became the rule throughout the British American colonies. I highly recommend reading Taunya Lovell Banks' law review article on the case.

From a personal perspective, it is fascinating to see how William, as a young attorney, was able to help Elizabeth shape the necessary legal arguments to secure her freedom and status for their children.

I graduated from law school in 2001, a little over 345 years after Elizabeth won her case through the General Assembly. As my own children grow up and learn about Virginia history, I want to make sure they know the role their ancestors played and the struggles they faced in determining their own future.


Below are a collection of sources providing detail on Elizabeth's case. I intend to add further information to this post.
Elizabeth's Mother

I am still collecting more information, but it appears that a Dutch ship brought the first Africans to Virginia in 1619 (see This is an era of the Colonization period that I have not previously read much about, and will be doing more research. It is likely that Elizabeth's mother arrived in the Newport News area sometime between 1619-1629. 

My Connection to Elizabeth Key Grinstead
The connection to this great story runs from my Mom's side, via my 3rd-great-grandmother Melissa Catherine Grinstead. She was born on 8 February 1843 in Warren County, Kentucky, the daughter of Thomas Grinstead and Mary Petrie. Melissa married Robert Jackson Wheatley. I am connected through their son, my 2nd-great-grandfather, Thomas Whitley. [I will have more posts on the Whitleys, the spelling of their last name was often Wheatley or Whitley]. 

Thomas Grinstead was born in Virginia on 24 December 1802. He moved to Warren County, Kentucky sometime before 1825. Thomas was the son of David Grinstead and Nancy Ann Warren.

David Grinstead was born in Henrico County, Virginia in 1763, and died in Warren County, Kentucky on 19 October 1850. David was the son of John Grinstead (1718-1791). John sold his land in Northumberland County in 1748 and moved to Henrico County, Virginia. John was the grandson of William Grinstead, born in 1660, son of Elizabeth Key and William Grinstead.

Future Research
Here are some threads I am parking for future research:
  • Where in England was Thomas Key from, and when did he arrive in the Virginia Colony?
  • Original documents on Key's holdings in Warwick County (if copies still exist); and the transfer of Elizabeth to Higginson
  • Copies of the original case in the Northumberland Court and any papers that may have been filed by William Grinstead (if these still exist) 
  • Information on the descendants of Elizabeth and William, and on what happened to their children after both died in 1662 & 1665. 


  1. You weren't kidding when you said her story should be made into a movie. Wow! Great post.

  2. You are right, considering the times: it is amazing that Elizabeth was able to win her case. What a fascinating story!

  3. So glad I found the link to your blog from Andrea Kelleher, a fellow researcher of Craven County, NC African Americans. I am Co-Historian for the George Family; and my husband is a descendant of Paul Carter and Peter George who were owned by Col. Nathaniel Littleton (1640), a member of the House of Burgesses. Littleton's plantations were on Magotha Bay and Nandua Creek, Accomack and Northampton Counties, VA. I have been researching for eleven years and am working on a book focusing on three generations in Craven County. I am so glad to see you have used the Journals of the House of Burgesses in digital format, since when I last used them via ILL, the photographs I took weren't readable on my viewer. Thank you, and I hope that we might discuss some issues of the period and location. In Black and White: Cross-Cultural Genealogy.

  4. Thanks for the comments. Debra, I also have Carters who were in Virginia in the earliest days of the Colony (through Captain Thomas Carter, 1630-1700), and my Jones line came from North Carolina before going to Tennessee in the late 1780s/early 1790s. Happy to discuss early Colonial America along the Virginia and North Carolina coast.


    1. I would love to gather more information too since I am a descendant of Elizabeth Keyes Grinstead, too. Thank you!! I am very interested! I am also proud that they are part of my heritage, too.

  5. I am a descendant of Elizabeth Key Grinstead as well Patrick. My mother's father was Wayde Grinstead. My Mom (Gail Elizabeth Grinstead Pettit Groeneman) passed away in 1974. My Uncle Tom, (Thomas Guy Grinstead Pettit) provided a lot of information on our family history including this story. He sent me a couple of links where I found some of the details you provide in your post. I am very proud these courageous and decent people are part of my heritage.

    Frances Groeneman

  6. Frances, thanks for the note and nice to meet another distant cousin.


  7. Hello! I enjoyed reading your post. I am also a distant cousin. I'll have to dig out my notes for the specifics, but if I recall correctly, she shows up in both my Lawrence and Beckham lines. Her story is one of my favorites from my family tree and I appreciate the effort and care you took in sharing her story.


  8. Thanks for crediting me with information here. I do wish you would have let me know about this page.

    Martha Hardcastle Guthrie
    Dayton, Ohio

  9. Martha - I tried reaching you by email on 4 September 2011 and through Facebook's Message feature a couple of times before I posted this. I didn't receive a reply to either method, and I wasn't sure I even had a valid email for you. But I'm glad you found this page. I definitely wanted to make sure your article was cited, and I'd be interested to know if any of this is in error.


  10. If you are still monitoring this site, I too believe that I am a descendant of Eliz Key and Wm Grinstead. I am interested in how you determined that Eliz was transferred to Col Mottrom in 1640. I've looked for the connection between Higginson and Mottrom and have never come across any info as to when the transfer might have happened. You have done an excellent job of providing links to information, but I didn't see where that info came from. Any help would be appreciated.

    1. Hi Susan, thanks for the note. I took this information from Martha Hardcastle's 2003 article, but I also think the transfer timing is reflected in the case material. Hope that helps.


  11. about the image:

    1. Thanks! So the picture above is an engraving from 1521, by Albrecht Durer & called "Portrait of Catherine, the Mulatta of the Portuguese Bradao." Much earlier than our Elizabeth Key Grinstead.

  12. Hello Patrick, I am a descendant of Elizabeth Key Grinstead. She was my 10th grandmother.

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  14. As a historian and descendant of Elizabeth Key Grinstead (my father's side of the family) I truly appreciate the amount of work you put into this post. Thank you also for the citations so that I may read more on her as I believe she would be a great subject for a thesis or dissertation project.

  15. I am also a descendant of Elizabeth Key Grinstead and William Grinstead....she is my maternal 8th great grandmother. I very much appreciate you putting together all of this information! I just found this out yesterday and have been reading everything I can find!!!

    1. Thanks Nancy. Earlier in the month I found a copy of Martha Key's 1628 land grant that was referenced in my 2012 post on the Library of Virginia's Chancery Records. See

  16. thanks for making this blog about her, cus all the other ones are either too much or too little

  17. Hey we are the grinstead in Clarksville Tennessee we go back to Nelson grinstead born in 1845


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