Elizabeth Grinstead

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Elizabeth Grinstead (Key)

Birthplace: Warwick, Virginia
Death: Died in Northumberland County, Virginia, USA
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Thomas Key; Thomas Key; Thomas Key; Martha, slave of Thomas Key; Negro Slave and 1 other
Wife of William Grinstead, I
Mother of William Grinstead, II and John Grinstead
Half sister of John Key

Occupation: Slave, Set Free Slave, Mother, Wife
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Elizabeth Grinstead

Elizabeth Key (Kay), a mulatto servent, sued the estate of Colonel John Motram for her freedom. William Grinstead, a 20 year old Englishm an was her lawyer and the two of them fell in love. She became the mother of his two infant sons and William married her in 1656. A relative in 1656 bequeathed the boys, William and John some 500 acres of land and provisions for an education, enough to insure them solid footing. Of John's children six are readily identifiable from documents extant and of William 's nine. From the children of John and Elizabeth are descended practically anyone who can trace their Greensteed, Grinsted and Grinstead ancestry back to the middle of last century in the country. Elizabeth's father , Thomas Kay, a former member of the House of Burgess wished to ensure his daughter's protection so at the time of his death he bound her over to Humphrey Higginson for nine years as a legal means of doing so (Higginson was her godfather and had, according to records "Promised to use her as well as if she were his own child". Compilation of (Frontline Article a nd Research 11-26-96 and Mr. W. Haynie's research Northumberland County Record Book 1652-1658)

In 1655 Jesse Kaye (Key) the half brother of Elizabeth is given a court order to acknowledge Elizabeth as his sister (this occurred at Colonel Mottrom's home). (Northumberland County Record Books 1652-1658, pgss. 66, 68 7, 85a, 85b).

On 7/21/1656, Elizabeth was married to William Grinstead and transferred as a protection of her freedom via Capt. Richard Wright, administrator of Mottrom's estate (Northumberland County Record Book 1658-66, p.27)

Elizabeth Key Case: The illegitimate daughter of an enslaved black mother and a free white settler father, Elizabeth Key spent the first five or six years of her life at home. Then in 1636, ownership of Elizabeth was transferred to another white settler, for whom she was required to serve for nine years before being released from bondage. At some point, ownership was transferred again, this time to a justice of the peace. When this owner died in 1655, Elizabeth, through her lawyer, petitioned the court, asking for her freedom; by this time she had already served 19 years. The court granted her her freedom. Unfortunately, the decision was appealed to a higher court. The court overturned the decision, ruling that Elizabeth was a slave. Elizabeth and her lawyer didn't stop there. They petitioned the General Assembly, which appointed a committee to look into the matter. The committee sent the case back to the courts for retrial. Elizabeth was ultimately freed.

The Case of Elizabeth Key, 1655/56Northumberland County Record Books,

1652-1658, fols. 66-67, 85,1658-1660, fol. 28; Northumberland Counry Order Book,

1652-1665, fols.40, 46, 49.

The Court doth order that Col. Thomas Speke one of the overseers ofthe Estate of Col.

John Mottrom deceased shall have an Appeale to theQuarter Court next att James Citty in

a Cause depending betweene thesaid overseers and Elizabeth a Moletto hee the said Col.

Speke givingsuch caution as to Law doth belong.Wee whose names are underwritten

being impannelled upon a Jury to trya difference between Elizabeth pretended Slave to

the Estate of Col.John Mottrom deceased and the overseers of the said Estate doe

findethat the said Elizabeth ought to be free as by severall oathes mightappeare which we

desire might be Recorded and that the charges ofCourt be paid out of the said Estate.

[names of the jury omitted]Memorandum it is Conditioned and agreed by and betwixt

Thomas Key onthe one part and Humphrey Higginson on the other part [word

missing]that the said Thomas Key hath put unto the said Humphrey one NegroGirle by

name Elizabeth for and during the [term?] of nine yearesaftel the date hereof provided

that the [said?] Humphrey doe find andallow the said Elizabeth meate drinke {and?]

apparrell during the saidtearme And allso the said Thomas Key that if that if [sic] the

saidHumphrey doe dye b

In 1656, for example, Elizabeth Key, the illegitimate child of a slave woman and a white planter, successfully sued for freedom on the grounds of her paternity, her baptism, and the violation of a contractual agreement to serve a master a period of nine years. The earliest petitions for freedom often stressed baptism as the key rationale; after this loophole was closed in 1667, black petitioners generally charged white masters with breach of contract to effect a manumission. But whatever their origins and precise numbers (which were certainly small), free blacks in late-seventeenth-century Virginia seem to have formed a larger share of the total black population than at any other time during slavery. In some counties, perhaps a third of the black population was free in the 1660s and 1670s.

Elizabeth Key, an African-Anglo woman living in seventeenth century colonial Virginia sued for her freedom after being classified as a negro by the overseers of her late master's estate. Her lawsuit is one of the earliest freedom suits in the English colonies filed by a person with some African ancestry. Elizabeth's case also highlights those factors that distinguished indenture from life servitude - slavery in the mid seventeenth century. She succeeds in securing her freedom by crafting three interlinking legal arguments to demonstrate that she was a member of the colonial society in which she lived. Her evidence was her asserted ancestry - English; her religion, Christian; and the inability to be enslaved for life that stems from the first two statuses. These factors, I argue, determined who was the equivalent of white in seventeenth century Virginia.

1655 Elizabeth Key, a slave, sues for her freedom in Virginia based on the the argument that her station in life should be determined by her father, a free white, rather than her mother, a slave. Her attorney, William Greensted, wins the case and marries her. Virginia reacts in 1662 by legislating that children's status is determined by the mother's condition, slave or free.


Elizabeth Key lived the first few years of her life with mother on Thomas Key's estate. In 1636 Thomas Key and his wife prepared to return to England ( but apparently he died before departure), and Elizabeth ( perhaps her mother as well ) was transferred to another white settler, Humphrey Higginson, with the stipulation that she was to be freed of bondage after nine years (age 15 or 16), However, Elizabeth was not freed but instead was transferred to John Mottrom. After Mottrom's death, Elizabeth, with aid of an attorney, William Grinsted, petitioned the court to grant Elizabeth her freedom. A jury impaneled 20 jan 1655, after hearing abundant testimony, concluded on her behalf, and the court, citing the common-law rule that "the child of a women slave begot by a freeman ought to bee free", granted Elizabeth's petition. An appeal to the General Assembly resulted in a delay, but Elizabeth did gain her freedom. She and William Grinsted later married.

     This part was found in the book called Hazelrigg Family History: North America, C1635 to C1935 by Lawrence Hazelrigg
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Elizabeth Grinstead's Timeline

Warwick, Virginia
January 20, 1651
Age 21
Northumberland, Virginia, United States
January 20, 1655
Age 25
Northumberland County, Virginia, USA
Age 25
Northumberland, Virginia, United States