The spelling varies in many ways. The most common spelling today
is Grinstead and nearly all Grinsteads descend from William Grinstead I and
Elizabeth Key in Northumberland County, Virginia - in particular those in
Jennings County and in Warren and Barren counties in Kentucky. The latter is
my line, but they all are related.
Interesting trivia - perhaps our most
famous cousin is actor Johnny Depp of Owensboro, Ky. He's my fifth cousin once
removed. His grandmother was Violet Mattie Grinstead.
Here is a story
I wrote for the Dayton Daily News about the Grinsteads.
Warning: this has
been very controversial and has made some people very unhappy. But it is true
and I have the facts to back it up.
Black ancestry shines new light
For the Dayton Daily
Thursday, January 30, 2003
Website:www.activedayton.com/ddn/epaper/editions/thursday/northwest_24.htmlUntil last year, my only connection with Black History Month was
a fellow genealogist who contacted me because my ancestor had owned her
She wanted to know if I had any of the records. Until then, I
did not even know that an ancestor had owned slaves, but I shouldn't have been
As a genealogy nut since I was a small, I knew my pedigree was
filled with Southerners--white Southerners.
But Black History Month was something that made me a little bit uneasy--would
someone come after me with a lawsuit making me responsible for the sins of my
forefathers? Any celebration of that was for "other" people.
But then I found out about Elizabeth Key.
Elizabeth Key or Kaye was born in 1630 to an unnamed black slave
mother and Thomas Key, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses.
Key represented pre-Revolutionary Warwick County (today's Newport News), but his
wife lived across the James River in Isle of Wight County, where she owned
The Keys were English-born and likely considered "ancient planters," pioneers
who had come to Virginia before 1616, remained for three years, paid their own
passage and survived the Indian massacre of 1622.
At first, Thomas Key tried to deny that he had fathered Elizabeth,
blaming instead an unidentified "Turk." Paternity became an issue years later
when Elizabeth needed to prove in court that her father was a free
A man who knew the family, Nicholas Jurnew, 53, testified in 1655
that he had "heard a flying report at Yorke that Elizabeth a Negro Servant to
the Estate of Col. John Mottrom (deceased) was the Childe of Mr. Kaye but
...Mr. Kaye said that a Turke of Capt. Mathewes was Father to the Girle."
However, paternity was established.
Elizabeth Newman, 80,
testified that "it was a common Fame in Virginia that Elizabeth a Molletto,
now(e) servant to the Estate of Col. John Mottrom, deceased, was the Daughter
of Mr. Kaye; and the said Kaye was brought to Blunt-Point Court and there fined
for getting his Negro woman with Childe,which said Negroe was the Mother of
the said Molletto, and the said fine was for getting the Negro with Childe which
Childe was the said Elizabeth."
The court documents are pretty dramatic--and sometimes graphic--reading.
"The deposition of Alice Larrett aged 38 yeares or thereabouts Sworne and
Examined Sayth that Elizabeth ...twenty five yeares of age or thereabouts and that
I saw her mother goe to bed to her Master many times and that I heard her mother
that she was Mr. Keyes daughter."
Once paternity was established, Key didn't try to duck his duty again. Elizabeth,
who was referred to as "Black Besse" in various legal documents of the period, was
baptized in the Church of England. Sometime before his death in 1636, Key put
Elizabeth in the custody of her godfather, Humphrey Higginson. Higginson was
required to care for her as his own child and set her free in nine years when she
was 15 years old.
At this time, both black and white servants were likely to be indentured for
a period of years and it was common for them to get their freedom. In Elizabeth's
case, her father did not intend for her to be kept as a slave, but for Higginson to
be her guardian until she was of age.
It's not clear what happened, but Higginson did not keep his promise. He was
obligated not only to care for her, but to take her with him if he were to return
to England. And he did return to England, but left Elizabeth behind and in the
ownership of a Col. John Mottram, Northumberland County's first settler.
Elizabeth, at age 10 in about 1640, was one of the first non-native settlers
in the wilderness of Northumberland County. Her future changed dramatically as
Mottram took her 90 miles away from her birthplace to be a servant. She may have
never seen her mother again. She was without a contract and, conceivably, could be
a slave forever.
There is no record of Elizabeth's life for about the next 15 years, but beginning
in 1650 events unfolded that would change Elizabeth's life forever and make her a figure
in American history.
That year, Mottram 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 for six years.
Among those indentures was 16-year-old William Grinstead, a young lawyer. Although
Grinstead's parents aren't known, it's likely that he was a younger son of an attorney
who learned his father's trade. Under English common law, only the eldest son could
inherit the father's property, and many younger sons sought their fortunes across the
Mottram soon recognized Grinstead's value and had him represent him in legal matters.
And it was at Coan Hall that Grinstead met Elizabeth Key. They fell in love and had two
sons, John and William, but indentures could not be married. And Elizabeth's future was
uncertain without freedom.
When Mottram died in 1655, Grinstead went to work. He sued the estate for Elizabeth's
freedom. She had been a servant for 19 years--15 for Mottram.
The court granted her freedom, but the decision was appealed to a higher court, which
overturned the decision and ruled that Elizabeth was a slave.
Grinstead took the case to the Virginia General Assembly, which appointed a committee
to investigate and decided to send the case back to the courts for retrial.
Elizabeth finally won her freedom on three counts. By English common law, the status of
the father determined the status of the child. As Elizabeth's father was
free, she was also set free.
In addition to Elizabeth's father's status as a free man, she was a baptized Christian.
A Christian could not be held in slavery. Beside that, her indenture was for nine years
and she had served twice that long.
She not only gained her freedom, but the court ordered Mottram's estate to compensate
her with corn and clothes for her lost years.
When William won the court battle for Elizabeth's freedom, they were not free to marry,
as he was still a servant himself. They had to wait until he completed his indenture in 1656.
In a bitter turn of history for many, the slave paternity law was changed in 1662. The
rewritten law said the mother's status--slave or free--determined the status of a child.
Starting in 1667, being a Christian did not save black Americans from slavery.
Elizabeth slipped under the wire. And she had a very good lawyer.
I am proud that the subjects of this beautiful love story are my seventh great-grandparents.
My great-great-grandmother was Naomi Grinstead, Elizabeth and William's great-great-great-granddaughter.
Some don't think I should tell this story. They bring up the "one drop of blood" rule--that
one drop of black blood makes you black.
As the poet Langston Hughes said, "Negro blood is sure powerful--because just one drop of
black blood makes a colored man. One drop--you are a Negro!"
If that's the case, my family has "passed" for so long they didn't even know they were black!
And I bet we aren't so unusual, either.
Martha Hardcastle, 44, is a free-lance writer for the Dayton Daily News and an avid genealogist.
TO LEARN MORE:
sources for this column include:
Records of Northumberland County,
Virginia: I used the records for 1652-1665. The records are available online
through the University of Chicago at classweb.uchicago.edu/Civilization/American/Supp135/AfricansVA.html
An article by Frontline called The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families is
available at www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/secret/famous/greenstead.html
Web site: Lita Macasieb's `A Generation of Secrets' is at
home.pacbell.net/ibgidget/family.html. Lita's husband, Jerry Wilcox, is a
distant Grinstead cousin.
Copyright © 2003, Cox Ohio Publishing. All
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