Friday, February 13, 2009

Interracial Relationships in Colonial America

Interracial marriage and relationships are no longer generally frowned upon in our society and is, according to statistics, becoming commonplace since the 1967 US Supreme Court ruling that effectively ended anti-miscegenation laws (Interracial Marriage Flourishes in the US). This current freedom to choose our partners that we now enjoy has come a long way to be possible and was very rare in colonial history. The embarrassment of our nation, racism, made the idea of marrying outside of one’s race socially taboo.

Pocahontas in London

However, despite society’s disapproval, some brave souls still ventured to choose their personal happiness and risked social isolation. One of the most popular and earliest recorded interracial marriage is that of Matoaka, more popularly known as Pocahontas, and John Rolfe, an English settler best remembered for having introduced tobacco as a commercial crop to Virginia colonists. The marriage between the Indian princess and the wealthy colonist was seen as a symbol of Anglo-Indian harmony and missionary success (Foner 44).

This marriage was indeed extraordinary, different races notwithstanding. The relationship between the Powhatans and the English colonists was tension-wrought. The first two years of Jamestown’s existence was a mostly peaceful and fairly give-and-take relationship between the English and the Indians (Foner 44). But in 1608, according to John Smith, he and two of his companions were ambushed by Indians. After killing his two companions, the Indians took Smith to their chief, Powhatan. A firm friendship was established between the Indian princess and John Smith when the then 12-year-old Pocahontas threw herself between Smith and his attackers in a ritual ceremony (Captain John Smith is Saved by Pocahontas, 1608). She came back and forth to the colony (sometimes bringing food) and became the liaison between settlers and Indians even though the relationship between the two groups was hostile at times. Pocahontas fell out of contact with the colonists when John Smith returned to England after being seriously wounded in 1609.(John Smith and Pocahontas Were Just Friends. Really.)

In the summer of 1610, some of the starving settlers ran to the Indians to be fed. When the summer came, the governor asked the Powhatans to return the runaways and received “disdainful” replies. As a result, the English launched an attack for revenge. They killed fifteen or sixteen Indians, burned houses, cut down the corn growing around the village, took the queen of the tribe and her children into boats, threw the children into the water and shot them in the head, and stabbed the queen to death. (Zinn 12)

Pocahontas was kidnapped by the settlers in 1613. She was brought to Jamestown and used as a political pawn in negotiations with her father. During this time she was taken to the City of Henricus for religious instruction. Pocahontas became the first Native American in Virginia to convert to Christianity. She was baptized an Anglican and given the name Rebecca. She then married John Rolfe, bringing peace between the English and the Powhatan tribes. (Four Faces of Pocahontas)

This kind of marriage, however, is singular that it was generally exalted by the English. The marriage between Pocahontas and John Rolfe is almost unique. No such mixed marriage took place in 17th century Massachusetts and only two more in Virginia before the legislature outlawed the practice in 1691 (Foner 40). One can argue that the cause for celebration is more for economic reasons than the intermixing of two cultures as the Virginia Company sought to present Jamestown as a palatable place to live. The presentation of Pocahontas to the court of James I seems like a testimony that Indians can be tamed, that they can be convinced to adapt the Europeans’ idea of civilization.

On the other side of interracial relationships are the numerous affairs between the Europeans (slave owners and servants alike) and slaves. Anti-black stereotypes flourished in 17th century England. Africans were seen as very alien – in color, religion and social practices (Foner 50). The government punished premarital sex more severely between Africans and Europeans than the same acts involving two white persons but blacks and whites still sometimes ran away together and established intimate relationships (Foner 52). Skin color seemed to not matter when the very human need for mating is involved. As evidence, the mestizos (persons of mixed origins) grew in number and actually repopulated the Valley of Mexico, where disease had decimated the original inhabitants (Foner 12). Mulattoes, who are the product of the sexual liaisons between white owners and slave women (Foner 122), had to suffer with the consequences of a 1662 anti-miscegenation Virginia law which provided that in the case of a child one of whose parents was free and one slave, the status of the offspring followed that of the mother (Foner 52).

In New France, the métis, or children of marriages between Indian and French, who seemed more willing to accept Indians as part of colonial society than the English colonizers, became guides, traders and interpreters (Foner 78). Creoles (slaves born in the New World) (Foner 120) were often given their freedom either upon the death of the father or while still young. Although they did not have all of the rights of their white counterparts, many free people of color prospered in 19th century New Orleans (Creole History 2). To regulate relations between slaves and colonists, the Louisiana Code Noir, or slave code, based largely on that compiled in 1685 for the French Caribbean colonies, was introduced in 1724 and remained in force until the United States took possession of Louisiana in 1803 (Louisiana’s Code Noir 1724).

As it was now illegal for a woman of color to marry a white man, an extra legal system known as plaçage started to take place. It is an arrangement between a free woman of color and a white “protector.” The women (or placées), usually renowned for beauty, were presented at "Quadroon" balls, similar to today’s debutante affairs. Chaperoned by the girl's mother and other relatives, these balls allowed meetings between potential protectors and the lovely women. After dancing with a man, if the girl was attracted to the gentleman, he would be allowed to speak with her mother to see if a suitable arrangement could be made. He had to be able to provide her a home, which she would own. The home would be furnished and supplied with servants. All children of the union would have to be well provided for and educated. Children were often left substantial inheritances from both their fathers and mothers. These unions would often last for the lifetime of both parties or would end upon the marriage of the man (Creole History 2). It seems to be a romantic kind of concubinage, but is yet just another example of how racism causes indignity to people perceived as lower class.

Perhaps the most controversial master-slave affair in history is that of Thomas Jefferson’s and Sally Hemings’. More than 20 years b

Caricature of Thomas Jefferson and
Sally Hemings

efore his death, reports had begun circulating of a long-term relationship between Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally (
Thomas Jefferson, History Encyclopedia). She was a slave inherited by Thomas Jefferson’s wife and was said to be the illegitimate child of John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson's father-in-law.

In 1787, fourteen-year-old Sally and eight-year-old Mary Jefferson joined America’s third president in France. While in Paris, she undoubtedly received training -- especially in needlework and the care of clothing -- to suit her for her position as lady's maid to Jefferson's daughters. She was occasionally paid a monthly wage of twelve livres (the equivalent of two dollars). After the family's return to Virginia in 1789, Sally Hemings remained at Monticello, where she performed the duties of a household servant and lady's maid (Sally Hemings, Monticello).

In September 1802, political journalist James T. Callender, a disappointed office-seeker who had once been an ally of Jefferson, wrote in a Richmond newspaper that Jefferson had for many years "kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves." Callender continued, "Her name is Sally," adding that Jefferson had "several children" by her.

Although there had been rumors of a sexual relationship between Jefferson and a slave before 1802, Callender's article spread the story widely. It was taken up by Jefferson's Federalist opponents and was published in many newspapers during the remainder of Jefferson's presidency.

Jefferson's policy was to offer no public response to personal attacks, and he apparently made no explicit public or private comment on this question (although a private letter of 1805 has been interpreted by some individuals as a denial of the story). Sally Hemings left no known accounts. (Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account)

The interest of the American public, then and now, is piqued. Needless to say, an interracial relationship between a prominent white man, one of the founders of our country, and a mulatto slave, who could have been his wife’s half-sister, that occurred during the height of slavery and race divisions is really truly spellbinding.

The difference between the two relationships is quite stark. They happened but 200 years apart but the reaction of the public is vastly different. Pocahontas’ marriage to John Rolfe was seen as a successful attempt at assimilation, while Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings were seen as a scandal, something which Jefferson’s opponents used to attack him. The inequality of the treatment of Sally Hemings compared to the treatment of Pocahontas is hard to miss. Pocahontas created a sensation in James I’s court, while Sally Hemings became a slave yet again. One can argue that the relationship between Jefferson and Sally was a scandal because of the lack of marriage but I think it is further exacerbated that it just so happened that the modern concept of race had not fully developed until after the 17th century (Foner 50), a century after Pocahontas’ marriage and a century earlier than the rumored affair of Sally Hemings.

Considering all the inequality and the harsh treatment and judgment that have accompanied interracial relationships throughout history, it is somewhat surprising how the United States have progressed with this issue. Although it is a far stretch to say that everybody in this country is accepting of the idea of mixing of the races, the mere fact that people of mixed heritage are no longer condemned to indignities and degradations that come with racial bias is promising. I hope that we really did learn from our ancestors’ mistake and live in a country where equality and tolerance are celebrated.


“Interracial Marriage Flourishes in the US.” The Associated Press.
15 Apr. 2007. 6 Feb. 2009 <>.

"Captain John Smith is Saved by Pocahontas, 1608." 2003. EyeWitness to History.
6 Feb. 2009 <>.

Vogel, Steve. “John Smith and Pocahontas Were Just Friends. Really.” The Washington Post 9 May 2007: H03. The Washington Post. 6 Feb. 2009 <>.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States (1492 – Present). New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.

“Four Faces of Pocahontas.” Henrico County Virginia History. Henrico County Virginia.
6 Feb. 2009. <>.

Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty!: An American History, Seagull Edition, Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006, 2005

“Louisiana’s Code Noir (1724).”
6 Feb. 2009. <>.

“Creole History.” Creole History.
5 Feb. 2009. <>.

"Jefferson, Thomas." 2009. The History Channel website.
7 Feb 2009. <>.

“Sally Hemings (1773 – 1835).”
8 Feb. 2009. <>.

“Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account.”
8 Feb. 2009. <>.

Image sources:

Unidentified artist. Pocahontas portrait after the 1616 engraving by Simon van de Passe.Oil on canvas, after 1616. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

A Philosophic Cock. Caricature. 13 Feb. 2009 <>.


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