Runaway slave Elizabeth found freedom, family, and equality when she was adopted into the Shawnee tribe. After ten years, she returned to slavery. Hope Smith shares the heartbreaking story behind this selfless act.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. Williamsburg in the 1700s was an intersection where three cultures met. English colonists, Africans and Native Americans found themselves living in close proximity. It wasn't always an easy coexistence.
Historic interpreter Hope Smith is our guest today to share the story of Elizabeth, an African American woman who came to live among the Shawnee. Hope, thank you for being here today.
Hope Smith: Thank you for having me, Harmony.
Harmony: What an interesting moment in history. We have an African American woman of the colonial period who is adopted into the Shawnee tribe. What's her story?
Hope: Well we know that this woman was a runaway at some point in the 1760s. The thought is that she followed the Kanawah River in the West until she came upon the Shawnee. Upon her arrival and introduction to the tribe, they adopted her into the tribe and she lived amongst them for approximately ten years or so and then a circumstance led to her being returned to her mistress.
Harmony: What would her life have been like, the one that she was fleeing, where she was a slave?
Hope: If she was on the western territories, it probably would have been one of isolation. We don't know a lot about her master, her mistress, the people that owned her, but when you look more toward the west you're seeing people owning fewer slaves. You're not going to be close to a larger city like Williamsburg, which we're accustomed to, which lends itself to community amongst the enslaved with the city being over half black.
The labor could have included everything from working in the field. She might have been responsible for cooking, laundry, keeping up the house. She probably did all of those sorts of things and not just the field labor would have been hard labor, but just getting food to the table would have been hard labor. Getting clean clothes would have been hard labor. So this is probably the life that she left behind. It probably would have been a life of isolation, a life of hard labor.
Harmony: And we're at a point in time with Elizabeth's story that is before the Revolution and there is a lot of activity happening between the colonial presence and the Native American presence and some early efforts at diplomacy, treaty, warfare. What's the climate like, then, that brings the Shawnees and Elizabeth together?
Hope: When Elizabeth runs, it would be a little bit closer to the end of the French and Indian War. So treaties have been established and I guess it's the point of actually seeing how these words on paper translate to being lived out. But as Elizabeth remains with the Shawnee and is eventually returned to her master and her mistress, it has intensified. It's after Lord Dunmore's War in the West and the Ohio territory in 1774 so she's seen relations go from tenuous at best to being very volatile.
Harmony: What an extraordinary story though. She's adopted into the Shawnee Tribe?
Hope: Yes she is.
Harmony: What do we know about what happened to her as she became part of that tribe?
Hope: Well we know that the Shawnee, as with a lot of Native American groups, would adopt whites, blacks, sometimes Native Americans from other groups into their tribe. Once you're adopted into the group you're considered fully a part of that group. With Elizabeth's initiation and looking at what was typical of the Shawnee at the time, she essentially runs through a gauntlet of women and children where she is ceremonialy struck with switches. So it's not anything that would have physically harmed her or scarred her.
After that, the women would then take her, paint her, and then remove the paint from her body and she would be considered Shawnee. At that point in time it would have been as if she was born a Shawnee. While living with the Shawnee, she would see not only a type of equality that she wouldn't have known as an enslaved woman, but something that even her mistress would not have known as a free white woman, where she would be a part of, of council and sit in on groups that made decisions about the tribe, about things that they would do, about things that would affect the community.
Harmony: Because in the Shawnee culture, females held a much higher status than women in the European culture.
Hope: Definitely. There was an equal status. There were still definitely still gender roles, but woman were valued for their opinions when it did come to things like politics or warfare, those sorts of things.
Harmony: She also took a husband?
Hope: She did, she did. She marries a Shawnee man and then she has two children with this man.
Harmony: So this is privilege that she could never have hoped to enjoy if she had stayed in her old life; she gets to have her children with her and live as part of a family unit.
Hope: Exactly. She would have a legal marriage and these children would be considered hers. We know that enslaved people are marrying. Jumping the broom is probably one of the most common and other types of ceremonies, but in the eyes of the law, they would be considered property. Owners did not have to consider those attachments when they sold people or when they transferred people or when they, I guess, wrote wills or wanted to give certain people away.
Also, one of the very early slave laws established that the status of the child is that of the mother. So if she's having children, she's also increasing the property of her owner so it would be more stability with this Shawnee marriage and with her Shawnee family.
Harmony: Because we know that in colonial Virginia families, husbands and wives are often separated, children are sold away from their parents and their siblings. This sounds like she's found the best possible existence that people could hope for in the colonial period. Why did she have to go back?
Hope: Well at the end of Lord Dunmore's War, the Shawnee were defeated and they're trying to settle the terms of the war, of peace. A part of the negotiation has basically whites that had lost their enslaved individuals to the Shawnee demanding the return of them. There are also, interestingly enough, were whites who had been adopted into the tribe too who weren't obviously enslaved, but their families wanted them returned. But with the slaves, there is a back and forth where the Shawnee say, "We've told these people that they have to leave," but they can't do anything to enforce.
And eventually, it is decided that Elizabeth will return. Her children will remain and other enslaved individuals will be able to remain behind so it's thought that if she returns that would satisfy the demands for the slaves being returned. The comment also as you're looking at the negotiation is that "Well, she's young enough, she can have more children." Because the owner demanded those two children that Elizabeth had with her husband back.
The Shawnee, Cornstalk and other leaders that are negotiating say, "No, they've been born Shawnee, they have never known slavery. They've only known freedom so we can't send them back. Their father is Shawnee." And then you look at the language and it says, "Well, the woman will return and she's young enough, well she will have two children and probably more." So it was a sacrifice to give her children hopefully a life where they wouldn't be threatened with being returned to slavery; a life that she had enjoyed for about ten years.
Harmony: Elizabeth is an enslaved African. She's a woman, and she's also a runaway so she's a fugitive. She might seem like a very powerless character or a very powerless individual, but we know from her story that she used what resources she had, what agency she had, to really sacrifice herself and do a lot of good for other people.
Hope: I think there's always something that you can do despite what the law says. Despite what society says. There is something you can do and she showed bravery on so many fronts. I mean a lot of times when we think about runaways we automatically think about men, but a lot of women are running away and she would have been probably a pretty young woman in her teens, maybe late teens early twenties so to take that step.
Then when she encounters these Shawnee, she's probably heard things about Indians, especially living a little bit to the west she might have heard the attitudes of her master and mistress, but to enter into relationship, to want to be adopted into the tribe and to make the ultimate sacrifice eventually at the end it was a choice to return to enslavement.
But it was a choice for her children so that hopefully they would enjoy a type of freedom that most women would not have enjoyed in this society had they returned; white or black, free or enslaved. So she shows this power and this agency all throughout and this boldness and bravery and the choices that she makes.
Harmony: Is that your favorite thing about Elizabeth as you study her?
Hope: It is. It is. You think about these choices and it's hard to say what you would or wouldn't do if you were to be in that position over 200 years ago, but it's that bravery and that boldness and usually it is that individual bravery and boldness that can change the course of history whether its personal history for one woman or one family or a larger history. It's individuals making those bold and brave choices.
Harmony: Hope, thank you so much for being our guest today and sharing Elizabeth's story.
Hope: You're very welcome. Thank you for having me.