Ornamental Separator

Abigail Briggs: An Indigenous Woman in a White Court



[Note: this page describes a sexual assault and reproduces offensive eighteenth-century language about Native people.]

Abigail Briggs lifted her gaze and met the eyes of her employer Martha Sturges. On the stone floor, an enslaved man named Dick lay bleeding. Briggs gripped a wooden pestle in her hand. She was protecting herself, she would later protest, against an attempted rape. Sturges did not believe her.1

Briggs was an Indigenous Gingaskin woman from the eastern shore of Virginia. She worked as a free servant in the Sturges household. Based on the testimony of the Sturges family, a jury found Briggs guilty of murder in Virginia’s highest court in April 1765. Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier asked the king for a pardon, explaining, “had she been a white woman, the Jury would have altered their Verdict to that of Manslaughter.”2



What did Fauquier mean? Briggs’s trial and pardon occurred amid a period of violence along Virginia’s western borders. Settlers were moving west, causing a rise in racial violence against Native people in Virginia. Fauquier suspected that Briggs was a victim of growing racial prejudice against Native people. Months later, on Fauquier’s recommendation, King George III pardoned her. Briggs left prison after about fifteen months, likely making her Williamsburg’s longest-serving female prisoner.

The Public Jail

She “said she was not Guilty.” That is all that is recorded of Briggs’s plea when she first appeared in court on October 30, 1764. The Accomack County Court disagreed. After examining “sundry witnesses,” the court determined that she was guilty, and ordered her to be tried at a court in Williamsburg.3 Early the next month, Briggs arrived at the public jail (sometimes called the “gaol”) in Williamsburg.



The wheels of justice ground slowly for Abigail Briggs. Her first court date was set for December 1764. But Martha Sturges was unable to attend the court. Since her presence was essential to the proceedings, the court delayed the trial until April. That delay meant several cold months for Briggs in the Williamsburg public jail.



The jail stood in disrepair when Briggs arrived. She might have witnessed the arrival of a delegation of Burgesses inspecting its conditions in December. They concluded that the jail was “much out of Repair” and sent a workman. It was under construction until May 1765.4 Cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and full of disease, the Williamsburg jail was uncomfortable in the best of times. But whatever peace Briggs might have wished for would have been stolen by the echoes of the workman’s hammer.

The Trial

In April, Briggs walked into a crowded courtroom. She stood before a jury of twelve white property-owning men. On the bench sat the colony’s Council, another group of as many as twelve white men, as well as the colony’s most powerful man, Lieutenant-Governor Francis Fauquier. Abigail may have been alone. She may have requested a lawyer. But either way, she was outnumbered. 5

Fauquier’s account of this trial is the only one that survives. According to him, everyone agreed on a few basic facts: Briggs and Dick both served in the Sturges household. Prior to the fatal incident, they were alone in the kitchen. Abigail had struck him “with the pestle of a Mortar which was of Wood.” Hearing the commotion, Martha Sturges had arrived to find Dick laying lifeless, with Abigail holding the apparent murder weapon. 6



But Briggs claimed that she had only defended herself from sexual violence. She had grabbed the pestle, Fauquier wrote, because it was “the first Thing she could lay her hands on,” to protect herself from “the Assault of her fellow Servant.”7 This was Fauquier’s only attempt to paraphrase Briggs’s testimony, perhaps because it was the only matter in dispute.

Fauquier’s description of the trial notes two additional details. The kitchen floor was made of stone, so it was unclear “whether the Skull was fractured by the blow or the fall.” And Dick had “the Character of being quarrelsome” while Briggs was known as “a quiet woman.” We don’t know what evidence the court heard about Dick’s “quarrelsome” reputation, but this description aligned with existing stereotypes that labeled Black men as aggressive and violent. These details, among others, inclined Fauquier toward mercy.8

But the jury was unconvinced. Instead of manslaughter, they found Briggs guilty of murder, which carried a sentence of execution.

Summer

Briggs’s trial troubled Fauquier. He delayed signing Briggs’s death warrant. And so she sat in the Williamsburg jail awaiting her fate. As the summer heat came and the air stagnated in the jail, an “offensive smell” would have hung over her. 9



Fauquier was distracted. Just after Briggs’s trial, Williamsburg exploded with anger at news of the passage of the Stamp Act. At the same time, Virginia’s frontiers had erupted with violence. For years, colonists had streamed into Native lands west of the Appalachians. In August 1763, a confederation of Native nations attacked some of these western settlements in what became known as Pontiac’s Rebellion. This sparked a wave of raids and reprisals. Hoping to avoid a costly war, British leaders tried to restrain colonists from settling west of the Appalachians.10 Nevertheless, violence continued to escalate. 11

About a month after Briggs’s trial, a mob of white settlers attacked and killed a peaceful party of Cherokee people traveling through Virginia. Four were killed. On May 13, a few weeks after Briggs’s trial, Fauquier issued a proclamation calling for the arrest of these “atrocious Violators of the Laws.”12 Trying to keep peace, Fauquier promised Cherokee leaders that the murderers would be treated exactly “as if they had killed white men.” He even hoped to invite Cherokee “Chiefs to be witnesses of the Execution.”13

But when some of the attackers were jailed, a mob freed them. Fauquier wrote that these settlers would ensure that “no Man shall suffer for the Murder of a Savage.”14

“had she been a white woman”: The Pardon

Fauquier kept his superiors updated about these grim events. In a letter dated August 1, he described how a group of white settlers threatened to attack a Cherokee diplomat who was leaving Williamsburg. To this report, he appended a request for a royal pardon for Briggs. He may have mentally linked the injustice of Briggs’s case to the settlers’ extrajudicial actions. After describing the case in detail, he added, “I am fully perswaded, that had she been a white woman, the Jury would have altered their Verdict to that of Manslaughter.” He noted that the other members of the Council agreed with him. 15



According to Briggs, the crime that had occurred was not a murder but an attempted rape. In eighteenth-century courts, the racial identity of both the accuser and the accused significantly shaped the outcomes of sexual assault cases. Rape cases were more likely to go to trial if the accuser was a white woman. Additionally, Black men accused of rape were more likely than accused white men to be convicted and executed. 16

When Fauquier wrote that Briggs’s jury would have reduced her sentence to manslaughter “had she been a white woman,” he indicated that he believed racial prejudice had led the jury to distrust her account of a sexual assault. He had recently seen white settlers openly kill Cherokee people and free some of the perpetrators from jail. Perhaps in Fauquier’s eyes, his pardon could begin to balance the scales of justice.

Release



Fauquier sent the pardon request on August 1. The pardon was signed in October 1765, sent to Fauquier a month later, and received by April 1766.17 Because of the delays involved in her trial, Fauquier’s indecision, and the long process of communicating with London, she was in custody from the fall of 1764 until the spring of 1766.

When Briggs was first imprisoned, imperial authority was assured. By the time she left, it was shaken. The crisis that would become the American Revolution had begun. In a decade, a British colonial system that sought coexistence with Native nations was replaced by a new government whose policies routinely encouraged violence against Native people.

After the revolution, Native people like Abigail Briggs could no longer win royal pardons. We know nothing of her life after the jail. But when she left its doors, a new world awaited her.

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Sources

  1. This account of the enslaved man Dick’s death is based on the only known description of that event, in Francis Fauquier’s account of Abigail Briggs’s trial. Fauquier describes Sturges as testifying “against” Briggs, indicating that her testimony likely did not support Briggs’ account of events. See Francis Fauquier to Board of Trade, Aug. 1, 1765, in The Official papers of Francis Fauquier, Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, 1758–1768 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983), 3:1265–67. Little is known about Martha Sturges (or Sturgis). Court records indicate that Josiah and Adah Sturges were compensated for appearing at the Williamsburg court. A 1767 Accomack County will for Adah Sturges indicates that Martha was Adah’s daughter. At the time of her death, Adah enslaved at least three people, named Janey, Isaac, and Adam. See “Wills, deeds, and orders (Accomack County, Virginia)” (1767–1777), p. 88–89, FamilySearch.
  2. Official papers of Francis Fauquier, 3:1265–67.
  3. Accomack County Court records. Full text available online through the Geography of Slavery website.
  4. John Pendleton Kennedy, ed., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1761–1765 (Richmond: Colonial Press, 1907), 282, 305, 337.
  5. Hugh F. Rankin, “General Court Proceedings—Criminal Trials,” p. 11–23, in Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library.
  6. Fauquier to Board of Trade, Aug. 1, 1765, in Official papers of Francis Fauquier, 3:1265–67.
  7. Fauquier to Board of Trade, Aug. 1, 1765, in Official papers of Francis Fauquier, 3:1265–67.
  8. Fauquier to Board of Trade, Aug. 1, 1765, in Official papers of Francis Fauquier, 3:1265–67. Scholars have shown that mythologies of Black violence and criminality circulated in the print culture of eighteenth-century America. See Richard Slotkin, “Narratives of Negro Crime in New England, 1765–1800,” American Quarterly 25 (1973): 3–31; Daniel Williams, “The Gratification of That Corrupt and Lawless Passion: Character Types and Themes in Early New England Rape Narratives,” A Mixed Race: Ethnicity in Early America, ed. Frank Shuffelton (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 194–221; Brian Baaki, “Circulating the Black Rapist: Sketches of the Life of Joseph Mountain and Early American Networks of Print,” New England Quarterly 90, no. 1 (March 2017): 36–68.
  9. A committee investigating the conditions in the public jail in 1776 noted that it was “badly planned and situated for the purpose of admitting free air,” which hemmed in an “offensive smell.” Peter Force, American Archives, vol. 4 (Washington, D.C.: M. St. Clair Clarke and Peter Force, 1846), 1553.
  10. Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1999), ch. 1.
  11. William R. Nester, “Haughty Conquerors”: Amherst and the Great Indian Uprising of 1763 (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2000), 194.
  12. Proclamation of May 14, 1765, in Official papers of Francis Fauquier, 3:1237. The full text is available through the Library of Congress.
  13. Official papers of Francis Fauquier, 3:1241, 1244.
  14. Francis Fauquier to Thomas Gage, July 6, 1765, in Official papers of Francis Fauquier, 3:1261. Thomas Gage repeated a version of this point in a letter to London which noted “the People of the Frontiers from Pennsylvania to Virginia inclusive, openly avow, that they will never find a man guilty of Murther [murder] for killing an Indian.” Thomas Gage to the Earl of Shelburne, Oct. 10, 1767, Colonial Office (CO) 5/85.
  15. Official papers of Francis Fauquier, 3:1267.
  16. Philip J. Schwarz, Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 155–56, 60–61; Diane Miller Somerville, “Rape, Race, and Castration in Slave Law in the Colonial and Early South,” in Catherine Clinton and Michele Gillespie, eds., The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 82; Sharon Block, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2006), ch. 5.
  17. Official papers of Francis Fauquier, 3:1302–3, 3:1352–54.

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