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Virginia Women in History - Southwest Virginia Region
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This is a contributing entry for Virginia Women in History - Southwest Virginia Region and only appears as part of that tour.Learn More.
The granddaughter of an illegally enslaved Indian woman, Rachel Findlay successfully sued for her freedom in the Wythe County Court and ensured the freedom of many of her descendants. The current Wythe County court house was built in 1902, eighty-nine years after her suit.

  • Verdict awarding Rachel Findlay her freedom, May 13, 1820, Powhatan County (Va.) Judgments (Freedom Suits), 1807-1844, image courtesy of the  Library of Virginia.
  • The Library of Virginia honored Rachel Findlay as one of its Virginia Women in History in 2014.
  • The Virginia Women in History Digital Trail is made possible by the Library of Virginia and American Evolution: Virginia to America, 1619–2019.
Rachel Findlay (ca. 1750–after August 17, 1820) was born into slavery early in the 1750s in the part of Virginia that later became Powhatan County. Her maternal grandmother was an illegally enslaved Indian woman and her mother possibly had both Indian and African ancestry. Virginia law dictated that the children of enslaved women were also slaves, so she and her children were born enslaved. Early in the 1770s Findlay, her brother Samuel, and her young daughter sued their owner, Thomas Clay, on the grounds that because their grandmother's enslavement was illegal, they were also illegally enslaved. The General Court ruled in May 1773 that they were free, but the Clay family sent Findlay and her daughter west before the court reached its verdict and in 1774 sold them to John Draper. He and his family held them in slavery in Wythe County.

In 1813, Rachel Findlay filed suit in the Wythe County Court to obtain the freedom to which she had been legally entitled but had never enjoyed. After seven years of delays and difficulties and the transfer of the case to the Powhatan County Court, she again won freedom for herself on May 13, 1820. Findlay's approximately forty children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were therefore legally entitled to become free, too. Several of them successfully sued for their freedom, but others may have never known about the suit and its outcome. Findlay became free, but how long she lived as a free person is not known.

Reprinted with permission of the Library of Virginia.