On Robert Sweat

Sluggo of Snail Races asks below in the comments what I might know about Robert Sweat. I really appreciate the question, and I’m flattered that Sluggo thinks I might be able to say something about him. So, direct from Chapter Four, everything I know about Robert Sweat:

In October 1640 Robert Sweat and an unnamed African woman were convicted of fornication. While Robert was sentenced to “do public penance for his offense at James City church in the time of devine service according to the laws of England,” the anonymous woman was publicly whipped. Which was the more humiliating punishment is an open and possibly unanswerable question. It is likely, though, that Sweat’s partner was not Christian and therefore not eligible to be punished by begging forgiveness before the congregation.

Part of my work for Chapter Four deals with the variety of punishments for interracial fornication prior to 1662, when a new law explicitly penalizing interracial sex went into effect. So, I was interested by Robert Sweat’s punishment because he got to do penance in church and his black partner was whipped. I infer a religious demarcation there. Why, you ask? A fair question; keep reading.

Sluggo points me to a resource on African-American genealogy. I didn’t know about this website before; it has some great information in it. This is what it has to say about Robert Sweat:

Robert Sweat, born say 1610, was made to do public penance during divine service at James City Church, James City Parish, Virginia, on 17 October 1640 because he “hath begotten with Child a negro woman servant belonging unto Lieutenant Sheppard” [McIlwaine, Minutes of the Council, 477]. He may have been identical to or the son of Robert Sweete, Gentleman, who was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses [McIlwaine, Journals of the House of Burgesses, I:ix, 51]. And the “negro woman servant” may not have been a slave. The courts also referred to indentured white servants as belonging to their masters. She may have been Margaret Cornish.

I agree–Sweat’s partner might not have been considered a slave. The legal status of Africans and African-Americans in very early Virginia was in a state of flux. Black people were often treated like indentured servants and earned their freedom, like English servants, after a certain period of time. But, then again, she might have been a slave. Clues to this: she is unnamed, and she is unpunished. Both circumstances suggest a person under the complete control of her master–a slave, not a servant with other connections to the community who could be punished for a violation of the community moral standard. This is why I’m not sure we can put a name to her. I also looked up the Cornish family history on this website, and the links between Robert Sweat, our punished fornicator, and the Margaret Cornish of Surry County look pretty tenuous to me. I’d have to read again in the Surry Records to be sure, but something just doesn’t seem right there. I’ve looked in the Surry records I transcribed, and I have nothing about a free black family associated with the name Cornish. Although I’ll qualify that statement–that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. All it means is that I didn’t see it when I worked in the Surry County Court Records. (The Surry records are notoriously damaged in the 1650s as well which makes it harder to rely on them for anything.)

So that leaves me back with my original information about Robert Sweat and his unnamed partner. I suspect her name wasn’t Margaret Cornish also because she was not allowed to stand penance like Sweat. In my experience with early court records, African women were named when they were to be punished, because they were servants, and because they were Christian. So, in a similar case in 1649 (and again, coming to you straight from Chapter Four)

Another Anglo-African fornication case occurred in 1649 and was punished quite differently. One Will Watts, presumably an Englishman, and Mary, “Mr Cornelius Lloyd’s negar woman,” were required to acknowledge their fornication by standing before the congregation of Elizabeth River Parish swathed in white sheets and carrying a white rod on the Sabbath. In this case, a white man and a black woman were punished together and equally, in the church, for their offense. The case implies that Mary was in some way a member of the congregation, as does the fact that she had a Christian name.

The name “Margaret Cornish” suggests to me a person who is both Christian and connected with an English family name, and therefore probably free. Had she been Robert Sweat’s partner, I think it likely that she would have been punished along with him. Sweat’s paramour, at least in this case, is probably someone else.

And, as always with early Virginia records, a caveat: my conjecture is based on lots of time with these records, but as always, is just an interpretation, open to argument and, in the presence of more documents, correction!

sources: Robert Sweat, McIlwaine, Conway Robinson’s Notes, Minutes of the Council, 477. Will Watts and Mary, Lower Norfolk Wills and Deeds, (1646-1651), fol. 106.


9 thoughts on “

  1. thanks for taking the time to look into this… ain’t the internets grand?I of course will be using this info for my own genealogy research, and will be glad to have an actual scholar cited.Any good popular histories of Surry Co. or the area you might recommend? Haven’t done much reading on Virginia yet, most of my lines are New England.

  2. I don’t understand how anyone could object to academic blogging when such sharing of information is the result. As they used to say at a little school in Texas, “we are better together.”

  3. First I want to address that word “negar woman” that is what is wrong with History today It’s changed to make those who rapped, killed and oppressedIndians Blackssome kind of Heros they are NOT!!!!.That woman who you speak of was tied to a whipping post and wipped, because she concieved by that Robert Sweat, she was a slavewhat else was a Black Woman in 1610. Not a lady? she was rapped by him did you know that It was okay by their laws that you could take a Black woman and mke her a concubine. what does that tell you and Columbus should not be celebrated on any day of the calander he was a tyrant!!!!

  4. I am descended from Margaret Cornish & John Gowen. Margaret & Robert Sweet continued their relationship despite the earlier punishment. Margaret bore Robert 3 sons and a daughter. John Gowen sought custody of his son Mikhail, also a servant of the Sheppards. John won custody of his son as a result.

  5. Margaret Cornish and Robert Sweat were my ancestors and I am heartbroken that she was whipprd for what she did, but It was what happened in those times I suppose

  6. After thousands of hours of research into my husband's genealogy, I discovered Margaret Cornish. Three years and four edits later, I have written a Histotical Novel. "Fate & Freedom, a Destiny Discovered in Jamestown, Virginia." The manuscript follows Margaret Cornish from a young child of eitht,in her African homeland, to her entangled fate which she finds in the young Colony of Virginia. (1619-1641) Publish date: Fall 2012. I am currently working on the second of the series which will follow her life from 1641-1670.

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