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Christopher Finke HIST 380 TR 11:00am 12:20pm

Finke 2 Breen, T.H. and Stephen Innes. Myne Owne Ground: Race and Freedom On Virginias Eastern Shore, 1640-1676. New York NY: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Myne Owne Ground presents to the reader with information, analysis, and a perspective that is much different from the mainstream. In the study of colonial America one will inevitably take notice of Virginia. However, it is more than likely that this observation will exclude Virginias Eastern Shore. A small geographical area composed of two (sometimes one) county, the Eastern Shores population remained small throughout the 17th century. Even so, these counties had a high percentage of Negro residents. These residents prove to be an exception to the oft thought scenario brought on by slavery. This work by T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes gives the audience a chance to understand the relationships that these blacks had and to show that Virginias Eastern Shore operated much differently than most would expect. The basis of freedom and social status were not based solely on race, as some would have you believe. Breen and Innes push the argument that the foundation of society (including freedoms) was based on property ownership rather than race. The authors take a topical approach to their argument. They begin by giving the story of the most successful free black of Virginias Eastern Shore: Anthony Johnson. Johnson appeared as a servant in the 1625 census, which likely means that he was brought as a lifelong slave.(8) By 1651 he had more than 250 acres of land, livestock, a wife, children, and all the disputes to go with them. (11) Disputes over tax status, the ownership of cattle, and the status of another black man give the local courts record of some of what happened to Johnson over the years. (12-3) In the mid-1660s, Johnson and his family, which could rightly be called a clan by this point, moved out of Virginia and into Maryland. The Johnson narrative is a crucial part of this

Finke 3 monograph because it also acts as an outline for the remainder of the work. The Johnson story outlines the questions of physical relationship, socio-economic relationship, and cultural/interracial relationship that Breen and Innes seek to answer. The authors then go on to address the factors which both effect and are affected by race. Breen and Innes discuss the question of the legal status of blacks in Virginia. In this section they also deliberate, and overcome, three assumptions that are rarely addressed by other authors; the 1860s version of slavery does not necessarily stem directly from the 1660s, race is not the defining reason for the way a person lives, the research into the system of slavery does not equate to research into the lives of individual slaves. (21) The authors then show the reader under what context men like Anthony Johnson lived. Finally, Myne Owne Ground describes the story of free blacks on Virginias Eastern Shoreand show one what foundation colonial freedoms were built. The arguments made by Breen and Innes, though counter to common thinking, are supported well enough to bring the audience to a place where they can begin overturning the misconceptions within their mind. The authors use many specific examples with which they build up their own argument or tearing down well accepted falsehoods. Breen and Innes have no qualms when they make an example of one of the most respected works on American slavery, White Over Black by Winthrop Jordan. One of the claims made in this work is that laws could be extrapolated to represent the ideas of the time and people. (24) Myne Owne Ground shows how limited the usefulness of this idea is. Breen and Innes explain how this idea snowballed when dealing with the ownership of firearms. Carl Deglers analysis of a colonial Virginia statute that regulated blacks ownership of weapons claimed that blacks were singled out and discriminated against. Jordan came back to

Finke 4 claim that the statute was even more significant than Degler thought. (25) The law continued to grow in importance when Degler again transformed the 1640 act from proscriptive legislation into a description of actual social practice. (25) Breen and Innes summarize this slippery slope by stating that we have movedfrom a single, somewhat ambiguous case of racial discrimination to a general statement about white attitudes toward all blacks and, finally, to a complete disarmament of the colonys black population. (25-6) This type of analysis exists throughout the monograph and supports every major theme that the duo writes about. The strong examination is certainly a powerful strength, but weaknesses exist too. The book has a limited scope, geographically, politically, and economically. Virginias Eastern Shore was by no means the largest area, and thus could not support a large population, nor was it excessively fertile, making it difficult to amass a large tobacco crop. These limitations restricted the Eastern Shores political influence, and thus its ability to guide the decision making of the colonial government. This limitation of scope also makes it difficult to extrapolate if the situation on Virginias Eastern Shore means anything or has any bearing on other areas. The vast plantations of the Western Shore, the cities of New England, and the lack of early settlement of the Carolinas proves a marked difference that cannot be overcome without much evidence. The work also fails to address much of what would happen on a day to day basis. Even the authors as they admit that this analysis seems incomplete. (17) Breen and Innes know that pieces of the puzzle remain unaccounted for since there is little to no first hand writings about the common events. (17) While the court records that are used give the reader much information and even more can be inferred from them, they do not tell exactly how people lived and cannot give the reader insight into the normal lives lived by the free blacks of the Eastern Shore. Sadly,

Finke 5 these records just do not exist, therefore, this lack of records cannot truly be held against the authors. Myne Owne Ground is not without its strengths though. Along with the strong analysis, Breen and Innes excel at using available information to make claims about Virginias Eastern Shore. Court records may not give the reader the day-to-day, but they do give an idea of the bigger events. Courtship, marriage, and the growth of families can be examined through licenses, tithables lists, and child support records. Economic situations dealing with land or livestock gives the reader a comparative value with which they can better understand the finances of the time. This small volume of information also allows Breen and Innes the convenience of thoroughness without contexting the information to death. The limited scope is both the biggest weakness and the biggest strength. It allows the authors to delve as deeply as they can into the goings on of the area. They could examine four or five major planters, being as there were not many major planters to begin with, and the reader will get a good idea of what went on. In the end, Myne Owne Ground provides strong proofs for the claim that property was a more important social identifier than was race. The interactions between free blacks, local gentry, nongentry whites, and enslaved blacks do not show that race was invisible. They do, however, show that a free black that owned property could hold sway over a poor white in the court of law as well as in the court of public opinion. Breen and Inness work masterfully shows how common ideas of slavery were not always so, the institution of slavery and the discrimination against blacks progressed in fits and spurts. This non-linear progression, though contrary to oft believed theories, is thoroughly supported by this monograph. Myne Owne Ground has been in print for more than 25 years and, due to the enormous effect it can have on readers, will remain an influential work on American slavery for years to come