Elizabeth Key Grinstead was born in Warwick County Virginia (now Newport News Virginia) in 1630 to a slave
mother and to white English planter and member of the Virginia House of Burgesses Thomas Key.
Very little is known as Elizabeth mother but that she was born in England and was brought to Virginia by Thomas Key. The Key family were consider pioneer planters and the Keys moved to Virginia along with their slaves for bigger opportunities. At the time Elizabeth was conceived Thomas wife Martha Key lived across the James River in Isle of Wright County.
Mrs. Key had no idea that her husband fathered an illegitimate child with a Negro women. In 1636 when Elizabeth was 6 years old her mother wanted to go back to England, asking Thomas Key to take ownership of Elizabeth. When Thomas refused it sparked a civic case against him at Blunt Point Court in 1636. Thomas Key finally took responsibility for Elizabeth and arranged for her to be baptized and appointed his long time friend and wealthy planter Humphrey Higginson as Elizabeth Godfather. Later that year Thomas Key became very ill Humphrey made a commitment to Thomas to take guardianship over Elizabeth and release her from bondage when she was 15 years old and able to marry and start earning wages. Four years After Thomas death instead of Humphrey keeping his commitment he ended up selling Elizabeth to a Colonel John Mottram in Northumberland County Virginia. Elizabeth was 10 years old.
Around 1650 Mottram paid for a passage for a group of 20 young white English indenture servants to work on his plantation. Among the group was a 16 year old white boy named William Grinstead, a young lawyer. Grinstead learned law form his father who was an attorney. Grinstead could not inherit his father property due to only the eldest son only inherits the father property. Grinstead decide to cross the Atlantic to seek his own family and fortune in the American Colonies.
Mottram recognized Grinstead talent in law, Mottram used Grinstead for representation in legal matters. During this period Grinstead and Elizabeth began a relationship and they had a son together, whom they named John.
Mottram died in 1655, the overseers of Mottram estate classified Elizabeth Key and her son John as Negroes slaves and part of the property assets of the estate. With William Grinstead acting as her attorney Elizabeth sued the estate over her son and her status claiming she was a free woman, an indenture servant with a free born son and she already served 19 years in servitude 15 of those years on the Mottram Plantation. Elizabeth lost her freedom case and sent back to bondage, but she didn’t stop there. Elizabeth later took he case to the Virginia General Assembly. Arguing that her father was a Englishman Thomas Key, member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and she was a baptized Christian, with some investigation and testimonies from witness claiming that Elizabeth was telling the truth, the Virginia General Assembly set Elizabeth and her son free and ordered the Mottram estate to compensate Elizabeth with corn and clothes for her lost years.
Although Elizabeth won her freedom case for her and her son John, she and William Grinstead could not marry until he completed his indenture, which he did in 1656. They had two sons together before William died in early 1661.
Elizabeth later remarried to the widower John Pearce. Upon his death Elizabeth and her sons John and William II inherited 500 acres, secure their future.
As a result to Elizabeth Key Grinstead freedom case Virginia House of Burgesses passed a law in 1667 stating:
“Act III. Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children that are slaves by births […] should by virtue of their baptism be made free, it is enacted that baptism does not alter the condition to the person as to his bondage or freedom; masters freed from this doubt may more carefully propagate Christianity by permitting slaves to be admitted to that sacrament.”
One of Elizabeth Key Grinstead Descendant is Johnny Depp, Actor
Elizabeth death is unknown