Mary Fisher went on to marry an African American slave and subsequent generations of this family have been identified as African Americans, according to records now available at the Maryland State Archives. The Fisher family in America can claim its roots here.
With the identification of this earliest Indian American, the time has come for a reassessment of the South Asian presence in America. Even of Asian American history itself.
Documents available from American archival sources of the colonial period now confirm the presence of indentured servants or slaves who were brought from the Indian subcontinent, via England, to work for their European American masters. Court records, judgment decrees, newspaper records, land deeds, marriage registers, diaries, letters and oral narratives have become major resources for the historian in reconstructing the South Asian presence.
There was virtually no direct voyage between India and the English colonies in America until 1784. Nevertheless, by the mid 1600s, it was common for shareholders and officers of the East India Company, returning from the India, to invest in a few servants or slaves, which they resold at a profit. The slaves were subsequently taken to the colonies in the New World.
Prominent among them was Lord Baltimore, founder of Maryland, and a director of the East India Company. Another was Elihu Yale (founder of Yale University) of Boston who was Governor of Madras for the East India Company. Others included John Carruthers, William Hawkins, Allein Welch, and Captain Thomas Beale.
After examining the history of the “free African American” communities of Maryland and Delaware during the colonial period as told through their family histories, historian Paul Heinegg observes: ‘The indenture of Indians (Native Americans) as servants was not common in Maryland...the indenture of East Indian servants was more common.’
According to Heinegg ‘East Indians apparently blended into the free African American population. Peter, an East Indian who was one of the ancestors of the Fisher family, had a child by a white woman named Mary Molloyd about 1680 and "became a free Molato after serving some time to Major Beale of St. Mary´s County" [Anne Arundel County Judgment Record 1734-6, 83; 1743-4, 11].’
This is the unknown saga of Indian Americans that awaits recognition in history books.
GENEALOGY OF THE FIRST INDIAN AMERICAN
We learn about the "East Indian" named "Peter" from the November 12, 1734, legal deposition of his then-32-year-old granddaughter Ann Fisher in a Maryland County Court. The petition states: "Ann Fisher humbly showeth that your petitioner´s grandmother was a White Woman who served her time in Saint Mary´s County who had your petitioner by an East India Indian, who became a free Molato after serving some time to Major Beale of Saint Mary´s County."
The record shows that Ann Fisher´s mother, Mary Fisher (the daughter of the East Indian "Peter"), also a slave, was lawfully married to "a Negro man named Richard Fisher, a slave then belonging to Mr. Thomas Beale of Saint Mary´s County." The deposition went on to state that the petitioner "is now made a slave during her life which your petitioner humbly conceives is contrary to Law."
There is additional evidence provided by William Cumming, who presented a petition in his capacity as attorney to Ann Fisher, as well as to six other children of Mary Fisher, claiming that the latter "is the daughter of a certain Mary Molloyd, born in Ireland, who came into this Province a servant for a term of years and served part of her servitude with Madam Vansweringen and the rest with Mr. Thomas Beale." Cumming stated that Mary Molloyd "Declared and charged a certain Peter, an East India Indian, who then lived with the Lord Baltimore in the City of St. Mary´s, to have been the Father and begetter" of Mary Fisher.
Anne Arundel County records show that for many years Mary Fisher "was unjustly detained" as a slave, first by Thomas Beale, and, after his death, by his son John Beale, and that during this time she married Richard Fisher, an African American slave. The petition noted the fact that Mary Fisher herself was the daughter of a white woman and an East Indian, and that "by Law they are no slaves but are entitled to their freedom." Furthermore, the children of Mary Fisher "are all hindered of their liberty and are kept as slaves," stated the freedom petition.
Attorney Cumming asked the court: "In order that your petitioners may have a fair and impartial tryal [sic] and may be relieved according to law and Justice," the slave owners must appear before the court and explain why the grandchildren of Peter the East Indian and Mary Molloyd the Irish woman were kept in slavery.
We are told that the sitting judge dismissed the petition.
It was not until after America´s independence that the descendents of "Peter" and Mary became free. On May 26, 1783, Ann Fisher´s daughter, Eleanor Toogood, sued for her freedom by reason of her descent from a "free white woman" and won her case. The Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment in Eleanor´s favor and also ruled that Eleanor´s grandmother, Mary Fisher, should have been free. As of 1800, the descendants of this family included Edward Fisher, head of a Queen Anne´s County, Md., household of 16 "other free" persons; Henry Fisher, head of a Kent County, Md., household of five "other free" persons; and Joseph Fisher, a "Free Negro" head of a Little Creek, Kent County, household of five "other free" and seven "free colored" person.
Historian C. S. Everett of Vanderbilt University, states: ‘records of the 1620s indicate that several of the English colony’s “Negros” were free, had come to the colony on ships carrying other colonists, and at least one was baptized in England prior to his departure for Virginia.’ He goes on to state ‘my work shows that not only were upwards of 1,000 Indians retained as slaves in Virginia over the course of its pre-Civil War history, but that the colony’s first actual “slaves” were American Indians, not Africans. There were also “East Indian” servants and slaves across the Chesapeake.’
Thomas F. Brown, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas, agrees that some of the people appearing in various records as "Indians" may well be East Indians and that the population of East Indians had a presence in the Chesapeake region that was significant enough to make a hearsay claim to East Indian ancestry seem plausible to the court. ‘There are as many, if not more, East Indians in the 18th century Western Shore records as there are native American Indians’ he writes. Brown notes that of the four cases of free servant women charged with bearing bastards by Indians on the Western Shore in the 18th century, ‘some of these may well be East Indians, not native American Indians.’
And, according to the Maryland State Archives: ‘In Maryland there exists a considerable body of data, only now being investigated as a source for identifying a large group of colonial immigrants - indentured servants … For a long time this group was overlooked by genealogists because no one realized the importance of these humble folk as potential ancestors… Nevertheless recent research has begun to refute this view and has examined indentured servants as individuals.’
The picture is changing, thanks to the work begun by P. William Filby, former Librarian of the Maryland Historical Society. His multi-volume Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, published by Gale Research have brought the number of names found in published passenger and immigration lists to several hundred thousand
Two of the most prolific researchers in this field today are Peter Wilson Coldham and David Dobson. Coldham has published numerous books and articles on the references to American settlers found in English records, and Dobson has published numerous works on references to American settlers found in Scottish records. Coldham´s book English Adventurers and Emigrants, 1661-1733 contains names of servants originating from South Asia.
Dobson and Coldham are following the trail blazed by John C. Hotten, whose Original Lists of Persons of Quality, Emigrants, Religious Exiles, Political Rebels . . . and Others who went from Great Britain to the American Plantations, London; 1874, has been republished by the Genealogical Publishing Company.
It is by linking genealogical evidence with court records of the 17th and 18th centuries that we can begin to assemble a list of the earliest Indian Americans who were living in colonial America.
Meanwhile this researcher is accessing the Oriental and India Office Collections of the British East India Company to locate the places from where the indentured servants were taken and transported to Britain. From the names identified so far, we are lead to believe that most of the Indians were either converted or given Christian names on reaching England, though a few may have been Indian Christians converted earlier by the Portuguese or the Dutch.
Elizabeth Pothen helped with archival research and documentation. This series -- ‘Probing Indian American history’ -- seeks to shed light on the untold saga of the earliest Indian Americans, and is dedicated to Zadie, a third generation Indian American