John Ruston Pagan’s Book

John Ruston Pagan’s book Anne Orthwood's Bastard: Sex and Law in Early Virginia defines the place of sex and law in the seventeenth century Virginia and America as a whole. Throughout the book, the law is used as a tool to safeguard the economic interests of masters of the Virginian Northampton city from the undesirable effects of out-of-wedlock pregnancy among the enslaved, colored women - a trend that would otherwise reduce their economic productivity if left unchecked. Similarly, sex and marriage are regarded as powerful socio-economic platform exploited by for material or social gains in the Virginian society. Basically, the instrumental aspects and theme of economic motivations are the key driving force that determine the turn of events in the seventeenth century in Virginia during the days of Anne Orthwood.

Summary of the Book Content

Anne Orthwood's Bastard: Sex and Law in Early Virginia gives an elaborate account of Anne Orthwood, an indentured servant whose illicit impregnation and twin birth at the tavern sparked a lot of legal tussle before the magistrates after her death in the classical Northampton County, Virginia. Most regrettably, Anne Orthwood died immediately after twin birth, and only one son, Jasper, survived while the other one died immediately after birth.

The buck did not stop with the death of Anne Orthwood after her much denounced illegitimate pregnancy and the subsequent birth of her twins. The out-of-wedlock pregnancy prompted the Northampton magistrates to convene for the hearing of four related cases that covered the period between 1664 and 1686 in the tavern courts. The legality of the tavern court revolves around prosecution for out-of-wedlock pregnancy and fornication as charged by the magistrates.

The following court revealed that John Kendall was responsible for the ill-taken pregnancy of Anne Orthwood- as she swore before her death on the childbed alongside one of her twin son. Individuals who were called upon to testify directly during the proceedings of the above mentioned case included Jasper (Anne’s surviving child), John Kendall (father), jury foreman, midwife, clerk, justice and Anne’s master. Having conducted the legal proceedings of the Orthwood case to its full length, the Eastern Shore justice ruled that Kendall was indeed responsible for the Anne’s pregnancy, thus remained legally responsible for the daily upkeep of the Anne’s surviving son, Jasper, as required by the justice system of the Eastern Shore.

Nevertheless, Kendall made an appeal after the ruling of the paternity proceedings after which he successfully denied the imminent paternity. As such, he was no longer under legal obligation to support the infant Jasper in the future. He managed to avoid the full responsibility of taking care of a child he fathered with a colored woman through the legal intervention and subsequent manipulations by his influential wealthy uncle who was the justice, master, and churchwarden in the Eastern Shore, Virginia. At the end of the legal proceedings, John Kendall’s fornication suit is dismissed, while his surviving son became a poor bastard in the affluent Eastern Shore, Virginia. 

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Book Review

Most importantly, economic or material gain is the fundamental agenda that powerfully drive the behavior of all key players in the Eastern Shore, Virginia. As portrayed by the author in the first instance, John Kendall’s decision to deny any sexual affairs with Anne Orthwood as well the paternity of infant Jasper is purely driven by an economic motivation. Despite that the Eastern Shore jury made a ruling that Kendall was responsible for the pregnancy of Anne thus had to take a legal responsibility for the infant Jasper, he made an appeal through the court justice who happened to be his uncle and further bought his way out of the tavern court.

Considering that anyone who fathered a child out-of-wedlock in the ancient Eastern Shore was required by the Virginian legal culture to shoulder the burden of raising the child, if the mother is no well off as in the case of Anne Orthwood, John Kendall together with his justice uncle (the courthouse speaker William Kendall) view taking legal responsibility for the support of Jasper as an economic liability, which they would better rid themselves of from the start- a quest they accomplished successfully. William Kendall ruled the case in favor of his convicted nephew John Kendall in which the latter was acquitted having quickly paid minimal premium to indenture Jasper though in an unorthodox manner. Finally, John Kendall was not only given a clean bill of health by the court regarding the apparent count of fornication but he was also exonerated from meeting financial needs of the child in the future.

As the events unfold in the subsequent chapters of the book, the intentions of his justice uncle’s acquittal from the court is made clear. The court speaker wants his nephew, John Kendall, to stop any further relationship with the poor Anne Orthwood through her son Jasper even after her death. Incessant desire to have his nephew marry wealthy women from the high caliber rather than a poor slave, Anne was his main agenda of delinking John Kendall from the purported count of bastardry by the tavern court. In the actual sense, the frequent transfers of Anne Orthwood from one slave master to another in the wake of their acquaintance with John Kendall is also seen as a strategy employed by the Kendall to stop the manifested affair from taking shape in vain, since the family always wanted to maintain their dignity by locking Anne out of John’s life.

In support of the aforementioned claims that the choice of marriage partner was directly influenced by the prevailing economic gains in Virginia, William Kendall went on to “marry up” three wealthy widows within the Eastern Shore. It was as a result of wealth amassed by William Kendall from these marriages that he thrived to become the topmost influential member of the Eastern Shore civil society. He was church warden, court speaker and master. Nevertheless, none of these serial marriages was considered fornication contrary to Anne’s case.

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Economic motivation in the seventeenth-century Virginia greatly impacted on the legal system of the Eastern Shore. Based on various events that unfolded throughout the book, Pagan illustrates that the Virginian ruling class constantly modified the existing laws to meet the demands of their raging appetites for economic gain. For instance, the Virginian rule of caveat emptor is modified in the 17th Century so as to legally proscribe slave seller from delivering pregnant or unhealthy servants to the unsuspecting Eastern Shore masters deliberately. This law became an integrated legal part of the post-seventeenth transfer of slaves from one holder to another. The secret behind this move was to maximize the economic return a master would accrue from the labor of his/her servants.


In conclusion, all the legal injustices demonstrated in John Ruston Pagan’s Anne Orthwood's Bastard: Sex and Law in Early Virginia were driven by economic and material motivation. The rich masters and privileged members of the Eastern Shore modified Virginian legal system to fulfill their economic interests above any other persons of the perceived lower pedigree.

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