Witchcraft was a genuine concern for colonial Virginians. The colony’s English settlers brought with them a strong belief in the devil’s power and his presence in the New World. This belief was first manifested in the Jamestown colonists’ early perceptions of the Virginia Indians, whom they believed to be devil worshippers. After 1622, some colonists began to accuse one another of practicing witchcraft. Though witchcraft cases in Virginia were less common and the sentences less severe than the more famous witch trials of Salem, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, evidence exists that about two dozen such trials took place in Virginia between 1626 and 1730. They ranged from civil defamation suits to criminal accusations. The most famous of these was the trial of Grace Sherwood of Princess Anne County, in which the judges determined her guilt by administering a water test. Records indicate that the last witchcraft trial in the mainland colonies took place in Virginia in 1730; five years later, Parliament repealed the Witchcraft Act of 1604, the statute under which British American colonists prosecuted accused witches. Since then, witchcraft has been largely forgotten as an aspect of life in colonial Virginia.
Author: Monica C. Witkowski
Grace Sherwood (ca. 1660–1740)
Grace Sherwood was the defendant in colonial Virginia‘s most notorious witch trial, which took place in Princess Anne County in 1706. Sherwood was rumored to be a witch as early as 1698, when she and her husband sued their neighbors for defamation and slander. They lost their cases, and in 1705 another neighbor pressed criminal charges of witchcraft against Grace Sherwood. She was subjected to a water test in which the accused is bound, thrown into a body of water (in this case, the Lynnhaven River), and found guilty if he or she floats. Sherwood floated, but instead of sentencing her to death, the justices jailed her and ordered a re-trial. Whether a second trial occurred is not known. By 1714, Sherwood had been released from prison and returned to her home in Pungo, where she died in 1740.
Margaret Brent (ca. 1601–1671)
Margaret Brent was one of the earliest residents of Westmoreland County, where she owned a sizable estate named Peace plantation and helped to establish Virginia’s first Roman Catholic community. Brent, who never married, migrated to Virginia from Maryland with two of her siblings about 1651. In Maryland Brent handled her own business affairs and acted as attorney for herself and other settlers. She is best known for asking for two votes in the Maryland General Assembly—one as a landowner, and the other as the legal representative of Cecil Calvert, second baron Baltimore and proprietor of the colony. In the latter role, she had preserved his political power by settling the payments of mercenary soldiers from Maryland and Virginia after Ingle’s Rebellion (1645). Brent’s request was denied. After Lord Baltimore expressed his displeasure with her behavior and that of her brother, Giles Brent, the Brents moved to Virginia. At the time of her death in 1671, Margaret Brent and her siblings held about 10,000 acres of property.