Runaways and Revolution in Eighteenth-Century Virginia

“To Pass for Free”: Runaways and Revolution in Eighteenth-Century Virginia

On August 13, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed from the steps of Northampton County courthouse on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. In conformity to the wishes of the Convention then meeting in Philadelphia, the county magistrates lined up to swear their fidelity to the state and “to take upon them the administration of Justice in the said County of Northampton.” John Stratton, Michael Christian, John Harmanson, Nathaniel Lyttleton Savage, John Wilkins, Lyttleton Savage, John Rollins, and Henry Guy—each reaffirmed his loyalty to the new government and the ideals of equality it represented.

Just over a month earlier they had presided over a different sort of ceremony. Hauled before them in their roles as county judges appeared Jacob, a black slave who belonged to John Respass, a gentleman like the justices. Jacob was on trial for his life, accused of stealing rum. The justices decided Jacob was not guilty of the theft, but “as a false key and two Gourds were found on him and he was going toward the said Store, where a considerable quantity of Rum had before been suspected to be stolen,” they ordered that he receives thirty-nine lashes “at the common Whipping Post.” Furthermore, the court decided that Jacob was to be put on probation for a year, “bound to the good behaviour in the penalty of ₤100.” Owner Respass and another white man became security for the sum, and, during the term of the probation, Jacob “shall not in the night time pass or travel to any place or places whatsoever, and that he shall not in the Day time depart from the Plantation where he may be employed at work without a note in writing from his said Master. . .”[1]

Jacob was relatively lucky: he managed to escape the death penalty. His punishment of thirty-nine lashes, however, was nothing unusual for slaves convicted of misdemeanors, and the restriction on his movements was also common for slaves who had misbehaved. One of the central ironies of the revolutionary period in Virginia is the anomaly of a slave-holding gentry who espoused ideals of liberty and freedom in their struggle for independence from Britain. All of the Northampton justices who embraced the cause of freedom were themselves intimately familiar with its opposite—slavery and the legal and social apparatus that maintained it. At least one of the justices, Stratton, had recently advertised for two of his own slaves whom he suspected of running away, and the names of other prominent Northampton County gentlemen appear as subscribers to the runaway ads in the years leading up to independence.

While Virginia’s Revolutionary gentry embarked upon a War of Independence from Britain inspired by grand Enlightenement goals of liberty and freedom, within their midst scores of less grand celebrated were occurring—the actions of their slaves who chose to run away in search of their own individual freedom. Through the advertisements that Virginia slave owners placed seeking the return of their enslaved laborers, we can get a glimpse at a series of freedom movements: movements smaller than the revolutionary impulse, but every bit as significant.

Slaves in theory were menial laborers, often likened to animals. Their effectiveness, however, came from their humanity—they could think and reason and were therefore suited to tasks requiring thinking and reasoning. This paradox also made them dangerous—they could revolt and runaway.

The most disturbing thing about the slaves from the slaveholder’s point of view was not cultural difference but the basic similarity between himself and his property. Africans could procreate with Europeans, and occupied the same ecological niche. As Benjamin Franklin was to observe, slaves, unlike sheep, could rise in rebellion.[2]

There is evidence that Virginia’s slaves did not remain quiescent themselves as their masters expressed arguments for liberty. Slaves, too, were affected by the ideology of liberty in revolutionary Virginia. A significant number would use the opportunities presented by the crisis and revolution to make a break for freedom.

While out and out revolts among Virginia’s bondsmen were not common during the eighteenth century, group resistance to slavery did occur, and unrest among the colony’s slaves was a constant fear of the ruling gentry. Gentry fears of slave insurrection lay just beneath the refined surface of provincial society. Their concern over rebellious slaves and servants dates back to the seventeenth century, as the numerous laws designed to control the movements of slaves and servants attest.[3]

The instances of full-blown slave unrest, although relatively rare in the early eighteenth century, as the importation of African labor was reaching its height, caused reactions among the white masters that far outweighed the actual cases of slave rebellion. Rumors of slave conspiracies became more pronounced as the century wore on. In 1709 an inquest was held to investigate “a Late Dangerous Conspiracy, formed and Carried on by greate numbers of ye said negroes and Indian slaves for making their Escape by force from ye Service of their masters and for ye Destroying and cutting of Such of her Majties Subjects as should oppose their Design.” Most were punished and released, but the ringleaders, including William Edwards’s Scipio, Joseph John Jackman’s Salvadore, and Tom Shaw, who belonged to Samuel Thompson, were held over for further orders. Peter, who also belonged to Samuel Thompson, remained at large, outlawed, and he and Scipio were the initial conspirators, while Salvadore “has been a great promoter and Incourager in persuading of ‘em to ye probability of Effecting their designe and in promissing of ‘em his Assistance therein.”[4]

As Virginians moved into the backcountry, that remote region became a possible destination for runaway slaves. In 1729 Governor Gooch informed the Board of Trade about a group of runaway slaves who fled from “a new plantation” on the James River into the fastness of the mountains to the west. They apparently planned their escape well, carrying off “some provisions, their Cloaths, bedding and working Tools,” as well as some arms and ammunition. Pursued by their owners along with a group of men, the runaways, who had begun to clear land for planting, were soon captured in a fight in which one of the slaves was wounded. Gooch conceded that the plot showed that Virginia’s slaves “might have proved as dangerous to this Country, as is that of the Negroes in Jamaica to the Inhabitants of that Island,” particularly as the backcountry was being settled, but still relatively sparse of inhabitants: “. . . it being certain that a very small number of Negroes once settled in those Parts, would very soon be encreas’d by the Accession of other Runaways and prove dangerous Neighbours to our Frontier Inhabitants.” Gooch informed the Board that he had stepped up militia training in order to deter slaves’ running away.[5]

Other indications of increasing numbers of runaways moving westward can be seen in the Journals of the House of Burgesses. In 1744, questions arose as to how the patrols would be compensated for “scouring the Mountains,” and what the reward would be for capturing runaways in Frederick County, formed in [formation] west of the Blue Ridge.[6]

Another potential insurrection among Virginia’s slaves occurred in 1730 after rumors of a British law ordering all Christian slaves freed circulated among the quarters. As Virginia’s slaves readied themselves for the possibility of freedom, they heard that Virginia officials planned to quash the law.[7] In 1755, Governor Dinwiddie wrote to Charles Carter regarding “the villainy” of the blacks in Carter’s neighborhood (Lancaster Co.) and signaled his approval of Carter’s calling out the sheriffs to confront those who appeared “in a Body at Y’r Son’s House, and if found guilty of the Expressions mention’d I expect You will send for a Com’o. to try them, and an Example of one or two at first may prevent those Creatures enter’g into Combinat’s and wicked Designs ag’st the Subjects.” He told Carter that he would place the advertisment he desired in the Gazette and advised him to have the sheriffs seize all horses used by slaves “in the Night Time.”[8]

There is evidence of unrest among slaves in Mecklenburg County in the 1760s. Jack, who ran away from owner Robert Munford in April 1766, according to Munford had been “principally concerned in promoting the late disroderly meetings among the Negroes.” Munford was notorious for his ill-treatment of his bondsmen, and described Jack, “a low squat made fellow,” as marked with his master’s brand: “on the right cheek R, and on the left M.”[9] And slaves in Hanover County seemed to have engaged in a “crime wave” in 1770.[10]

Despite the often hysterical reaction of whites to such threats, actual rebellious activities by groups of slaves were relatively rare in eighteenth-century Virginia. Far more common were the actions of single slaves who stole away stealthily, often at night, to achieve a measure of freedom. There is no way to tell how successful these solitary runaways were. If their owners are to be believed, many escaped with the idea of blending into the population, to “pass for free,” as it was phrased. Beginning in 1736, when the first issue of the Virginia Gazette was published, we can begin to gain insight into the motives of runaway slaves through the advertisements for their capture that owners placed in the newspaper. Although the runaway ads strictly reflect only the masters’ perspectives, they can be useful in gauging motives of runaways.

As revealed in the runaway ads, slaves absconded for a number of different reasons. Mistreatment at the hands of the master or a change in masters prompted some slaves to flee. Others ran off to re-unite with loved ones who had been separated from them through sale. Finally, a significant number ran off to achieve permanent freedom: to “pass for free” by making their way to a town or an area of sparse habitation. A number of these sought the greater chance of freedom by leaving North America, by joining an ocean-going ship’s crew.

Runaways possessing a specific skill had the best chance at accomplishing this. A number of runaway ads describe the slaves’ skills. “He knows a little of the Carpenter’s and Cooper’s business, and took away some tools with him,” reads a typical ad—this for the skilled runaway Sam, who once belonged to George Washington.[11] Thomas Jefferson’s Sandy, who ran away in 1769, was a left-handed shoemaker and “something of a horse jockey,” who took his tools and a horse with him. Jefferson eventually captured Sandy who worked for him for three more years before he was sold to Colonel Charles Lewis for £100.[12]

One category of skilled slave that possessed a real chance at escaping bondage for long periods was watermen. The rivers, creeks, and inlets of the colonial Chesapeake made their skills particularly valuable, and Africans employed as sailors and boatmen greatly increased after mid century. Slaves who worked on their masters’ flats and sloops or who were hired out to ship captains were used to being away from the direct supervision of their owners for long periods of time. Their travels up and down the waterways of Virginia and Maryland and across the great Bay gave them a degree of opportunity that normal field slaves did not have. They were often trusted with important tasks. Masters often included in their advertisements for such runaways a phrase warning ship captains not to employ them, evidence that they feared long-term escapes of runaways fortunate enough to secure a job aboard a vessel. That such bondsmen ran away is important testimony to their burning desire for freedom.[13]

Abner ran away from his master Morgan Sabb, of Charleston, South Carolina, some time around 1770. Once the property of a merchant or planter in Maryland, Abner was doubtless familiar with the Chesapeake Bay and its environs as well as the wider world of the Anglo-Atlantic. As his captor put it, he “followed the water,” and when captured and lodged in Accomack jail in 1773, the skilled waterman had been free for two or three years.[14]

Sailors and boat-handlers appear in significant numbers among the slaves described in the runaway ads, and there are many more illustrative instances of black seamen who ran for freedom in the mid eighteenth century. Cambridge, for example, who ran away early in 1768, assisted his master John Holladay, who was customs inspector for the Rappahannock River District, based at Fredericksburg. Cambridge formerly belonged to Benjamin Hubbard, then Pye Chamberlain, and was “so well known as to need no other description.” The extent of Cambridge’s travels up and down Virginia’s rivers, as well as the relative freedom his employment offered was attested by Holladay’s statement that “he has a wife at almost every landing on Rappahannock, Mattapony, and Pamunkey rivers.”[15] The persistence of runaway watermen is attested by the fact that as late as 1795, Virginia lawmakers passed an act intended to tighten down on ship captains who harbored runaways. There is also evidence that the slave revolt scare of 1802 may have been precipitated by the activities of a slave waterman named Sancho, who kept alive the spirit of Gabriel through his travels up and down Virginia waterways.[16]

Other skilled slaves who might escape bondage for a time were the domestic servants who lived cheek by jowl in intimate familiarity with their masters. These comprised the highest percentage of skilled runaways, and the ads offer evidence that they could “pass for free” for lengthy periods. Some of the domestic runaways were women: Nanny, property of the recently deceased John Thompson of Albemarle County, took the opportunity presented by her master’s death to abscond in summer 1766. William Holt, executor of Thompson’s estate, who advertised for her return, guessed that the twenty-eight-year-old mulatto was headed for Williamsburg, “where she gave out she intended going, in order to sue for her freedom.” Two years later, Nanny was still free: she had “obtained a pass from one of the justices of the county, in order to seek for witnesses to support her claim [to freedom], but has never returned, and is supposed to be lurking about PETERSBURG, or to have left the colony.” Holt had raised the reward from the twenty shillings offered in 1766 to five pounds, ten if taken out of the colony.[17]

Milla, for whom owner John Harrison of Nansemond County advertised in 1774, had been missing since 1768. Harrison had been told that she had been in Norfolk for a time, and there was a servant living with Thomas Husk on the Rappahannock River “that calls herself free Milla,” whom Harrison suspected was his Milla.[18]

[Personal servants?]

As noted above, suspected runaways who wished to pass as free persons needed a paper or testimony of a white person to validate their claim. In July 1773, Thomas Hill was captured in Isle of Wight County under suspicion of being a runaway, though he claimed to be free. Jailer John Taylor announced that if Hill were free, “it would be proper for any Friend of his to make it appear.”[19] Billy, who worked at the Occoquan Furnace in Prince William County for owner John Tayloe, ran off in 1768. He was an accomplished bondsman, a skilled ship carpenter who could play the violin, which he carried with him. Billy had lately been in Carolina, where “by virtue of a forged pass that some good natured person had wrote for him, he had travelled without much interruption, and very possible may prevail on some other of his acquaintance to forge another, to assist  him in prosecuting his intended scheme of getting to South Carolina, where he expects to be free.”[20]

Other runaways saw the Carolinas as a place they might remain free for lengthy periods. Less settled than neighboring Virginia, North Carolina was peopled with hardscrabble whites, many of whom asked few questions of blacke whom they wished to employ. And Charleston, South Carolina, the largest southern city in the colonial period, offered a potential haven where skilled blacks could pass as free men. Bob was able to take advantage of both locations. In April 1767 he ran away from master William Trebell who revealed that for the past three years Bob had been living with his wife on the Chinkopin River in Hertford County, North Carolina, working for a man named Van Pelt. As a free man he went by the name Edward or Edmind Tamar and was a highly skilled person. Able to read and write, he was a good sailor, sawer, and carpenter, and had been living free for more than eight years, resideing part of that time in Charleston. When he was finally captured and conveyed back to Trebell in Williamsburg, he promptly ran away again.[21]

But did slaves run away with other aspirations than merely blending in with the free black population—“passing for free”? Certainly a major reason many slaves ran off was to reunite with family members. But there is also evidence that the coming crisis with Britain inspire slaves to runaway seeking permanent freedom. Just as their masters embraced Enlightenment libertarian principles in their arguments opposing British measures in the years leading up to the Revolution, their advertisements for their runaways show the growth of a libertarian ideology among their slaves during the period.

One of the strongest influences upon the growth of an egalitarian ideology among Virginians of all colors was the Great Awakening. Evangelical religion provided some support for standing against the authority of Virginia’s gentry leaders and some impetus for enslaved African-Virginians to seek freedom. Prior to the Revolution, the Great Awakening preachers had challenged the elite, and “new light” Baptist and Methodist preachers, often lay persons and without the appurtances of learning demanded of the established Anglican clerics, taught that all were equal in the sight of God.[22]

The New Lights, with their emphasis on the spiritual equality of blacks and whites, seemed to promise a measure of freedom for Virginia’s slaves. In 1772 the House of Burgesses Committee on Religion, chaired by provincial treasurer Robert Carter Nicholas, who himself was plagued with runaways from his numerous outlying quarters, drafted a bill prohibiting slaves from attending Baptist worship meetings without their masters’ permission and outlawed night meetings.[23]

Landon Carter was among Virginia’s gentry who attributed the restiveness of Virginia slaves to the effects of Baptist preachers: “I believe it is from some inculcated doctrine of those rascals [New Light preachers] that the slaves in this Colony are grown so much worse,” he confided to his diary in 1770.[24] The anonymous author of “An Address to the Anabaptists Imprisoned in Caroline County, August 8, 1771,” accused the Baptists of breaking up families and causing slaves to desert their masters.[25]

In the runaway ads there are several references to the evangelical movement that swept through Virginia in the 1760s. Hannah, for example, a thirty-five-year-old slave, ran away in December of 1766 from master Stephen Dence, who supposed she was heading for Carolina. The runaway, a “small yellow” woman with “remarkable long hair” and scars across her throat from a knife slash and on her back from whipping, “pretends much to the religion the Negroes of late have practiced,” a sure reference to the spread of evangelical Christianity among the slaves.[26]

Tom, “fond of talking about religion,” ran off from current owner John Scott of Manakin Town in summer of 1774. He was captured, but by that December had run off again. Tom, “bred by Major Gaines to keeping Horses and riding Races,” was still at large in January of 1776, when Scott advertised for him again. The extent of his religious convictions remains unknown.

Gilbert, of Port Royal, Caroline County, was another chronic runaway whose owner John Evans described him as “a Baptist, and I expect will show a little of it in Company.” A shoemaker, much marked with the smallpox, Gilbert first ran off in the summer of 1774. Evans believed that he may have got aboard a vessel headed toward the Eastern Shore, passing as a free man by the name Gilbert Morris. Captured on this occasion, Gilbert ran off again a year and a half later, described with “a large scar on his breast occasioned by whipping,” perhaps a punishment inflicted after his prior absence.[27]

More direct evidence of the role of evangelicalism is the case of Jupiter, alias Gibb, “a great Newlight preacher” from Prince George County who ran off with his mother and brother in September 1767. His owner George Noble had no doubt about the connection between evangelical religion and revolution. He described the runaway Gibb as having “several scars on his back, from a severe whipping he lately had at Sussex court-house, having been tried there for stirring up the Negroes to an insurrection,” by his preaching. Like Hannah, Noble thought the trio might make for Carolina.[28]

Like other skilled slaves, an accomplished preacher might use his talent to help remain free for a lengthy period. Charles, “an artful cunning fellow,” who ran off in September 1768 wearing “a bearskin great coat,” was a shoemaker by trade, and carried his tools with him. But his owner Charles Floyd also observed that Charles could read and “is a great preacher, from which I imagine he will endeavour to pass for a freeman.” Charles was an experienced escapee; he had run off three years earlier and had managed to stay free for two years. On this latest occasion the exasperated Floyd had outlawed the runaway, offering fifteen pounds for his head, but only ten if brought back alive. No doubt the exasperated owner intended to display his Charles’s severed head as a warning to other slaves.[29]

The conversion of slaves to New Light religion had lasting effect. In 1772 twenty-year-old Primus ran away. Primus had been a preacher since he was sixteen, which would place his conversion around the time of the unrest of 1767-8. His master Seth Ward of Chesterfield acknowledge the effect of his preaching, by which he “has done much mischief in his neighbourhood,” Ward’s outlying quarter on Appomattox River.[30]

Runaway Adam brings together the themes of religion, skill, and duration of freedom. A skilled cooper and sawyer, Adam first ran away in February 1770. He was only twenty-five or six years old, but his unusual gray hair made him look older than his age. Described as “slow of speech,” which may have been a deliberate strategy, he could read and write and “pretends to be a Newlight.” He was able to forge himself passes by which means he had escaped detection for quite some time in North Carolina, indenting himself as servant to one Hugh Dobbins, using the alias Thomas Jackson. Finally apprehended after almost two years, he managed to escape his captor and had been seen in New Kent and Gloucester County.[31]

The effect of a more secular revolutionary ideology on slaves can also be seen through the runaway ads. The abolitionist movement in Britain, part of an Atlantic Enlightenment sentiment, affected slaves in Virginia. Although urban bondsmen were more likely to be affected by proclamations of equality and freedom, rural slaves could make use of an expanding network of kin and friends to keep abreast of developments in the debates over the relationship between England and the colonies.[32] In the years leading up to the American Revolution, several Virginia runaways based claims to freedom on events in Britain, going so far as to sue in court for their liberty.

Aaron, for example, whom Henry Randolph of Chesterfield County claimed as his property, first appears in the runaway record in late 1767. Randolph was not a kind master. Prior to Aaron’s absconding, he had appeared before the county justices charged with the murder of another slave, Len. A justice himself, Randolph was exonerated of the crime by his fellow grandees. Aaron chose to run away rather than face a similar fate as Len’s. Branded with his owner’s mark IR on each cheek, the nineteen-year-old runaway would bring a forty shilling reward above the legal sum if taken up. Captured sometime in the following year, Aaron again made his escape in October 1768. This time Randolph offered a more substantial reward of five pounds. Taken once again, Aaron resorted to legal action after the death of his master to gain his freedom, suing in the General Court under the name of Aaron Griffin or Griffing. When the case was decided against him in October 1769 Aaron again ran off, this time in the company of another Randolph slave named Sam. The persistent runaway was still at large in January 1771, and John Randolph, son of Henry, advertised for his head, offering ten pounds reward; like Charles’s master above, Randolph undoubtedly intended to stick it on a post as a warning to other potential absconders.[33]

Virginia’s legal system, although heavily weighted against bound laborers, offered some promise of freedom. Samuel Howell, grandson of a white woman and a black slave and thus by statute bound to service until the age of thirty-one, attempted to gain his freedom earlier in spring of 1770. The young lawyer Thomas Jefferson appeared for the plaintiff, arguing Howell’s case for no fee. The justices of the General Court, however, refused to hear Jefferson’s natural rights argument and dismissed Howell’s case. Three months later, the disappointed servant ran off with his brother.[34]

Other slaves traveled to Williamsburg to sue for their freedom. In April 1773, twenty-two-year-old David, alleged property of William Cuszens, claimed he was a Native American and traveled to Williamsburg to sue in General Court for his freedom. Cuszens advertised his absence after he failed to return to Dinwiddie.[35] And Moses, committed to Spotsylvania jail in fall 1774, had supposedly “served part of his time with one John Arnold, in Hanover county, against whom he commenced suit for his freedom, but before it was determined, he was attached by Garland Anderson and Samuel Temple, of the same county, and then made his elopement from them.”[36]

The Somerset case in Britain (1772) seemed to promise freedom to runaways who could make it to the mother country. The culmination of several legal maneuvers of the prominent abolitionist Granville Sharp, the case concerned runaway James Somerset, a slave that Charles Steuart, a Scottish factor who formerly resided in Norfolk, had brought to Britain from the West Indies. In Britain Somerset had run away in order to forestall his return to the Caribbean. Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, in a decision widely but erroneously interpreted as abolishing slavery in Britain, ruled that since there were no British laws regarding slavery, and that the institution was so odious as to be unable to support such laws, Somerset was free. News of the ruling spread across the English Atlantic, including the colony of Virginia, arriving by 1772.

In 1773 John Austin Finnie of Surry County advertised for the capture of two slaves who ran off from near Cabin Point. Amy, a twenty-seven year old woman, had apparently escaped to Portsmouth, where she had hired herself out, passing for a free woman named Sukey Jones. Amy was later captured (August 1774) and committed to jail in Charles City County.[37]

Amy’s erstwhile running mate, the other escapee, Bacchus, though only nineteen years old, was an old hand at running, having absconded two years before and was captured near Norfolk. He ran off again earlier in 1773 when he was captured near Chesterfield County. On that occasion Finnie sent his overseer to bring him back, but Bacchus escaped a third time. Finnie guessed the young African-born runaway would make for some vessel hoping to sail to England where the owner surmised the slaves thought they could be free, “a Notion,” as he put it, “now too prevalent among the Negroes, greatly to the Vexation and Prejudice of their Masters.”[38]

Finnie’s Bacchus was determined to be free. Despite his youth, he possessed a great deal of ingenuity and had actually remained at large for some time. It was another bondsman named Bacchus, however, property of Gabriel Jones of Augusta County, who had perhaps a real chance of actually making it to England. When he ran off in 1774 he was thirty years old, “strong and well made.” He carried off a large amount of clothing, much of it finery, including two white Russia Drill Coats, one turned up with blue, the other quite plain and new, with white figured Metal Buttons, blue Plush Breeches, a fine Cloth Pompadour Waistcoat, two or three thin or Summer Jackets, sundry Pairs of white Thread Stockings, five or six white Shirts, two of them pretty fine, neat Shoes, Silver Buckles, a fine Hat cut and cocked in the Macaroni Figure, a double-milled Drab Great Coat, and sundry other Wearing Apparel.

Bacchus had a plan. An accomplished manservant, he had previously belonged to Doctor George Pitt of Williamsburg and frequently traveled there on his master’s business. He had been brought up a manservant, “used to waiting from his Infancy,” Like many personal servants, Bacchus was well known in Tidewater, having traveled extensively with his master. He had money too, five pounds, which with his fine clothes might enable him to pass as a free black. His master apparently thought so; chagrined that he had run off, “I having trusted him much after what I thought had proved his Fidelity,” Jones guessed he would pass for free, under the alias John Christian, “and attempt to get on Board some Vessel bound for Great Britain, from the Knowledge he has of the late Determination of Somerset’s Case.”[39]

The following summer, in the midst of the crisis prompted by Governor Dunmore’s flight from the capital, another of Gabriel Jones’s slaves ran off. Sam, a former slave who had purchased his freedom in 1772 and fought in Dunmore’s expedition to the Indian country, sought to extend the freedom he enjoyed to other bondpersons. On his return from the western country, he began to incite his fellow blacks to join him in a journey westward. He thus destroyed his own newly won freedom, as local whites, fearing the unrest he was spreading among their slaves, convicted him of disturbing the peace and sold him into slavery again. Jones purchased him and sent him out to work a tract of land in Dunmore County where he promptly ran off, taking “an old bay horse very gray about the head, an iron pot, a narrow axe, a handsaw, and an old smooth bore gun.” Sam clearly did not intend to return to slavery.[40]

Jones’s Bacchus and Sam were among a number of individual runaways who, using their skills and talents, were successful in escaping bondage for a time; Sam had actually freed himself, but then lost his liberty in trying to help free others. As the crisis with Britain approached Revolution, other slaves in Virginia became aware of the revolutionary ideals expounded by planter-patriots during the struggle for independence and saw in the rhetoric and subsequent upheaval a chance to gain freedom. As white Virginians espoused ideals of freedom and liberty, calling British measures to incorporate them into the greater empire as efforts to reduce them to slavery, their bondpersons could not help but be affected by the explicit contrast.[41]

Sam had made his bid for freedom during the summer of 1775, after Virginia’s last royal governor, Lord Dunmore, had abandoned the provincial capital for a British warship in the York River. The threat of arming slaves against their Virginia masters, and the gentry’s response to that threat lay at the heart of the dispute between Dunmore and provincial leaders. Colonial leaders had long recognized the threat of British arming slaves to oppose any attempt to fight Britain. In 1774, James Madison expressed such fears in a letter to printer William Bradford of Philadelphia:

If america and Britain should come to an hostile rupture I am afraid an Insurrection among the slaves may & will be promoted. In one of our Counties lately a few of those unhappy wretches met together & chose a leader who was to conduct them when the English Troops should arrive—which they foolishly thought would be very soon & that by revolting to them they should be rewarded with their freedom. Their intentions were soon discovered & the proper precautions taken to prevent the Infection. It is prudent such attempts should be concealed as well as suppressed.[42]

Bradford replied that a letter from an Englishman was read in the Coffee House in Philadelphia expressing that a measure was contemplated to arm slaves and servants. A measure had been introduced in the House of Commons calling for an emancipation of slaves, designed to humble “the high aristocratic spirit of Virginia and the southern colonies.” Parliament did not act on the proposal, but British officials continued to contemplate arming slaves as the colonists took up arms against Britain in the spring of 1775.[43]

As matters drew to a head in Virginia in the spring of 1775, rumors of slave unrest increased. [Holton, pp. 137-143.] Harsh punishments seemed in the increase in this heightened atmosphere. [See Pauline Maier, p. 283. Report of a planned slave insurrection in New York was printed in the Gazette, Dixon & Hunter, March 18, 1775.][Douglas R. Egerton, Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802 (Chapel Hill, 1993), 5; cf. Peter Wood, “‘The Dream Deferred’: Black Freedom Struggles on the Eve of White Independence,” in Gary Y. Okihiro, In Resistance: Studies in African, Caribbean, and Afro-American History. (Amherst, MA, 1986), 173-4.] It was in this atmosphere, on the morning of April 21, 1775, some weeks before he finally abandoned Williamsburg, that Dunmore had removed gunpowder from the magazine.

Virginia leaders, who believed that they faced a slave rebellion without the arms necessary to defend themselves, reacted predictably. A crowd gathered on the palace green and threatened to storm the palace. Passions cooled, however, and soon a deputation of the Williamsburg municipal leaders waited on the governor and demanded that he return the powder. Its removal, they asserted, placed the public in danger, as “some wicked and designing persons have instilled the most diabolical notions into the minds of our slaves, and that, therefore, the utmost attention to our internal security is become the more necessary.”[44]

According to the testimony of several witnesses who met with Dunmore and later appeared before the burgesses, the governor had actually made the threat of armed slave rebellion explicit, declaring “that he would declare freedom to the slaves and reduce the City of Williamsburg to ashes.” Furthermore, the governor allegedly stated that if he raised the British standard, “he should have a Majority of white People and all the Slaves on the side of the Government.”[45]

To the Virginians, the governor’s language was more provoking than the actual removal of the powder. It is clear that fears of armed slaves lay at the heart of their growing opposition to the governor. Madison later wrote that “It is imagined our Governor has been tampering with the Slaves & that he has it in contemplation to make great Use of them in Case of a civil war in this province. To say the truth, that is the only part in which this Colony is vulnerable; & if we should be subdued, we shall fall like Achilles by the hand of one who knows that secret.” At this time, however, Dunmore was not yet ready for an open breach. During the height of the gunpowder crisis, a group of slaves offered their services to Dunmore, who told them to return to their masters.[46]

Although Dunmore had turned the escapees away on this occasion, he had been contemplating turning slaves against their masters as early as 1772. That year, in a letter to Lord Hillsborough he wrote,

At present, the Negroes are double the number of white people in this colony, which by natural increase, and the great addition of new imported ones every year is sufficient to alarm not only this colony but all the Colonies of America. . .in case of war. . . the people, with great reason, trembled at the facility that an enemy would find in procuring Such a body of men, attached by no tye to their Masters or to the Country, on the Contrary it is natural to Suppose their Condition must inspire them with an aversion to both, and therefore are ready to join the first that would encourage them to revenge themselves by which means a conquest of this Country would inevitably be effected in a very Short time. [Wood, “‘The Dream Deferred’: Black Freedom Struggles on the Eve of White Independence,” in Okihiro, ed., In Resistance, (Amherst, MA, 1986), p. 170, citing Dunmore to Hillsborough, May 1, 1772, PRO, CO 5/1372, WMQ 16 (1907-1908), 44.]

Following the gunpowder incident, Dunmore wrote to Dartmouth of his intentions “to arm all my own Negroes and receive all others that will come to me whom I shall declare free.” Such a troop would “reduce the refractory people of this colony to obedience.”[47] And Virginia’s leaders continued to fear the possibility of armed slaves, and their racist diatribes began to fill the pages of the Gazette. Typical was the article accusing the governor of planning “to take the field as generalissimo at the head of the Africans. . .N.B. The BLACK LADIES, is it supposed [sic], will be jollily entertained in the p_______e.”[48]

One week later Dunmore fled Williamsburg, taking refuge aboard the HMS Fowey. At first, following the governor’s flight, his officers refrained from actively encouraging slaves to resist or flee their masters. But Dunmore continued to hold over Virginians’ heads the nightmare of free armed slaves, recognizing that he had lighted a fire that would not be easily quenched. “My declaration,” he wrote, “that I would arm and set free such Slaves as should assist me if I was attacked has stirred up fears in them which cannot easily subside.” For their parts, the burgesses castigated Dunmore for fomenting “a Scheme, the most diabolical, . . . to offer Freedom to Our Slaves, and turn them against their Masters.”[49]

Virginia’s Africans soon began to flee to the British in large numbers. On July 26, a slave belonging to William Nutt of Northumberland County, stole a pettiauger (a small boat) from Thomas Pinckard (Lancaster Co.). Pinckard thought it “more than probable” that the black was headed to Norfolk “where (from a Report that has lately prevailed) he may expect to be harboured and protected.” [Dixon & Hunter September 2, 1775.]

Reports in the Gazette began to indicate that significant numbers of slaves were escaping to join the British. As Dunmore’s force grew, his problems of supply became pressing, and armed British parties began provisioning raids along the river. White Virginians noted the possibility of blacks serving among the raiders, and one rash white Virginian, who may have been publisher Pinkney himself, even advocated arming slaves loyal to their Virginia masters to show the British that their plans to employ slaves against them would not work. Needless to say, it was not taken seriously.

Gloucester Town, Friday, July 13, 1775. It is certain that a boat from the Foway or Otter landed several armed men on an island in the lower end of this county, who stole 14 sheep and a cow. The owner of them alarmed his neighbours; but before they could arm themselves the robbers had made off. However, the people, who are now well furnished with arms, &c. will be ready to give them a warm reception, should they favour them with another visit. Quere, Are not the negro slaves, now on board the Fowey, which are under the g-------r's protection, in actual rebellion, and punishable as such? Is it not high time to shew the administration how little they have to expect from that part of their bloody plan, by arming our trusty slaves ourselves?[50]

By some accounts, British officers continued to act the gentlemen, on at least one occasion returning several runaways who had come aboard the ships. In July, after Dunmore’s arrival in Elizabeth River, Norfolk Borough officials sent a deputation to Dunmore’s captains thanking them “for their generous Behaviour in discourageing the Application of Sundry Slaves and intreat them, that should any apply, that they would be pleased to secure them until sent for. . .” [(Dixon & Hunter), July 26 1775; Tarter, Order Book, 186.] But soon white solidarity and respect for property proved weaker than the exigencies of revolution. The Norfolk Gazette had printed numerous pieces criticizing the governor, and in September, British troops landed in Norfolk and seized John Holt's printing press.  Blacks cheered as the printing press was carried out. [Wood, "'Dream,'" p. 177, citing Virginia Gazette, October 7, 1775 and Constitutional Gazette, October 21, 1775.]

On the other side of Hampton Roads, Joseph Harris, a slave belonging to Hampton resident Henry King, who was an expert waterman and pilot, had offered his services to the British. Placed aboard the tender Liberty, Harris’s knowledge of the harbor and its creeks and inlets served the British well. On September 2, when a violent storm swept through eastern Virginia, Harris helped his captain, Matthew Squire, make his way across the harbor to the safety of the Otter after the Liberty ran aground off Hampton. Virginians plundered the tender’s equipment and burned the vessel. Their anger, however, was directed toward Squire, whom they castigated for “harbouring gentlemen’s negroes, and suffering his sailors to steal poultry, hogs, &c.”[51] Squire demanded that they returned the stolen stores, and when the Virginians replied that they would comply after Squire returned their slaves, the British officer with a small squadron attacked Hampton on October 27. It was the first real armed confrontation in Virginia. The British boats were driven off by heavy fire, and Harris again helped his captain to safety. Patriots captured another British tender: among its crew were several runaways, including a number of blacks and Joseph Wilson, alias Joseph Smith, a Scottish convict servant, whom George Washington had purchased to paint Mount Vernon.[52]

Other skirmishes followed. As white Virginians filled the columns of the newspapers with racist expressions of fears of armed blacks, the conflict escalated. On November 15, at Kemp’s Landing, Dunmore defeated a small force of Princess Anne militia commanded by Arthur Lawson and Joseph Hutchings. Hutchings reportedly was captured by one of his own slaves who had joined the British. White Virginians expressed their outrage in the pages of the Gazette:

WE hear from Smithfield that this day doctor Foushee, from Norfolk, is just arrived there and gives intelligence that the king of the blacks, alias pirate, alias Dunmore, and his banditti, consisting of regular soldiers, sailors, negroes, and Scotchmen, in number about 350, marched to Great Bridge, in Norfolk county, in order to take up the bridge, and reconnoitre the ground, expecting our troops to meet them by that time, and give them battle: but being well informed that they were not near, and hearing of about 150 of the Princess Anne militia being on their march to meet our men, instead of waiting for our regulars, marched in quest of those few friends in that part of the world, who with bravery, and warmed with the justice of their cause, fought with courage, which we hope will shine in every American’s heart, till overpowered with numbers, were obliged to retreat, with the loss of colonel T.R. Walker, Mr. John Reade, and two other gentlemen, who were killed on the spot, and colonel Hutchings, and a few others, taken prisoners. There were not men enough left in Norfolk to guard the shipping, not even one left on shore to stand as centinel. From this we may conceive the strength of our unnatural enemy in that quarter.[53]

Buoyed by his victory, Dunmore released his proclamation, which he had been holding since November 7. It announced a freedom for “all indented servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to rebels). . .that are able an willing to bear arms, they joining His MAJESTY’S Troops, as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing the Colony to a proper sense of their duty, to His Majesty's crown and dignity.”[54]

Dunmore’s proclamation galvanized many Virginia slaves into action. On Aquia Creek, in Stafford County, Charles, “a very shrewd sensible fellow” who could read and write, fled owner Robert Brent. Charles had been Brent’s personal servant, and was thus “well known through most parts of Virginia and Maryland,” and Brent believed he had run off to join Dunmore, as he put it, “and as I have reason to believe his design of going off was long premeditated, and that he has gone off with some accomplice, I am apprehensive he may prove daring and resolute.” Furthermore, Brent attributed his flight not to “dread of whipping (for he has always been remarkably indulged, indeed too much so) but from a determined resolution to get liberty.” But in a note to a later advertisement, Brent remarked that he had new information: Charles had been carried off in an oyster boat, along with a white servant belonging to Andrew Leitch, by one Kelly. Brent concluded by offering a reward of ten pounds for the return of Charles, and “a handsome gratuity to any person who can convict Kelly of  having carried him off.”[55]

Six bondsmen ran off from Prince George County on November 26. They commandeered a yawl and sailed down to the capes where two of them, Joe and Dick, were captured and lodged in the public jail in Williamsburg. According to his master, Edmund Ruffin, Joe had “repented of the expedition,” and left the other five at Mulberry Island. On paying the charges for imprisoning him, Ruffin reclaimed his property. Dick, however, was adjudged “incorrigible” by the Committee of Safety and ordered shipped to the West Indies “as a Terrour to others,” but died before the order was carried out. The other four Ruffin runaways, Harry, an Indian, Lewis, “an excellent wheelwright and wagon maker,” field hand Aaron, and 18-year-old Matthew, were outlawed, and Ruffin assumed that they had joined Dunmore.[56]

Other bound laborers who took the opportunity offered by Dunmore’s proclamation included two servants and a slave who ran off from Isaac Zane’s Marlborough Iron Works in Frederick County Virginia. Charles White, a radical stocking weaver from Rutlandshire in Great Britain, transported as a convict the year before, and James Leighton, of Cambridgeshire, ran off with Will, “a notorious runaway” who had an iron collar on his neck. Zane believed that the three men would make for a seaport, as “White has been heard to say some atrocious things in respect to the dispute between Great Britain and the colonies.” White managed to get aboard a warship at Fredericksburg using the name Johnson. But he was detected and captured, only to escape again in June, having “often been heard to express a Desire to get on Board a Man of War.”[57]

The radical stocking weaver seems to have been a one-man crime wave. Captured again, he confessed to stealing a horse and was lodged in the Chesterfield County jail. But he soon escaped one more time, and owner Zane believed that he would try to join up with revolutionary troops in the southern colonies, “or, if possible, to the Enemy, as he had used the most diabolical Practices to corrupt the Minds of his fellow Servants before he first ran away.”[58]

Dunmore was no humanitarian. His proclamation offered freedom only to able-bodied slaves of Virginians in rebellion; slaves belonging to loyalists were not encouraged to join unless their masters brought them along. But while apologists for slavery have contended that the runaways who enlisted in Dunmore’s regiment found themselves little better off than they had been as slaves, it is obvious that most of those who ran did so out of an overwhelming desire for freedom. As bad as conditions were in Dunmore’s fleet after his withdrawal from Norfolk in 1776, freedom under British rule was preferable to slavery under patriots. Black members of Dunmore’s “Ethiopian Regiment” wore badges with the motto, “Liberty to Slaves.”

If Dunmore’s proclamation moved many to try to escape bondage, it certainly confirmed the worst fears of the white Virginia establishment. They heaped scorn on their governor, publicly warning their slaves  not to join Dunmore, for “such was [Dunmore’s] baseness,” that some of the runaways “he sent to the West Indies, where these unfortunate creatures were disposed of to defray his lordship’s expences.” In December Goochland County magnate Archibald Cary wrote to Richard Henry Lee, “The Proclamation from Ld D, has had a most extensive good consequence, Men of all ranks resent the pointing a dagger to their Throats thru the hands of their Slaves.”[59] White Virginians also resented the theft of their property that Dunmore’s call represented; indeed defense of their rights to property, even property in human beings, lay at the heart of patriot opposition to Britain. Robert Carter Nicholas, Treasurer of the colony and one of Virginia’s richest men, summed up this point of view: Dunmore was doing the business of the “system of tyranny adopted by the Ministry and Parliament of Great Britain. . .if, by his single fiat, he can strip us of our property. . .let us bid adieu to every thing valuable in life.”[60] Nicholas led the fight that delayed the adoption of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in the summer of 1776, asserting that blacks could not be included in the document’s ringing first article: “That all Men are born equally free and independant.”[61]

Estimates of the total number of slaves who joined Dunmore vary, and overall the number of blacks who fought with Dunmore represented but a small proportion of the colony’s 250,000 slaves. Several of the Afro-Virginians who ran away in 1775 may have simply used the British opportunity as a stepping stone to greater freedom. The aforementioned Tom, a thirty-two-year-old slave “with remarkable red eyes,” ran off from owner Francis Boykin in September 1775 and joined the British. By January of the following year, he had left Dunmore’s “crew,” and sought his freedom elsewhere.[62] Others sought escape in the general instability. Will, “very sensible, and a great Rogue,” broke jail in Brunswick County in September 1776. Jailer George Walker advertised that Will was “well acquainted with Nansemond, Norfolk, and Elizabeth City Counties,” and he believed the runaway would make for “the Frontiers, as he was seen lately going upwards, had an Axe with him, and declared he would leave the Country.” Walker concluded with a warning to slave-catchers to “iron him well,” as Will “expects to be hanged,” and was “dexterous at breaking Doors, &c.” A number of the slaves who ran off to join Dunmore, however, had already run for freedom once, and their actions provide ample testimony that the bondsmen who joined the British did possess a sincere desire for freedom.[63]

Gaining confidence from his growing force and the victory at Kemp’s Landing, Dunmore began constructing fortifications at Norfolk, aided by local loyalists and his mixed force of regular soldiers and former slaves and servants. Great Bridge to the south, which commanded the southern Elizabeth River crossing, became the key to the governor’s defense of the borough, and black and white troops under British command proved effective in holding off Virginia troops commanded by Colonel William Woodford. Then, on December 9, Dunmore rashly decided to attack the Virginians dug in at the opposite end of the long causway. The attack was a disaster for the British, and Dunmore quickly realized it was necessary to abandon Norfolk. In the meantime, thirty-three loyalists and blacks had been captured, and, according to the Gazette, were marched to Williamsburg, handcuffed black to white. The record of the prisoners’ examination by the Virginia Committee of Safety, however, reveals that only one of the thirty-three prisoners, Henry Crouch, a sergeant in Princess Anne County Loyalist Captain John Saunders’s company, was actually white. The rest were slaves who had run off to join Dunmore.[64]

Several of the slaves captured at Great Bridge had made bids for freedom earlier. Caesar, a slave belonging to John Hancock, of Princess Anne County, was among those wounded and captured at Great Bridge. Hauled before the Committee of Safety, he testified that he had only joined the British because his master had forced him to. Perhaps the Committee did not believe him. Caesar had run away from Hancock a year earlier, when his master suspected he had gone to Norfolk. At any rate, Caesar was ordered conveyed to the lead mines in Fincastle. Another chronic runaway captured at this time was Dick, who had absconded from his master Hezekiah Halliday of Isle of Wight way back in August of 1774. It is not known whether he had been free since that time.[65]

Large numbers of Virginia slaves continued to escape to the governor throughout 1776. Gabriel and Ben, of Spotsylvania, ran away that May. Gabriel was a waiting boy, Ben a waterman. The two stole a couple of horses, and owner Robert Hart suspected that “they will endeavour to get on board some of the Governor’s fleet.”[66] One of the most unusual stories subsequent to Dunmore’s recruiting call came from a suspected runaway captured in Essex County in late June, 1776. Abraham, a middle-aged, middle-sized African, told the jailer in broken English that he had come to Virginia from the West Indies, “sent here in a ship with many others from Barbados, by his master there, to fight for lord Dunmore.” He had jumped ship soon after his arrival, and was taken up “at Layton’s warehouse.” Jailer James Bowdrie, suspicios of the African, with “his face marked in the manner the grown negroes from Guinea usually are,” advertised for his master to come and collect him.[67]

Dunmore’s activities had even moved some white servants to action; after all, the governor’s November proclamation had offered freedom for “all indented Servants, Negroes, or others,” who joined British colors. As early as July 1775, William Rollings, who “came down as a waggoner with the Chesterfield volunteers,” and camped near the palace in the wake of Dunmore’s retreat, ran away to join the governor aboard the man of war. Rollings (Rollins) was a repeat runaway who had absconded two years earlier.[68]

Joseph Wilson was another servant who ran off following Dunmore’s flight from Williamsburg in spring of 1775. Advertised as a runaway by the name Joseph Smith, Wilson was the painter whom George Washington had purchased to paint Mount Vernon. He had run off, joined the British, and was wounded and captured in the British attack on Hampton in October. After his wound healed, Smith/Wilson, who refused to return to Washington, was to be sold “to some of the back people,” after receiving a public whipping.[69]

Washington had chronic problems with slave and servant runaways. His cousin Lund, whom Washington had asked to oversee things at Mount Vernon in his absence, wrote him a long missive in November 1775, cataloging problems with runaways. There was the unnamed “Negroe Fellow,” a runaway who had been discovered in Maryland, but who “woud run away immediately, for he was so attached to his Wife & children that he had repeatedly declared he had rather Die than leave them.” Following the November proclamation, Lund actually wrote that he feared the effect of Mount Vernon’s white servants on the slaves:

Our Dunmore has at length Publishd his much dreaded proclamation—declareg Freedom to All Indented Servts & Slaves (the Property of Rebels) that will repair to his majestys Standard—being able to bear Arms—What effect it will have upon those sort of people I cannot tell—I think if there was no white Servts in this family I shoud be under no apprehensition about the Slaves, however I am determined, that if any of them Create any confusition to make & [an] example of him, S[p]ears who is at worck here says there is not a man of them, but woud leave us, if they believed they coud make there Escape—Tom Spears Excepted--& yet they have no fault to find[.] Liberty is sweet.[70]

Thomas Spears, however, had already run away that April, along with a skilled brickmaker named William Webster. Webster had run away once before. Washington employed two servant-catchers, James Williams and William McDaniel, who pursued the two men across the Potomac to Maryland, then back into Virginia to Nanjemoy, Boyd's Hole, Stafford Court House and Dumfries. Webster was captured soon after his elopement; Spears was back working on Washington’s estate by December as Lund Washington’s letter attests.[71]

Another white servant who made a bid for freedom in the fall of 1775 was Baker Fullam, personal servant and groom of Thomas Blackburn of Fairfax, who ran off twice. He stole a large quantity of clothing from the tutor of Blackburn’s children, and Blackburn surmised that he “probably he may offer his services to lord Dunmore, who, I am told, does not object to the colour or condition of any.” Interestingly, the aggrieved owner also put forward an alternate explanation. Fullam had run away previously: an “elopement from Richmond at the last Convention, where he was apprehended, and brought to me soon after my return.” On this occasion, “I suspect he is now harboured by some of the free mulattoes or negroes in that neighbourhood.”[72]

In the summer of the following year, as Dunmore’s force lay at Gwynn’s Island off Middlesex County, William Gill, an indented servant working at the nearby Neabsco iron furnace, ran off, stealing a quantity of clothing from his fellow servants. Gill was a clever man; the furnace superintendant Thomas Lawson noted that “It is likely he has had influence enough over some one of his acquaintances to forge a certificate of his being a freeman, and as such may pass wherever he pleases.” Lawson believed he was off to join the army, most likely Dunmore’s troops: “If he has not already engaged himself as a soldier or mariner in the continental service, it is more than probable that his intention and principles, which are none of the best, may lead him to Gwyn's island.”[73]

During the summer of 1776, following the destruction of Norfolk, as Dunmore abandoned the Elizabeth River and sailed up the Bay, whites and blacks continued to run off to join the British. Thomas Cartwright, an English bricklayer, was thought by his master William Shedden to be headed for Dunmore's forces off Gwynn's Island as "I am told by his Fellow Servants he frequently wished he could get there." [(Dixon & Hunter), June 29, 1776.]

On the other hand, other runaways sought to take advantage of the general confusion that war brought. English convict servant James Deverix, who ran off in June 1776, was thought by owner William Wyatt to be headed "to enlist under Pretence of being a Friend to the glorious Cause of America." Wyatt concluded that Deverix meant simply to desert whenever the opportunity arose. [(Dixon & Hunter), June 29, 1776.]

In the general upheaval and suspicion,  some runaways who had maintained their freedom for quite a while were captured. In October Reuben, who had run away some sixteen years earlier from his master in North Carolina, was captured and lodged in Middlesex County jail. The unfortunate prisoner, who had been living as a free man by the name of William Britch, was sentenced to death, for crime or crimes unknown.[74]

The colonial army and militia were troubled by desertions throughout the early years of the conflict. Especially during the summer of 1776, there were a great many advertisements for deserters in the pages of the Virginia Gazette. In July deserter James Vaughan stole a horse and ran off from his regiment encamped at Gwynn’s Island. He carried with him a green broadcloth coat trimmed with silver “which he had purchased at Dunmore’s sale.”

Subsequently, British policy aimed at the South also promised freedom for slaves who would desert to the British cause. [Egerton, 5-6; cf. Berlin, Slaves Without Masters, 16; Quarles, Negro in the American Revolution, 115; Sylvia Frey, “Between Slavery and Freedom,” JSH (August 1983), 380-2, 396; Frey, “The British and the Blacks,” The Historian (Feb. 1976), 229-33; Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves, 418-19. See also Sylvia Frey, Water from the Rock (Princeton, NJ, 1991); Woody Holton]. Such an atmosphere could produce the following exchange on a Williamsburg street after a white upper-class woman corrected an African-American who had failed to get out of her way:  “Stay, you d___d white bitch, till Lord Dunmore and his black regiment come, and then we will see who is to take the wall.” [cited in Wood, “‘Dream Deferred,’” 177-8.]

The Revolutionary War itself offered opportunities for bondsmen to escape slavery by enlisting on either side. Benjamin Harwood, “son of a white man,” escaped his master living near Williamsburg and lit out for the west. Last heard from, he was following a wagon train on its way to Frederick, Maryland, and had petitioned the wagon master several times to join, insisting that he was a free man.[75]

Other Virginia slaves actively fought for the British. Will, or Billy, who ran off from the Neabsco Iron Works, had been the personal servant of Thomas Lawson as a boy, and was thus so “well known to almost all my Acquaintances” that “there is the less Occasion for a particular Description of him.” Outgrowing his usefulness as a valet, Will, “capable of doing almost any sort of business,” became an iron founder, stone mason, and miller. He ran away in 1774, then turns up later before the court of Westmoreland County, accused of “[quote]” Will, described at the time of his flight in 1774 as having “a remarkable Swing in his Walk,” and possessing the “surprising Knack. . .of gaining the good Graces of almost every Body who will listen to his bewitching and deceitful Tongue,” was apparently a real leader of men.

Runaway slaves joined bands of Tory marauders that operated in the Lower Tidewater and on the Eastern Shore. The most famous of these was that of Josiah Phillips, who remained a terror in Princess Anne and Norfolk Counties for a couple of years, operating out of the Dismal Swamp until he was captured and hanged in 1780.

Another group active on the Eastern Shore, was that of the “infamous” Stephen Mister and Carmine, who enticed a number of Shore bondsmen away to join them in 1779.

After the Revolution, the runaway ads offer more evidence of slaves imbued with revolutionary ideology. Isaac, for example, who ran away from his master in Prince George County Maryland in August 1788, “determined to render himself independent by any means, even in defending himself against any body.” Persons attempting to apprehend him were warned of his dedication to personal liberty, as “He wounded a man who endeavoured to stop him when he went away.”[76]

In 1785, another Marylander who claimed to be free ran away. Stephen Butler, close to fifty years of age, and “very well known as a runaway for thirty years past,” ran off in Newport, Charles County.[77] Butler was a member of a remarkable family of bondspersons in Charles County, some of whom were able to win their freedom in the Maryland courts. Family members claimed descent from Eleanor Butler (called Irish Nell), a seventeenth-century servant who had married Charles, an African slave.  The family lineage was well-known throughout the county, and even before the Revolution, Irish Nell’s grandson and great granddaughter had made a claim to freedom based on the fact that as descendants of a free white woman, they could not be held.  On that occasion they failed, as the court ruled that by a law of 1663, repealed in 1681, white women who married slaves became slaves themselves as did their children. The decision in Butler v. Boarman, decided in 1770 was that because Nell’s marriage took place before the repeal of the law, her offspring were indeed slaves, even if born after 1681.[78]

In the more favorable atmosphere after the Revolution, some Butlers were able to win their cause. In 1787, in the case of Mary Butler the General Court and Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that she was not a slave, as there was no documentary record of Irish Nell’s marriage to the slave Charles. The ruling did not, however, result in a wholesale freeing of the Butlers--they still had to petition the courts, and masters were reluctant to manumit them.[79]

Yet while their masters resisted the rulings, other white residents of Charles County helped the Butlers by testifying to their knowledge of Irish Nell: “In the absence of documentary proof of Nell’s offspring, her descendants might not have gained their liberty had not white people entered their knowledge of the family into the public record.” And apparently Charles County’s whites helped the Butlers in other way as well. Stephen Butler, who by his master’s account had absconded more than one hundred times, had “been frequently concealed by white people.”[80]

Some such as Stephen, frustrated by the legal delays and masters’ refusals to accept the court’s decision, ran off. In August 1789, George Butler, “one of those who has petitioned the general court for freedom,” ran away before the decision was final. Returning from Annapolis, George informed his neighbors that he was free by virtue of a court order. His erstwhile master, Edmond Plowden, however, disagreed, and had him placed into service. When George refused to act the part of a slave, Plowden “ had him corrected for his ill behaviour,” and George decided to abscond.[81]

Another runaway who had proved reluctant to return to slavery was Ralph Butler, who left the plantation in May to visit the court. He returned in June, but “refused to work with the other negroes, and left his master immediately.” Described as “a remarkable handsome fellow, a great laugher,” Ralph was reportedly making a living collecting fees for ferrying people across the South River near Annapolis.[82]

That summer (1789) the contagion of freedom spread from Charles County to neighboring St. Mary’s County. Bess and Jere Butler, mother and son, ran off from Hanry Hill in August. Hill guessed they would head for Annapolis, “as they pretend to to be descendants of the famous Nell Butler.”[83]

By the early 1790s there were petitions before the court from more than 100 slaves, including other families--Thomases and Shorters, for example--claiming descent from other white women.

[1] Northampton County Minute Book, 28, 1771-1777, pp. 329-330. In the book, the record of Jacob’s trial appears immediately before the note about the Declaration.

[2] Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800. (London, 1997), 12-13; no citation given for Franklin assertion.

[3] For example, see W.W. Hening Statutes at Large. . .

[4] W.P. Palmer, ed., Calendar of State Papers (Richmond, 1883), I, 129.

[5] Gooch to Board of Trade, n.d. [1729], reprinted in VMHB, 28 (1920), pp. 299-300. Interestingly, in the same letter, Gooch sings the praises of an aged slave who was an accomplished physician, being well able to treat venereal disease. Gooch had purchased the bondsman’s freedom and persuaded him to reveal his secret recipe for the cure.

[6] H.R. McIlwaine, Journals of the House of Burgesses, 1742-1747, 1748-1749 (Richmond, 1909), pp. 91, 95.

[7] See Gooch to Bishop of London, May 28, 1731, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, XXXII (May 1924), pp. 322-23; H.L. McIlwaine, ed., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, IV, 288, 462-464.

[8] R.A. Brock, ed., Papers of Dinwiddie, 2, p. 102.

[9] Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Co.), May 2, 1766.

[10] Virginia Gazette (Rind), Jan. 25, 1770, (P&D) April 5, 1770; Maryland Gazette, Feb. 8, 1770; McIlwaine, ed., Journals of the House of Burgesses, 1770-1772, p. 92; New York Journal or General Advertiser, February 15, 1770.

[11] Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser, Baltimore, January 27, 1778.

[12] Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), September 14, 1769; Boyd, et al., Papers of Thomas Jefferson, I, 33.

[13] W. Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African-American Seamen in the Age of Sail, (Cambridge, MA, 1997), p. 24.

[14] Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), January 7, 1773.

[15] Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), April 21, 1768.

[16] Douglas R. Egerton, Gabriel’s Rebellion, Virginia’s Slave Conspiracies, 1800 & 1802, (Chapel Hill, NC, 1993), pp. 119-123.

[17] Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), Supplement, September 5, 1766; (Rind), July 28, 1768.

[18] Virginia Gazette (Rind), September 22, 1774.

[19] Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), August 5, 1773.

[20] Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), August 4, 1768.

[21] Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), April 16, 1767. Gerald Mullin, Flight and Rebellion, pp. 111-112.

[22] Rhys Isaac offers the classic account of the “evangelical challenge” to the Virginia gentry in The Transformation of Virginia. See also Douglas Egerton, Gabriel’s Rebellion, p. 7; James Essig, “A Very Wintry Season: Virginia Baptists and Slavery,” VMHB, 88 (April 1980), 174-5.

[23] Peter Wood, “‘The Dream Deferred’: Black Freedom Struggles on the Eve of White Independence,” in Gary Y. Okihiro, In Resistance: Studies in African, Caribbean, and Afro-American History. (Amherst, MA, 1986), p. 182, n. 4; citing Isaac, Transformation, p. 201,220.

[24] James Essig, “A Very Wintry Season: Virginia Baptists and Slavery, 1785-1797,” VMHB, 88 (April 1980), 176, citing Jack Greene, ed., The Diary of Colonel Landon Carter of Sabine Hall, 1752-1778 (Charlottesville, 1965), I, 378. When one of Carter’s overseers converted, the irascible gentleman wrote that his “horrid, hellish, rogue” of an employee was now useless as an overseer of slaves. Ibid., citing Greene, ed., Carter Diary, II, 1056-1057.

[25] Essig, “Season,” 176, citing Lewis Peyton Little, Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia (Lynchburg, 1938), 259. [cf. Gazette?]

[26] Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), March 26, 1767.

[27] Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), July 21, 1774; (Purdie), January 19, 1776.

[28] Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), October 1, 1767.

[29] Virginia Gazette (Rind), October 27, 1768.

[30] Virginia Gazette (Rind), February 27, 1772.

[31] Virginia Gazette (Rind), April 23, 1772.

[32] Sylvia Frey, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age, (Princeton, NJ, 1991), p. 49.

[33]Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), December 17, 1767; December 22, 1768; November 2, 1769; January 3, 1771; Chesterfield County Order Book no. 4, 1767-1771, p. 55.

[34] Edward Dumbauld Thomas Jefferson and the Law, (Norman, OK, 1978), pp. 84-85; Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), August 16, 1770.

[35] Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), July 15, 1773.

[36] Virginia Gazette (Rind), September 15, 1774.

[37] Virginia Gazette (Rind), September 1, 1774.

[38] Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), September 30, 1773.

[39] Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), June 30, 1774.

[40] Virginia Gazette (Purdie), June 16, 1775.

[41] Frey, Water from the Rock, pp. 49-50.

[42] Madison to Bradford, November 26, 1774, in Hutchinson and Rachal, eds., Madison Papers, I, 129-130. The incident to which Madison refers remains unknown.

[43] Frey, Water from the Rock, p. 55, citing a speech of Edmund Burke, 22 March 1775; Bradford to Madison, January 4, 1775, Madison Papers, p. 132.

[44] “Municipal Common Hall to Governor Dunmore: An Humble Address,” Virginia Gazette (Pinkney), April 20, 1775; reprint in Robert Scribner, ed., Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, vol. III, “The Breaking Storm and the Third Convention, 1775,” p. 55.

[45] Frey, Water from the Rock, p. 55, citing “Deposition of Dr. William Pasteur, 1775,” VMHB, 13 (1905), p. 49.

[46] Madison to Bradford, June 19, 1775, Madison Papers, vol. 1, p. 153; Quarles, Negro in the American Revolution, p. 22; cf. “Deposition of John Randolph. . .” VMHB 15 (Oct. 1907), p. 150; Gazette (Pinkney), May 4, 1775; cf. Virginia Gazette (Dixon & Hunter), Supplement, April 29, 1775 for a report of two slaves executed for planning an insurrection. See also Sylvia Frey, “Between Slavery and Freedom,” JSH 49 (August 1983), 375-398; Frey, Water from the Rock, p. 55

[47] Dunmore to Dartmouth, May 1, 1775, CO5/1373, PRO.

[48] Virginia Gazette (Purdie), June 1, 1775; See also Sydney Kaplan, “The ‘Domestic Insurrections’ of the Declaration of Independence,” Journal of Negro History, 61 (July 1976), p. 243.

[49] Wood, “’Dream’,” p. 174, citing Dunmore to Secretary of State, June 25, 1775, PRO CO 5/1353, cited in Ellen Gibson Wilson, The Loyal Blacks (New York, 1976), p. 25; McIlwaine, et al., Journal of the House of Burgesses, 1773-1776, p. 256.

[50] Virginia Gazette (Pinkney), July 13, 1775.

[51] Virginia Gazette (Purdie), September 8, 1775; see Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the Revolution in Virginia, (Chapel Hill, NC, 1999), p. 134.

[52] Holton, Forced Founders, p. 134; Virginia Gazette (Purdie), November 3, 1775, (Dixon & Hunter), September 23, 1775, (Pinkney), November 2, 1775; Abbot, et al., eds., Papers of George Washington, Rev. Ser., II, p. 479. Wilson was advertised as Joseph Smith in Purdie’s Gazette, August 25, 1775.

[53] Virginia Gazette, (Pinkney), November 16, 1775.

[54] cited in Quarles, Negro in American Revolution, p. 19; Holton, Forced Founders, p. 156; Selby, Revolution in Virginia, p. 64; John Page to Thos. Jefferson, [Nov.] 24, 1775, in Boyd, Papers, I, 265; Dunmore Proclamation in Robert Scribner and Brent Tarter, eds., Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, 7 vols., (Richmond, 1976-79), IV, 334-335; Virginia Gazette (Dixon & Hunter), Dec. 2, 1775; Lists of names of slaves who joined Dunmore can be found in Graham Russell Hodges, ed., The Black Loyalist Directory, New York, 1996; see also Sarah Stroud, “Tracing Runaway Slaves from Norfolk County, Virginia,” Randolph-Macon Women’s College, Fall, 1995.

[55] Virginia Gazette (Dixon & Hunter), November 18, 1775.

[56] Virginia Gazette (Pinkney), January 6, 1776; Scribner and Tarter, eds., Revolutionary Virginia, V, 238, 240.

[57] Holton, Forced Founders, p. 154, n. 31; Virginia Gazette (Pinkney), July 13, 1775, November 23, 1775; (Dixon & Hunter), June 29, 1776.

[58] Gazette, (Dixon & Hunter), November 22, 1776.

[59] Virginia Gazette (Pinkney), November 30, 1775; Cary to Richard Henry Lee, Dec. 24, 1775, in Paul P. Hoffman, ed., The Lee Family Papers, 1742-1795, microfilm, Charlottesville, Va.

[60] Selby, Revolution in Virginia, p. 66, citing Proceedings of the Convention, December 1775, pp. 11-12. See also Greene, ed., Carter Diary, II, p. 989.

[61] Robert Rutland, Papers of George Mason, 3 vols., (Chapel Hill, NC, 1970), I, pp. 275, 277.

[62] Virginia Gazette (Pinkney), January 20, 1776.

[63] Virginia Gazette (Dixon & Hunter), October 11, 1776. Benjamin Quarles, in The Negro in the American Revolution, estimates that only about 800 blacks joined the governor. Alan Kulikoff, in Tobacco and Slaves, offers the higher figure of 3,000 to 5,000 for blacks joining the British throughout the war. For repeat runaways who joined Dunmore, see below, Caesar, property of John Hancock, and Hezekiah Halliday’s Dick.

[64] Selby, Revolution in Virginia, pp. 73-4; Scribner and Tarter, eds., Revolutionary Virginia, V, 423-424.

[65] Virginia Gazette or, Norfolk Intelligencer, February 23, 1775; Palmer, ed. Calendar of Virginia State Papers, vol. 8, pp. 77-79; Virginia Gazette, (Purdie & Dixon), September 8, 1774.

[66] Virginia Gazette (Dixon & Hunter), May 18, 1776.

[67] Virginia Gazette (Purdie), July 12, 1776.

[68] Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon), September 9, 1773, (Pinkney), July 13, 1775.

[69] Virginia Gazette (Purdie), August 25, 1775; Lund Washington to George Washington, Dec. 3, 1775, in Abbot, et al. Papers, Rev. Ser., 2, 479.

[70] Holton, Forced Founders, p. 134; cf. Virginia Gazette (Purdie), Nov. 3, 1775, (Dixon & Hunter), Oct. 28, 1775; Lund Washington to George Washington, Dec. 3, 1775, in Abbot, et al. Papers, Rev. Ser., 2, 479-80.

[71] Virginia Gazette (Pinkney), May 4, 1775; Abbott et al., eds., Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 10, pp. 341-342.

[72] Virginia Gazette (Purdie), December 1, 1775.

[73] Virginia Gazette (Purdie), July 12, 1776.

[74] Virginia Gazette (Purdie), October 11, 1776.

[75] Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser September 1, 1778.

[76] Virginia Herald and Fredericksburg Advertiser (Timothy Green and Co.), August 28, 1788.

[77] Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser, June 9, 1785.

[78] Jean B. Lee, The Price of Nationhood: The American Revolution in Charles County, Chapel Hill, NC, 1994, p. 351, n. 55.

[79] Lee, Price of Nationhood, pp. 211-212.

[80] Lee, Price of Nationhood, p. 212; Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser, June 9, 1785.

[81] Maryland Gazette (Annapolis), August 13, 1789.

[82] Maryland Gazette (Annapolis), August 27, 1789.

[83] Maryland Gazette, August 27, 1789.