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Runaway Slaves and Servants in Colonial Virginia

Runaway slaves and indentured servants were a persistent problem for landowners in colonial Virginia. They fled from abusive masters, to take a break from work, or in search of family members from whom they had been separated. Some servants were lured away by neighbors attempting to steal labor. Early court cases reveal that whites and blacks sometimes ran off together but that punishments for the latter could be much harsher. As early as 1643, the General Assembly passed laws that established penalties for runaway slaves and servants, regulated their movement, identified multiple offenders (by branding them or cutting their hair), and provided rewards for their capture. In October 1669, the burgesses admitted that these laws "have hitherto in greate parte proved ineffectuall," as slaves and servants continued to brave wide rivers, often dangerous Indians, and the storm-tossed Chesapeake Bay. They fled mostly into Maryland but sometimes as far north as New Netherland and New England. In 1705 a sweeping new law allowed planters to discipline slaves to death or, in some cases, to kill runaways without penalty. Robert "King" Carter sought and received permission to dismember his runaways. Beginning in 1736, landowners advertised in the Virginia Gazette for their runaways; they describe more than 3,500 fugitives from 1736 until 1783. These advertisements affirmed a lingering desire for freedom on the part of slaves. MORE...

 

Early Years

The labor of indentured servants and, to a much smaller degree, enslaved Africans made the tobacco economy of early Virginia possible. Servants signed contracts, or indentures, binding them to work for a number of years, usually four to seven, and in return received passage to Virginia. In addition, their masters provided them with food, clothing, and lodging. Although in some cases Africans worked as servants, many more were enslaved, purchased through the Spanish and Portuguese or, beginning late in the seventeenth century, from the Royal African Company. Virginia Indians were enslaved in small numbers, as well.

At first, the lives of servants and slaves were similar. They were owned by their masters and they worked shoulder to shoulder in the tobacco fields—sometimes even alongside their masters and their masters' wives. Masters often used the courts to discipline their servants. The English common law, though only sparingly enforced, was meant to protect servants and slaves from mistreatment.

Still, blacks and whites sought relief from their often grueling labor and difficult work conditions by running away, sometimes together. In July 1640, two such cases appeared before the colony's judges. The decision dated July 9 describes three servants belonging to Hugh Gwyn who ran away to Maryland and were captured there. Victor, "a Dutchman," and James Gregory, "a Scotchman," were each sentenced to be whipped, and four years were added to their indentures. The third servant, "a negro named John Punch," was punished differently. Rather than take on additional years, he was made a slave for life. Scholars have argued that this decision represents the first legal distinction between Europeans and Africans to be made by Virginia courts.

In the second case, dated July 22, six white servants and a black man were caught running away, and their punishments varied. While four of the servants received lesser sentences, the other two were ordered whipped and branded on the cheek with the letter R, and several years were added to their indentures. One of these men was also sentenced to work for a year with a leg shackle. "Emanuel the Negro" suffered the same harsh sentence (and was also assigned a leg shackle), but because he presumably was a slave, he did not receive added years.

Three years later, the problem of fugitive servants still vexed Virginia landowners. During its March 1643 session, the General Assembly reacted to what it termed the "divers loytering runaways in the collony who very often absent themselves from their masters service." The actions of these servants cost their owners time—"sometimes in two or three monthes [the servants] cannot be found"—and, most important, money: "Whereby their said masters are at great charge in finding them, And many times even to the loss of their year's labour before they be had." As such, the legislators enacted a law that added to each captured runaway's indenture double the time gone. Those caught a second time would receive the branded R in the fashion of "Emanuel the Negro." And any runaway carrying "either peice, powder and shott, And leave either all or any of them with the Indians," on conviction, would "suffer death."

"Ineffectuall" Laws

By carefully studying Virginia's laws, historians have been able to track the continuing problem of runaway servants and slaves. During the General Assembly's March 1661 session, for instance, lawmakers addressed the circumstance of "English running away with negroes." Landowners saw blacks and whites working together as threatening because slaves had less to lose if caught. Pressure could be exerted on white servants, who still had a chance at legal freedom. If caught, the servants "shall serve for the time of the said negroes absence as they are to do for their owne by a former act." This former act, presumably from 1643, called for captured runaways to serve double the time gone; this new act now added additional time for every slave involved.

In September 1663, lawmakers worried about the "unlawful meetings of servants," and directed masters to "take especiall care that their servants doe not depart from their houses on Sundayes or any other dayes without particular lycence from them." This action foreshadowed a 1680 law, aimed at preventing "Negroes Insurrections," that begins by noting "the frequent meeting of considerable numbers of negroe slaves under pretence of feasts and burialls," suggesting this to be "of dangerous consequence." The concern was that, if allowed to meet with one another and move freely, servants and slaves were more likely to hatch plots, run away, or even rise up.

In asking masters to "take especiall care," however, the language of the 1663 act suggests that strict enforcement was not an option for the Virginia government. And in October 1669, still another law was passed, this one complaining that the previous laws "have hitherto in greate parte proved ineffectuall." This was not due to poor enforcement, according to the burgesses, but to "the wickednesse of servants who at and before their arrivall plott and contrive how they may ffree themselves from their master." To be sure, there was wickedness to go around: the lawmakers rued those members of the community who, rather than capture runaways, actually helped them. The socioeconomic differences between master and servant were not so stark as they would become later, and servants sometimes found allies among the unindentured. As a result, the new law called for a reward of a thousand pounds of tobacco to anyone who apprehended a fugitive, to be repaid by the servant through his or her own additional service. This, the act's authors hoped, would discourage runaways "when they know soe many spies are upon them."

It didn't. A year later the burgesses revised the law when the reward was deemed too steep for the colony's coffers. (A large number of runaways may have created a large number of reward claims, prompting complaints.) Rather than a thousand pounds of tobacco, slave- and servant-catchers now would receive two hundred pounds. And rather than be branded, a repeat offender instead would be "enjoyned and commanded to keepe his haire close cut," and his master fined for putting the colony to the trouble of catching him. In addition, captured runaways were to be whipped by each county sheriff who assumed even temporary custody of the servant or slave on his way back home; the farther fugitives ran, in other words, the harder it was on them if they were caught.

Running Away

Servants and slaves ran away for a number of reasons. Some fled physically or sexually abusive masters; others meant only to take a break from work or to visit friends. Some left in search of family members from whom they had been separated. Still others were enticed away by other landowners looking to steal their labor. During the summer of 1640, a servant boy named Thomas Wood died, and a subsequent investigation revealed him to have been regularly beaten and whipped by his master, Peter Walker, and Walker's hired hand, Samuel Lucas. As a result, Wood ran away several times, but each time he was caught and the beatings continued. Witnesses at the inquest suggested that Wood's treatment was typical for a boy his age, and the court agreed with Walker's claim that his servant died of disease. His corpse, the court ruled, appeared just as "anie man might be dyeinge of the Scurvey beinge much swelled."

Late in 1654, "John Casor Negro" fled the service of Anthony Johnson, preferring to work for one of Johnson's neighbors, Robert Parker. Once away from Johnson, Casor claimed that his master had held him as a slave when he actually was an indentured servant. On March 8, 1655, the Northampton County court ruled in favor of Johnson, who was himself African. At this time, his racial identity didn't matter as much as his status as a law-abiding landowner. The court ruled that Parker "most unjustly kept" Casor, ordering him to return the slave and even pay Johnson his court costs.

Servants who fled by land were forced to contend with Tidewater Virginia's wide rivers and often dangerous Indians. One servant, seeking some advantage prior to his escape attempt in 1638, tried to purchase from his master's son "a booke to learne to speake the Indyan tongue." Other servants who were experienced on the water stole boats. Most headed north to Maryland, but many others sought to make it as far as New Netherland or New England. Some went south. In 1681, Thomas Culpeper, second baron Culpeper of Thoresway, described North Carolina as "the sink of America, the refuge of renegades." Masters who could afford it mounted large, expensive search parties. In 1663, seven servants belonging to Edmund Scarborough of Accomack County stole horses, food, clothing, guns, sails, and a boat, and escaped. Scarborough hired twelve men and, for eight days each, two boats to find them. They did, but two of the servants ran away again soon thereafter. On rare occasions, masters paid Indians to find and return runaways.

After Bacon's Rebellion (1676–1677)

In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon led a rebellion against the colonial government that was fueled by fear and hatred of Indians. Although Bacon served on the governor's Council and was one of the richest men in the colony, his followers included large numbers of disaffected servants, both black and white. Not long after the rebellion, the number of white indentured servants began to drop and the number of enslaved Africans to increase greatly. At the same time, Virginia began to pass laws that instituted much more rigid distinctions between white and nonwhite, free and slave.

Some scholars have argued that the rebellion forced Virginia's landowners to acknowledge the danger of a large population of restive servants in their midst, a danger they addressed by relying more on the labor of slaves, whom they considered to be safer. Slaves, after all, were less likely to become free and take up arms against the colony. Other scholars have suggested that the move to slave labor should be linked more to economic than to social causes, but either way, slaves continued attempting to win their freedom by running away.

Virginia landowners found runaway slaves to be more manageable than servants. Because their condition came to be defined by the color of their skin, slaves were more easily identified and captured. For that reason, the law no longer found it necessary to threaten branding or to "enjoyn" offenders to keep their hair cropped short. In addition, slaves were much less likely than servants to find allies outside their masters' properties, especially in a society primed, as Virginia was, for racial animus. By this time, too, the socioeconomic gulf between rich planters and their servants had widened; by the beginning of the eighteenth century, Virginia was run by an elite planter class. Finally, when nearly all blacks were enslaved, few could do as "John Casor Negro" did in 1654 and attempt to pass for anything other than a slave.

In October 1705, the General Assembly passed a sweeping law entitled "An act concerning Servants and Slaves" that summarized and codified previous laws defining bound labor in Virginia. Regarding runaways, the law called for rewards for their capture (two hundred pounds of tobacco if the slave or servant was ten miles or more from home, one hundred pounds if between five and ten miles), lashes by their various legal custodians on the way home, and stiff penalties for any sheriff who allowed the runaways to escape. The law restricted the movement of slaves by requiring "certificates of leave in writing" and limiting their visits to other plantations to four hours "without the leave of such slave's master, mistress, or overseer."

Servants were protected from "immoderate correction"; the law forbade masters to "whip a christian white servant naked, without an order from a justice of the peace." For slaves, however, the concept of immoderate correction did not seem to exist. Should a slave "happen to be killed in such correction, it shall not be accounted felony"; in fact, the law would treat it "as if such incident had never happened." Landowners were particularly concerned about slaves that, in the past, had "run away and lie out, hid or lurking in swamps woods and other obscure places, killing hogs, and committing other injuries" to the local populace. To deal with these "outlyers," as they were called, local justices were empowered to issue proclamations that allowed any inhabitant "to kill and destroy such slaves by such ways and means as he, she, or they shall think fit," regardless of whether the slaves resisted, and "without accusation or impeachment of any crime for the same." And lest anyone hesitate to kill over worries about a slave's monetary value, "the master or owner of such slave shall be paid by the public."

The law authorized nonlethal punishments as well, the most notable being the "dismembering" of slaves. In 1707, Robert "King" Carter, one of the colony's wealthiest landowners, asked permission to chop off the toes of "two Incorrigible negroes" named Bambarra Harry and Dinah. Although gruesome, the punishment must have worked, because Carter again obtained court permission in 1725 to dismember two more slaves, Will and Bailey. Still, in 1727, runaways continued to plague Carter. In a letter to one of his property managers, dated October 10, he expressed hope that one slave woman will stay at home "for now she hath tasted of the hardship of the woods." The slave Ballazore, by contrast, "is an incorrigeable rogue[;] nothing less than dismembering will reclaim him[.] I would have you outlaw him and get an order of court for taking off his toes[;] I have cured many a negro of running away by this means."

In 1717 Parliament passed a convict transportation act, establishing a procedure by which people convicted of capital crimes in Great Britain might have their sentences commuted to transportation to the colonies, where they would be sold for a term of service, usually fourteen years. Convicts long had been coming to Virginia, and they ran off in greater numbers than ordinary indentured servants.

Advertisements

With the publication of Virginia's first newspaper, the Virginia Gazette, in 1736, owners began to place advertisements seeking the capture and return of runaway slaves and servants. The notices don't cover all runaways; masters were more likely to pursue skilled slaves and servants, who were more valuable. Often runaways were captured within a week or two, thus making ads unnecessary. And the ads themselves represent the master's point of view; their insight into motivations and purposes of flight is therefore suspect. Despite these caveats, the advertisements reveal a remarkable amount of detail about the lives of slaves and servants in colonial Virginia.

Richard Kibble, a convict servant who fancied himself a carpenter and joiner, first ran away from Augustine Washington of Prince William County in April 1738. He is described as being "a middle siz'd young fellow" with a tattoo of a woman and cherry tree on his chest. After he and a group of other servants stole a boat, he somehow made his way back to England, was convicted again "upon Six new Indictments," and transported back to Virginia. Then, after only three days, he ran away again. He was hanged in England early in the 1740s. Another servant, John Hunter, was described in 1775 as one who "speaks very quick, and has a comical, sly, squinting look, and a bushy head of hair."

For runaway slaves, the amount of information in the newspaper advertisements is even more striking. Physical characteristics, family ties, the remarkable amount of skills that slaves practiced, and even some degree of motivations of runaways are revealed in the ads. The twenty-two-year-old slave Peter Deadfoot forged a pass to escape from Thomas Mason, brother of George Mason, in 1768. Deadfoot was described as a "tall, slim, clean limbed, active, genteel, handsome fellow, with broad shoulders." He also, apparently, was a skilled butcher, ploughman, waterman, and scytheman: "in short, he is so ingenious a fellow, that he can turn his hand to anything." This made him a particular danger, as his owners worried that "such a fellow would readily get employment" and pass as free.

While slave marriages were never recognized by law, their appearance in the advertisements provides telling evidence that masters recognized and allowed slave unions. Husband and wife Tony and Phillis, for example, ran away from master Cuthbert Bullit of Prince William County in 1770. Bullit thought they may have traveled to Lancaster County, where they both previously lived with former owners, or they may have gone to Culpeper, Frederick, or Augusta counties, where their several children had been "sold and dispersed."

In 1769, Thomas Jefferson advertised for the return of his slave Sandy, whom he had hired to a neighbor. A shoemaker, horse jockey, and carpenter, Sandy nevertheless was "greatly addicted to drink," Jefferson wrote, "and when drunk is insolent, disorderly, in his conversation he swears much, and in his behaviour is artful and knavish." Sandy was caught and subsequently sold.

Between 1736 and 1783, landowners advertised in the Virginia Gazette for more than 3,500 fugitive runaways. These advertisements illustrate the slaves' unceasing desire for freedom. They continued to flee until the institution was abolished at the conclusion of the American Civil War in 1865.

Time Line

  • July 9, 1640 - A Virginia court decision describes three runaway servants—two white and one black—who were captured in Maryland. The two white servants are sentenced to additional years of service. The black man, John Punch, is made a slave for life, possibly marking the first legal distinction between Europeans and Africans in Virginia's courts.
  • July 22, 1640 - A Virginia court decision describes six runaway servants and a black man who were captured. The court sentences them to varying degrees of punishment.
  • March 1642–March 1643 - The General Assembly passes a law adding years of service to captured runaway servants. Two-time offenders are to be branded on the cheek with the letter R, and any runaway caught leaving weapons with Indians "shall suffer death."
  • March 8, 1655 - The Northampton County Court rules in favor of Anthony Johnson, whose slave, John Casor, ran away and claimed to be an indentured servant. The court charges Johnson's neighbor, Robert Parker, with having "most unjustly kept" Casor, and orders him to pay Johnson's court costs.
  • March 1660–March 1661 - The General Assembly passes a law entitled "English running away with negroes" that adds years of service, in addition to the normal penalty, to runaway white servants captured with blacks.
  • 1663 - Seven servants belonging to Edmund Scarborough of Accomack County steal horses, food, clothing, guns, sails, and a boat and flee. Scarborough hires twelve men and, for eight days each, two boats, and successfully recovers them.
  • September 1663 - The General Assembly passes a law directing masters to limit the movement of their slaves and servants, especially on days off. Lawmakers worry that when given freedom of movement, slaves and servants are more likely to run away or rise up.
  • October 1669 - The General Assembly passes a law establishing a large reward for anyone who captures a runaway slave or servant.
  • October 1670 - The General Assembly revises a law from the previous year establishing a large reward for anyone who captures a runaway slave or servant. A reward of a thousand pounds of tobacco is reduced to two hundred pounds. Repeat offenders are directed to keep their "haire close cut."
  • October 1705 - The General Assembly passes "An Act Concerning Servants and Slaves," which summarizes previous laws defining bound labor in Virginia. It makes distinctions between the treatment of white "christian" indentured servants and nonwhite, non-Christians, allowing for the killing of slaves in various situations without penalty.
  • 1707 - Robert "King" Carter asks permission to chop off the toes of "two incorrigible negroes" named Bambarra Harry and Dinah.
  • 1717 - Parliament passes a convict transportation act, establishing a procedure by which persons convicted of a capital crime in Great Britain might have their sentences commuted to transportation to the colonies, where they would be sold for a term of service, usually fourteen years.
  • 1720s–1730s - British and colonial authorities encourage the settlement of the backcountry of Virginia. Authorities urge non-English Protestant immigrants whose non-slavery-based small-farm communities might create a buffer against Indian attacks and French expansion, and deter runaway slaves seeking to establish independent colonies in the Appalachians.
  • 1725 - Robert "King" Carter receives court permission to dismember two slaves named Will and Bailey.
  • October 10, 1727 - In a letter to one of his property managers, Robert "King" Carter suggests he dismember the slave Ballazore, writing, "I have cured many a negro of running away by this means."
  • April 1738 - Richard Kibble, a convict servant, runs away from Augustine Washington in Prince William County. Washington later advertises for Kibble's capture in the Virginia Gazette, describing him as "a middle siz'd young fellow" with a tattoo of a woman and cherry tree on his chest.
  • May 24, 1854 - Anthony Burns, a runaway slave from Stafford County, is arrested in Boston under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850).
Further Reading
Billings, Warren. "The Law of Servants and Slaves in Seventeenth-Century Virginia." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 99, no. 1 (1991): 45–62.
Breen, T. H. and Stephen Innes. "Myne Owne Ground": Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640–1676. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Ekirch, A. Roger. Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718–1775. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Isaac, Rhys. Landon Carter's Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virginia Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Mullin, Gerald W. Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Parent, Anthony S., Jr. Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660–1740. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Smith, Abbot Emerson, Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607–1776. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1947.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Costa, T. Runaway Slaves and Servants in Colonial Virginia. (2013, January 29). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Runaway_Slaves_and_Servants_in_Colonial_Virginia.

  • MLA Citation:

    Costa, Tom. "Runaway Slaves and Servants in Colonial Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 29 Jan. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: August 1, 2011 | Last modified: January 29, 2013


Contributed by Tom Costa, a professor of history at the University of Virginia's College at Wise, in Wise, Virginia. He is the director of the online project The Geography of Slavery in Virginia.