On September 2, 1775, an advertisement appeared in John Dixon and William Hunter’s Virginia Gazette regarding Edward Moseley’s escaped slave: “Run away last Night from the Subscriber… a likely young negro fellow named Daniel, about 18 Years of Age,” who took with him “two young negro boys, Jack and Peter.” Moseley assumed that Daniel was “lurking about Norfolk, or gone to Hampton” where he could try to board a ship to carry him out of the colony.1 Daniel, like thousands of other enslaved Virginians in 1775, considered the risks of running away. If captured, Daniel would return to his master where he could have faced the possibility of corporal punishment for his disobedience. Success, however, meant freedom, and to eighteen-year-old Daniel freedom was worth the risk.

Weeks later, on November 14, 1775, the Crown Governor of Virginia, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, issued a proclamation declaring Virginia in an official state of rebellion. Dunmore’s Proclamation placed the colony under martial law, pronounced all patriots traitors, and called loyal citizens to take up arms for the crown or otherwise be branded traitors. Dunmore’s most radical step, however, was to make official a policy he had quietly pursued for months: “I do hereby further declare all indented Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels), free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops as soon as may be.”2 This official offer of freedom, albeit a limited offer, was only part of a process that had begun much earlier. Enslaved Virginians did not wait to respond to Dunmore’s Proclamation and its promises of freedom. They acted to secure their freedom before the governor even threatened to emancipate slaves. Instead, Governor Dunmore issued his Proclamation largely in response to the actions of enslaved Virginians.

Two factors likely dominated Governor Dunmore’s decision to issue his proclamation. The first was widespread fear amongst White Virginians of slave insurrections. Dunmore capitalized on this fear, using it as weapon to panic White society. This panic would force White Virginians to spread their forces thin in order to suppress possible insurrections of slaves emboldened by the governor’s promises. In fact, rebelliousness amongst enslaved Virginians was increasing long before November 14, 1775, and although the governor may have heightened slave rebelliousness with his Proclamation, he certainly did not create it. Instead, Dunmore only sought to turn extant slave rebelliousness in his favor. The second factor dominating Dunmore’s decision was the number of slaves who fled their masters to join British ranks. These slaves did not wait for Governor Dunmore to offer them freedom. They began to run away and resist their masters as early as April 1775, long before Dunmore had hinted at the possibility of offering freedom to slaves. Without the actions of enslaved Virginians, Dunmore’s Proclamation would have carried no significance at all.

Contrary to popular belief, Blacks were not passive spectators in the revolutionary conflict, they were an active force that shaped and influenced the course of the conflict. At the outbreak of hostilities, in 1775, Virginia had more slaves than any other mainland British colony. Enslaved Blacks comprised some 40 percent of the colony’s entire population, which numbered around 188,000 individuals.3 With such a large and restive enslaved population, Whites were in constant fear of slave insurrection and rebelliousness.

Enslaved Virginians resisted their conditions in a variety of ways. Some forms of resistance, such as faking illnesses, wasting time, destroying a master’s property, and truancy were quite simple. Violent forms of resistance, however, did occur. Arson, suicide, poisoning, rape, insurrection, and murder were all forms of violent resistance to slave society.4 Although estimates indicate that less than one percent of enslaved Virginians resorted to killing Whites, Blacks had violently resisted frequently enough to keep their masters in constant fear. Records even suggest that conviction rates of slaves implicated in violent confrontations with their masters rose through the 1740s to the 1770s.5 White Virginians were well aware of the number of enslaved individuals in the colony and the possibility of insurrection particularly struck fear in their minds. They felt exceptionally vulnerable during times of war. The outbreak of the French and Indian War presented Blacks with an opportunity to secure their freedom and Virginia experienced a surge in slave rebelliousness. In 1756, Virginia’s Governor, Robert Dinwiddie, wrote that “We [Virginians] dare not venture to part with any of our White Men any distances, as we must have a watchful eye over our Negro slaves.”6

By far one of the most common forms of resistance attempted by enslaved individuals was running away. It is unclear exactly how many slaves ran away during the colonial period, where they went, or if they were ultimately successful in achieving their goals. The best sources of information about runaway slaves appeared in colonial newspapers through advertisements posted by masters seeking the return of their property. These advertisements not only indicate that masters were remarkably well informed about the whereabouts of their slaves, but also that runaways often had one of three motives in mind.7 The first was to reunite with friends or relatives on other plantations, sometimes plantations on which the escaped individual had lived previously. Second, many runaways traveled to towns to attempt to hire themselves out and pass as free men. Third, some attempted to secure their freedom by boarding ships leaving the colonies or by fleeing into the western backcountry, where they hoped to establish themselves or seek haven with sympathetic Indian nations.8

By 1775, as Gerald Mullin argues, many enslaved Virginians clearly saw the British as White men with a significantly different view of slavery than their masters.9 As early as 1773 advertisements began to appear in Virginia newspapers from owners seeking the return of runaways whom they believed would try to secure passage to Great Britain to obtain their freedom. One particular slave owner from Augusta County, Gabriel Jones thought his slave Bacchus would “endeavour to pass as a Freeman” in order to “Board some Vessel bound for Great Britain.” Jones presumed that Bacchus was motivated by his “late Determination of Somerset’s Case” to escape.10

James Somerset was taken from Africa and enslaved in 1749. He was later sold to a prominent Virginia merchant named Charles Steuart, then residing in Norfolk. In 1769 Steuart took Somerset with him to Great Britain, where Somerset ran away two years later. Upon capturing his property, Steuart decided to sell Somerset back into slavery. Fortunately for Somerset, abolitionists in London petitioned on his behalf to Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice of the Court of the King’s Bench, to obtain his freedom.11 In the court’s decision Mansfield ruled that masters could not capture their slaves in England and hold them against their will with the intent to sell them outside of England. Mansfield further extended the writ of habeas corpus to slaves, preventing slaves from being seized by their masters.12 This decision, for all effective purposes, set free all Blacks brought to England as slaves. News of Lord Mansfield’s decision was published throughout the colonies. While White Virginians had a clearly negative reaction to the news, many enslaved Virginians, like Bacchus, were inspired by the news.

Perhaps more worrisome for White Virginians than Mansfield’s decision was that slaves, like Bacchus, also knew about the decision. Although no precise figures of slave literacy exist, recent scholarship on literacy rates among Virginia runaways has shown that around 5.4 percent of all runaways in the years between 1770 and 1776 were known to be literate.13 The number of literate or semi-literate slaves, however, was probably higher than White Virginians suspected. Teaching slaves to read or write was illegal in Virginia, and many literate slaves probably concealed this knowledge from their masters. Furthermore, unbeknown to their masters, literate slaves were teaching other enslaved individuals.14 Literate slaves could have read newspapers and transmitted that information to other enslaved individuals. Reading, however, was not the only way enslaved Virginians learned of colonial issues. It would have been easy enough to eavesdrop on White conversations. Household slaves certainly had numerous opportunities to do so. Blacks were constantly present in the homes of the wealthy. If White Virginians complained about the Somerset Case over dinner, Blacks would undoubtedly be near enough to hear. Enslaved individuals quickly spread any news to other slaves and nearby plantations. As two masters from Georgia told John Adams, “The Negroes have a wonderful Art of communicating Intelligence among themselves. It will run several hundred Miles in a Week or Fortnight.”15

Sensing the coming storm of war, many enslaved Virginians acted to make the situation beneficial for themselves. As early as November 24, 1774, James Madison worried of an “Insurrection among the slaves” if war broke out between the colonies and Great Britain. Writing to his friend William Bradford, Madison said that some slaves in his county had met to select a leader “to conduct them when the English Troops should arrive.” Madison added that these slaves believed that “by revolting to them [the British] they should be rewarded with their freedom” and that the slaves thought such a time would come “very soon.”16 While slaves in Madison’s county were supposedly aligning with the British, it is important to remember that these slaves were probably not loyalists. Although significant numbers of slaves fought within British ranks or sided with British forces during the revolutionary conflict, most were not loyalists fighting to maintain royal authority. Instead, slaves fought for themselves.

Five months after Madison conveyed his worries of insurrection, in mid-April 1775, enslaved Virginians made their first moves to secure their freedom, and rumors of slave unrest swirled along the James River watershed. On April 15, a Prince Edward County slave named Toney was charged with insurrection and received fifteen lashes for his crime. On April 18, Chesterfield County residents were “alarm’d for an Insurrection of the slaves,” whereupon the Chesterfield slave patrol was quickly strengthened.17 Days later one Virginia Gazette reported that on April 21, two negroes were tried in Norfolk for “being concerned in a conspiracy to raise an insurrection in that town.”18 Finally, within the city of Williamsburg, Edmund Pendleton reported to George Washington on April 21, that citizens were alarmed because there had been “some disturbances in the City, by the Slaves.”19

In the midst of this slave unrest in the colony, Virginia’s Governor Lord Dunmore, concerned about rebellious patriot attitudes in the capital, ordered the removal of powder from Williamsburg’s Powder Magazine onto British ships in the Chesapeake Bay. Early on the morning of April 21, 1775, under the cover of darkness, a detachment of royal marines removed fifteen half-barrels of gunpowder from the magazine and secured them upon a British warship. 20 Many Virginians thought that the timing of the removal was no coincidence. They believed that Dunmore “designed, by disarming the people, to weaken the means of opposing an insurrection of the slaves, whom he purposed to invite to his standard, and for a protection against whom in part the magazine was at first built.”21

By dawn, angry Williamsburg citizens had begun to gather on the green in front of the Governor’s Palace demanding the return of the powder to the magazine. Unwilling to provoke action, city officials asserted authority over the crowd and met with Governor Dunmore.22 Surprisingly Dunmore told the officials that he removed the powder to a safer location out of the reach of rebellious slaves, who planned “an insurrection in a neighbouring county.” He was also surprised that “the people were under arms on this occasion” and that it was not “prudent to put powder into their hands in such a situation.”23 City officials backed down. The danger of a colony wide slave insurrection seemed all too real given the rumors of the previous week. Returning to the crowd assembled in front of the Governor’s Palace, the officials convinced the angry citizens to disperse. Governor Dunmore had conveniently used White fear of slave insurrection to placate angry Williamsburg citizens and Virginia’s radical leaders. Whether it was true or not, Dunmore told the city officials that he was ready and willing to put down any slave insurrection, but only if the mob desisted in making threats to the royal government.

Williamsburg reportedly lapsed into a period of tranquility until the next day, when “a Report was spread about by his Excellency’s throwing out some threats respecting the Slaves.”24 On the morning of April 22, the day after the “powder plot,” William Pasteaur, a Williamsburg physician, was called to attend to an unknown patient at the Governor’s Palace. Pasteaur reported that, during the visit, Governor Dunmore confronted him and divulged that “if any injury or insult was offer’d himself, he would declare freedom to the slaves and reduce the City of Williamsburg to ashes.” The doctor further stated that the governor planned to “set up the Royal standard” for “White People and all slaves siding with the government.” Dunmore wanted this to leak; so he instructed Pasteaur to tell what he had said to the “the Gentlemen of the Town.”25

This, however, was not the first time Governor Dunmore had realized the value of arming slaves and encouraging their insurrection to subdue the colony. As early as May 1772, Dunmore understood that enslaved Virginians represented a substantial segment of Virginia’s population. In a letter to the Earl of Hillsborough, Dunmore estimated, albeit incorrectly, that “the Negroes are double the number of White people in this colony.” Dunmore further confided that, “in case of a war… the people [Virginians] with great reason tremble at the facility that an enemy would find in procuring such a body of men [slaves] attached by no tie to their masters or country.” This was no surprise to the governor, who believed it was “natural to suppose their condition must inspire them [slaves] with an aversion to both.” Dunmore concluded that enslaved Virginians would be “ready to join the first that would encourage them to revenge themselves, by which a conquest of this country would inevitably be effected in a very short time.”26

As Governor Dunmore had suspected they would be, enslaved Virginians were among the first individuals to respond to his threats. Reportedly, as soon as the day after Dunmore and Pasteaur’s meeting, a group of slaves appeared at the door of the Governor’s Mansion offering to join Dunmore and “take up arms” with him. This group of slaves left disappointed when the governor declined their services and ordered them “to go about their business.”27 Perhaps Dunmore turned this group of slaves away because he was not yet ready to follow through with his threats. Maybe he still had hopes of solidifying royal authority in the colony through other peaceful means. Regardless of Dunmore’s motives at the time, he now knew that enslaved Virginians would react quickly to grasp an opportunity to secure freedom. His prediction to the Earl of Hillsborough was proving true.

White Virginians also reacted to Dunmore’s threats. On April 28, Governor Dunmore learned that militia companies from Fredericksburg intended to march to Williamsburg against him. Doctor Pasteaur was again called to the Governor’s Mansion, where he was confronted by the governor a second time. Dunmore told Pasteaur that “if a large Body of People come below Ruffin’s Ferry (a place about thirty Miles from this City) that he would immediately enlarge his plan, and carry it into execution.” 28 Those who had dismissed Dunmore’s previous threat of arming slaves as impulsive now feared that the governor actually would follow through with his threat.

For Dunmore, these threats were not impulsive, and he was more than serious about freeing enslaved Virginians if the need arose. Days later, in a letter to the Earl of Dartmouth on May 1, Dunmore revealed that it was his “fixed purpose to arm all my own Negroes and receive all others that will come to me whom I shall declare free.”29

Governor Dunmore, however, would make one last effort to restore royal authority to the colony. In early June 1775, he received instructions to call a meeting of the legislature to vote on a conciliatory resolution from the British Prime Minister, Lord North. North’s resolution proposed that if the colonies paid for their own administration and defense, Parliament would not impose any extra duties except those necessary for the regulation of commerce.30 Unfortunately the situation quickly turned when, on June 3, a group of men attempted to break into Williamsburg’s powder magazine. Unknown to the intruders, the entrance had been rigged with a spring-loaded shot-gun, which discharged and wounded all three men. 31 Virginia newspapers assisted in raising public anger against royal authority. Purdie’s Gazette called the governor and British forces in Williamsburg murderers. 32 Dixon and Hunter’s newspaper accused Dunmore of “contriving” the spring-loaded weapons used in the magazine. 33 Williamsburg citizens wasted no time in responding; they soon stormed the magazine to take what powder and arms were left.

By June 8, Governor Dunmore considered the situation too volatile and unsafe for himself and his family to remain in the capital. The governor abandoned Williamsburg for safety aboard the Fowey, a British ship on the James River.34 Dunmore’s flight caused uncertainty in Williamsburg and created a power vacuum that was quickly filled by rebel leaders. By June 1775, loyalists in the Assembly had already disassociated themselves with Virginia’s governing bodies, leaving moderates and radicals in control. Although the absence of loyalists helped to radicalize the Burgesses, Dunmore’s escape from Williamsburg only angered moderates who may have been willing to cooperate with crown officials to avoid a military conflict. Moderates and radicals in Virginia’s Assembly began to bond over dissatisfaction with crown officials such as Governor Dunmore. Perhaps the factor that united Virginia leaders the most was the governor’s repeated threats to free and arm slaves if patriot leaders pushed him into a corner. The prospect of armed slaves rising against their White masters struck fear into radicals, moderates, and slave owning loyalists. Governor Dunmore even boasted that “My declaration that I would arm and set free such slaves as should assist me if I was attacked has stirred up fears in them [Virginians] which cannot easily subside as they know how vulnerable they are.”35

Throughout the summer of 1775, enslaved Virginians continued to flee their masters to seek protection with Governor Dunmore, who began to quietly welcome runaways. Even though their hopes of a general emancipation had not yet been realized, large numbers of slaves risked their lives to find British lines. By June, advertisements for runaway slaves from all parts of the colony dominated Virginia newspapers. Twenty-one-year old Jonathan from New Kent ran away from his master on June 8 and was seen in Yorktown, where he was “intending to make his Escape out of the Colony.” 36 Jamie from Yorktown stole himself on the night of June 28, whereupon his master also supposed that he would attempt to board a ship to take him out of the colony. 37

Enslaved Virginians in the Norfolk area, in particular, attempted to gain their freedom. According to Pinkney’s Virginia Gazette, Norfolk citizens were concerned about “the elopement of their negroes owing to a mistaken notion which was unhappily spread among them of finding shelter on board the men of war in this harbor.”38 The Norfolk Committee of Safety was convinced that British ships at Norfolk had been “promoting a disaffection among the slaves” and had been concealing them “for a considerable time on board their vessels.”39 Even Norfolk slaves who did not run away were silently supportive of the British. On September 30, a party of seventeen British soldiers marched to the printing office of the patriot printer John Holt. Finding that Holt was not there, the soldiers proceeded to carry off type and other “printing implements” and arrested two of Holt’s workmen. Marching back to their boats, the British soldiers “giving three huzzas, in which a crowd of Negroes joined, embarked with their two prisoners.”40 If Norfolk citizens were not already worried about their slaves escaping to Dunmore, their fears only deepened when they realized that those slaves who remained were silently supportive of the British cause.

Fugitive slaves proved a valuable asset to Governor Dunmore in a variety of ways. Undoubtedly the addition of fugitive slaves helped to bolster British numbers and strengthened the resolve of those fighting within British ranks. When armed, Black Virginians could not only fight within the ranks to strengthen Dunmore’s military power, but they would also be a visible threat to Virginia leaders who may have feared the prospect of armed slaves more than they feared Governor Dunmore. These fugitives were also valuable because of their knowledge of local geography, which the British used to execute successful raids upon waterfront towns and plantations. One of these fugitives, a “small mulatto man” from Hampton, Joseph Harris, stole himself in July 1775. Harris found refuge upon the British schooner Liberty and became a member of the ship’s crew. Due to his nautical knowledge and his familiarity with Virginia’s coastal geography, Harris quickly rose through the ranks to become the ship’s pilot.41

Even though enslaved Virginians joined British forces in significant numbers and contributed in valuable ways throughout that summer and fall, Governor Dunmore remained unwilling to issue an official proclamation of emancipation. Then, in mid-November, Dunmore decided to move against patriot forces congregating in the area around Norfolk. On November 13, a force of about 130, including regulars and Black volunteers, advanced on Kemp’s Landing, ten miles outside Norfolk, where perhaps 200 to 300 patriot militiamen had gathered. Although the Patriots outnumbered the British, they attempted to ambush the British and fired too early, allowing the regulars to charge and scatter the Virginians.42

This “most trifling success” at Kemp’s Landing finally gave Governor Dunmore the confidence he needed. On November 14, Dunmore determined “to run all risks” and ordered the “proclamation to be published.”43 Although the governor was probably encouraged by the number of enslaved individuals who had already joined him, Dunmore must have remained hesitant to take the final step towards emancipation. It was not until he was emboldened by victory, in which Black volunteers took part, that Governor Dunmore found the confidence to offer emancipation to slaves willing to provide military service.

Unsurprisingly, White Virginians were furious at Dunmore’s Proclamation. Pinkney’s Virginia Gazette dubbed Dunmore “King of the Blacks.”44 One anonymous Williamsburg man wrote, “Whoever considers well the meaning of the word Rebel, will discover that the author of the Proclamation is now himself in actual rebellion, having armed our slaves against us, and having excited them to an insurrection.”45 Another anonymous writer declared that, “Not in the legions of horrid hell, can come a devil more damn’d in evils to top D*****e.”46 George Washington even wrote that if Dunmore was not “crushed before Spring, he will become the most formidable Enemy America has – his strength will Increase as a Snow ball by Rolling.”47 Dunmore’s Proclamation also angered slave owning loyalists and pushed them into a difficult corner. Although the Proclamation only applied to slaves owned by rebel masters, and protected the enslaved property of loyalists, Dunmore’s promise to free slaves in return for their service in the British army made numerous patriots out of loyalists.

White leaders swiftly hurried to issue grim warnings to their slaves considering Governor Dunmore’s offer of emancipation. When Alexander Purdie published a copy of the Proclamation in his gazette, he followed it with an address to the colony’s enslaved population written by an unnamed Virginian. The address stressed to slaves that Dunmore’s Proclamation left the “aged, the infirm, the women, and the children… to remain property of their masters, who will be provoked to severity, should part of their slaves desert them.” The writer further warned that those “weak enough to believe that Lord Dunmore intends to do them a kindness” should consider “what they must expect to suffer if they fall into the hands of the Americans.”48 Other newspapers published reports of Dunmore mistreating his own slaves and spread rumors that the governor would sell fugitive slaves back into bondage in the West Indies.49 Leaders at the Fourth Virginia Convention, in December 1775, warned that “all negro or other slaves, conspiring to rebel or make insurrection, shall suffer death, and be excluded all benefit of clergy.” The leaders also offered pardons to any slaves who abandoned Dunmore and returned to their masters. The Convention’s declaration concluded with instructions for masters to make the punishments for running to Dunmore known to their slaves, in the hope of reducing rising slave rebelliousness.50

Dunmore’s Proclamation may have received a surprisingly mixed reaction from enslaved Virginians. It was not the general emancipation that many slaves hoped for. Instead, the Proclamation offered freedom only to those who were able to bear arms and fight alongside British forces. This excluded the elderly, children, and women who could not serve. Certainly this would have forced many able bodied slaves to reconsider escape. Successful escape could result in freedom, but the runaway would leave behind family and friends who could not take advantage of the Proclamation. Also, Dunmore only promised freedom to slaves owned by rebel masters, leaving those owned by loyalists in chains. Perhaps, a general emancipation of slaves could have created much more slave resistance and rebelliousness throughout the colony. That, however, may have been too radical even for Lord Dunmore, who was himself a slave owner.

The difficulty of reaching Lord Dunmore could have also created mixed reactions amongst enslaved Virginians. Running away already had its risks, and it became even riskier throughout 1775. Slaves were already forbidden to travel without signed consent from their owners, and those Nlacks moving about after April 1775 were sure to be stopped if they ran into a White Virginian. Heightened fear of slave insurrection also prompted Virginia leaders to double slave patrols and station militias throughout the Chesapeake.51 Fugitives hoping to reach Dunmore had to make the long journey to the small area around Norfolk that British forces occupied. A fugitive slave would have to successfully leave his master’s plantation, travel many miles undetected, avoid slave patrols or county militias, and sometimes secure a small boat to navigate through Virginia waterways to reach Norfolk or British ships in the Chesapeake Bay. Promises of vengeance from White leaders may have forced many slaves to reconsider escape. If captured, they faced the possibility of death, corporal punishment, that they could be sold off to the West Indies, or be sent to salt mines in Virginia’s western mountains.52 Perhaps most frightening was the possibility that masters could take out their anger on the family or friends of a runaway.

Regardless of these difficulties and threats from their White masters, some enslaved Virginians did accept Dunmore’s offer. For these slaves Dunmore’s Proclamation not only created the perfect circumstances to escape but also provided a concrete offer of freedom. Many slaves who ran away probably had pre-existing reasons to do so. Gilbert, a slave from Caroline County, may have taken advantage of Dunmore’s Proclamation to escape in late December 1775. His owner, John Evans, remarked that Gilbert had “a large scar on his breast occasioned by whipping.”53 Certainly Gilbert would have wanted to escape a cruel master for years, but a favorable situation to escape had not presented itself until November 1775.

By the end of November, Dunmore reported to British commander, General William Howe, that “the negroes are also flocking in from all quarters, which I hope will oblige the rebels to disperse to take care of their families and property.” The governor’s letter further reported that “two to three hundred [runaways] already come in and these I form into a corps as fast as they come.”54 Those fugitives who were successful in reaching British lines were quickly ushered into formal military units. Dunmore organized two new regiments: one of White loyalists, dubbed the “Queen’s own Loyal Virginia Regiment,” and the other a Black regiment called “Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment.” Along with a musket and ammunition, each member of the Ethiopian Regiment was issued a British uniform with the inscription “Liberty to Slaves” emblazoned across the chest; a parody of patriot uniforms adorned with the words “Liberty or Death.” 55 It is unknown exactly how many slaves joined Dunmore. The governor’s own reckoning, along with estimates from other historians, suggests the number was probably between 800 and 1,500 slaves.56

Dunmore’s supremacy would not last long. On December 9, he ordered an attack on patriot forces stationed at Great Bridge, about ten miles south of Norfolk. Upon their arrival a few days earlier the British had established a fortification on one side of the 120-foot-long bridge facing fortified patriot units under Colonel William Woodford. Although outnumbered, Dunmore ordered his 600 man force, among whom were between 300 and 400 Blacks, to advance across the bridge to drive the rebels out of their position. This proved a disastrous mistake. Woodford’s 700 man force easily defeated the British regulars and their Black comrades. Dunmore was forced to retreat, and in the following weeks the British were finally forced to vacate Norfolk.57

Unfortunately, the story did not end happily for many formerly enslaved Virginians with Dunmore. Throughout 1776 British ships in the Chesapeake continued to harass patriot ships and raided waterfront Virginia towns and plantations. Ship life, however, deprived those on board of proper shelter, adequate food, fresh water, and sanitary conditions. Disease flourished in these close unsanitary environments. In March 1776 Governor Dunmore reported to Lord George Germain that the recruitment of Blacks had been going in “great forwardness” until a fever, probably smallpox, “crept in amongst them which carried off a great many very fine fellows.”58 The plague persisted for months and by June, Dunmore admitted defeat, claiming that the fever had “carried off an incredible number of our people, especially the Blacks.”59 Unfortunately the arrival of new runaways probably only prolonged the epidemic, as those new arrivals would have quickly succumbed to the disease. Ravaged by disease and unable to establish a permanent base of operations, Dunmore and his British fleet sailed out of the Chesapeake on August 7. Sailing out of Virginia with Governor Dunmore were 200 to 300 Black Virginians, far less than the estimated 800 to 1,500 runaways that were with Dunmore only six months earlier.60

Many of the runaways who survived did, however, find freedom. Surviving members of Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment would either continue to serve with the British or reside in New York for the remainder of the war. When the war ended and the British withdrew from New York, many of these Blacks were evacuated and settled in Nova Scotia. The young slave Jack, who stole himself from his master Edward Hack Moseley along with another slave Daniel, found his freedom. After passing as a free man, Jack joined Dunmore’s Regiment in 1776 and served in the British navy for nearly nine years until he was indicted for impersonating a fellow seaman to receive extra wages. As punishment he was sent to Australia, where he was eventually pardoned and granted land. The last record of Jack shows that in 1823 he was a prominent dealer in Essex Lane, Sydney, employing three women as his servants.61

The contributions of enslaved individuals to Virginia’s revolutionary history cannot be understated. Representing 40 percent of the colony’s population, enslaved Virginians played an active role in shaping the course of the Revolutionary conflict. Slaves had resisted their conditions in a variety of ways and resisted frequently enough to keep a constant undercurrent of fear in Virginia’s White population. Governor Dunmore quickly understood that Virginia’s large, restive enslaved population was the colony’s greatest weakness, and he viewed them as a natural ally if the colony ever needed to be subdued. If enslaved Virginians had remained passive, neither Dunmore’s threats to free slaves in April 1775 nor his Proclamation in November 1775 would have carried much significance.

Even before Governor Dunmore threatened to arm and free slaves, enslaved Virginians had already gathered to decide how to take advantage of a military conflict between the colonies and Great Britain. When Dunmore threatened to free and arm slaves in April 1775, runaways responded quickly, arriving on his doorstep within a day of issuing his threat. Upon Dunmore’s evacuation of Williamsburg ,runaways continued to escape to the Governor’s Palace and began to seek refuge on British ships. Even though the governor was reluctant to openly offer emancipation, he quietly accepted increasing numbers of runaway slaves throughout the summer and fall of 1775. By early November Dunmore’s forces were massively augmented by hundreds of escaped slaves. The number of fugitives who joined Dunmore and their performance in battle at Kemp’s Landing finally convinced him to issue his Proclamation. Hundreds of enslaved Virginians risked their lives to reach Dunmore and fight for their freedom. Dunmore’s Proclamation was a response to the actions of enslaved Virginians. It was the actions of enslaved Virginians that created Dunmore’s Proclamation.


1 John Dixon and William Hunter. Virginia Gazette, September 2, 1775.
2 Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, Vol. V, ed. Robert L. Scribner (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1979), 334.
3 Michael A. McDonnell, The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 115; Gerald W. Mullin, Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 16.
4 Mullin, Flight and Rebellion, 53-60.
5 Philip J. Schwarz, Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 143-144.
6 James Titus, The Old Dominion at War: Society, Politics, and Warfare in Late Colonial Virginia (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991), 77-78.
7 Betty Wood, Slavery in Colonial America, 1619-1776 (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), 64-69.
8 Mullin, Flight and Rebellion, 106.
9 Mullin, Flight and Rebellion, 131.
10 Alexander Purdie and John Dixon. Virginia Gazette, June 30, 1774.; also cited in Mullin, Flight and Rebellion, 131.
11 George van Cleve, “‘Somerset's Case” and Its Antecedents in Imperial Perspective,” Law and History Review, 24, no. 3 (Fall 2006): 601-602.
12 Helen Tunnicliff Catterall, Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro, Vol. 1 (Washington D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1926), 4-5.
13 Antonio Bly, “‘Pretends he can read’: Runaways and Literacy in Colonial America, 1730-1776,” Early American Studies, 6, no. 2 (2008), 267.
14 Bly, “‘Pretends he can read’”, 283.
15 Ray Raphael, A People's History of the American Revolution: How the Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence (New York: The New Press, 2001), 257.
16 James Madison to William Bradford, The Papers of James Madison, Vol. 1, ed. William T. Hutchinson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 30.
17 Raphael, A People's History of the American Revolution, 245.
18 John Dixon and William Hunter, Virginia Gazette, April 29, 1775 supplement.
19 Edmund Pendleton, The Letters and Papers of Edmund Pendleton, 1734-1803, Vol. I, ed. David John Mays (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1967), 102.
20 Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 143.
21 Edmund Randolph, History of Virginia (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1970), 219.
22 Ivor Noël Hume, 1775: Another Part of the Field (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1966), 142-143.
23 Alexander Purdie, Virginia Gazette, April 21, 1775 supplement.
24 Journal of the House of Burgesses, 1773-1776, 233.
25 “Deposition of Dr. William Pasteaur. In Regard to the Removal of the Powder from the Williamsburg Magazine,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, XIII, no. 1 (1905): 49-50.
26 Governor Earl of Dunmore to Earl of Hillsborough, Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783: Colonial Office Series, Vol. V, ed. K. G. Davies (Dublin: Irish University Press, 1974), 94-95.
27 “Deposition of J. Randolph,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, XIII, no. 1 (1905): 149-150.
28 Journal of the House of Burgesses, 1773-1776, 231.
29 Governor Earl of Dunmore to Earl of Dartmouth, Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783: Colonial Office Series, Vol. IX, ed. K. G. Davies (Dublin: Irish University Press, 1975), 109.
30 Michael Kranish, Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 58.
31 Purdie, Virginia Gazette, June 9, 1775, supplement.
32 Purdie, Virginia Gazette, June 9, 1775, supplement.
33 John Dixon and William Hunter, Virginia Gazette, June 10, 1775.
34 Kranish, Flight from Monticello, 59.
35 Governor Earl of Dunmore to Earl of Dartmouth, Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783: Colonial Office Series, Vol. IX, ed. K. G. Davies (Dublin: Irish University Press, 1975), 204.
36 John Dixon and William Hunter, Virginia Gazette, June 17, 1775.
37 Purdie, Virginia Gazette, July 7, 1775.
38 Pinkney, Virginia Gazette, August 3, 1775.
39 Norfolk Borough Committee to Peyton Randolph, Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, Vol. III, ed. Robert L. Scribner (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1976), 378.
40 Thomas J. Wertenbaker, Norfolk Historic Southern Port (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1962), 54.
41 Holton, Forced Founders, 133-135.
42 McDonnell, The Politics of War, 133.
43 Governor Earl of Dunmore to Earl of Dartmouth, Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783: Colonial Office Series, Vol. XII, ed. K. G. Davies (Dublin: Irish University Press, 1976), 59.
44 Pinkney, Virginia Gazette, November 16, 1775.
45 McDonnell, The Politics of War, 135.
46 Purdie, Virginia Gazette, November 24, 1775.
47 George Washington to Richard Henry Lee, The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Vol. 2, ed. W. W. Abbot (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1987), 611.
48 Purdie, Virginia Gazette, November 24, 1775.
49 Purdie, Virginia Gazette, November 17, 1775.
50 Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, Vol. V, ed. Robert L. Scribner (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1979), 139.
51 Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom, 10-11.
52 Holton, Forced Founders, 136.
53 Purdie, Virginia Gazette, January 19, 1776.
54 Purdie, Virginia Gazette, January 26, 1776.
55 Hume, 1775, 399.
56 Holton, Forced Founders, 136.; McDonnell, Politics of War, 140.; Mullin, Flight and Rebellion, 131.; Cassandra Pybus, “Jefferson's Faulty Math: The Question of Slave Defections in the American Revolution,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 62, no. 2 (2005): 243-264.; Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), 28.
57 Tommy Lee Bogger, The Slave and Free Black Community in Norfolk, 1775-1865 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1976), 24-25.
58 Governor Earl of Dunmore to Lord George Germain, Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783: Colonial Office Series, Vol. XII, ed. K. G. Davies (Dublin: Irish University Press, 1976), 101.
59 Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution, 30.
60 Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom, 20.
61 Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom, 214.



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Photo of Daniel Newcomb

Daniel Newcomb is a history major with minors in Classical Studies and American Indian studies and he plans to go to graduate school after graduation. He would like to thank Dr. Daniel Thorp of the history department for his guidance and support.