Washington's Runaway Slaves

On July 19, 1776 eight vessels from Dunmore’s fleet made a foray up the Potomac River for the purposes of gathering fresh water. On July 24, while entangled in an armed skirmish with the local militia, the British ships were joined by another small craft that had come down the river from Fairfax County. Those on board offering their services to the British were “three of General Washington’s servants” who were taken aboard HMS Roebuck. The three aboard the craft from Mount Vernon must have included Harry, the enslaved groom since when was evacuated from New York in July 1783, he said that he had run away from General Washington seven years before. Harry’s statement in the Book of Negroes implies that a claim made later by Lund Washington stating that Harry left Mount Vernon in April 1781 is incorrect.

On April 12, 1781, the British warship HMS Savage cruised up the Potomac River, dropping anchor near Mount Vernon on April 12, where the log recorded taking on board thirteen “black refugees.” Another five refugees were taken from the shore a little north of Mount Vernon on April 15. These eighteen “black refugees” seem to have comprised sixteen enslaved workers of General Washington and another two people enslaved to Lund Washington. 1

According to an undated list Lund compiled, probably for a claim against the British made in 1783, An undated manuscript memorandum made by Lund Washington in the Willard Manuscripts Library of Congress states that the British sloop of war Savage , commanded by Capt. Richard Graves, took the following slaves: "Peter. an old man. Lewis. an old man. Frank. an old man. Frederick. a man about 45 years old; an overseer and valuable. Gunner. a man about 45 years old; valuable, a Brick maker. Harry. a man about 40 years old, valuable, a Horseler. Tom, a man about 20 years old, stout and Healthy. Sambo. a man about 20 years old, stout and Healthy. Thomas. a lad about 17 years old, House servant. Peter. a lad about 15 years old, very likely. Stephen. a man about 20 years old, a cooper by trade. James. a man about 25 years old, stout and Healthy. Watty. a man about 20 years old, by trade a weaver. Daniel. a man about 19 years old, very likely. Lucy. a woman about 20 years old. Esther. a woman about 18 years old. Deborah. a woman about 16 years old." these people were extremely valuable property, with highly developed skills, who had been with General Washington for many years. They were all single adults and their desire to escape from the care of the general may have been accelerated by the knowledge that Washington was desperately in need of money and determined to sell off slaves “provided husband and wife, children and parents are not separated.” Washington had scruples about forcible selling his slaves, yet he was increasingly keen to “get quit of the Negroes” in as a humane way as Lund could devise.

The correspondence between Washington and his manager Lund the sale of his slaves began in March 1778 and was dominated by Lund’s frustrations at his cousin’s scruples, “ saying you would not sell them without their consent” even though the general fervently wished “to get quit of the Negroes”, 2The cash entry for the sale of Abram, Orford, Tom, Jack, Ede, Fatimore, Phillis, Bet and Jenny is recorded on January 18, 1779 in Lund Washington’s Account Book, ViMtV and on the same date in Ledger B, George Washington Papers, LOC. By February 1779, Washington had hardened his resolve to sell slaves who were neither couples nor parents of children and was waiting for the appropriate time. In January 1779, Lund received a hefty sum of cash on the general’s account for the sale of six men and three women, having previously complained that two of these women because had reacted with incapacitating terror at being wrenched away from their community at Mt Vernon. While no more people had been sold, Washington was merely biding his time to see “when the tide of depreciation is at an end,” having instructed Lund “to ascertain the highest prices Negroes sell in different parts of the country — where, and in what manner it would be best to sell them.” No doubt the men and women who sought refugee with the British knew that being sold to persons unknown was a likely prospect.3

How Lund explained the loss of so much valuable property to the enemy remains a mystery; the letter to his cousin cannot be found.

In a angry response Washington wrote:

I am very sorry to hear of your loss; I am a little sorry to hear of my own; but that which gives me most concern, is, that you should go on board the enemys Vessels, and furnish them with refreshments. It would have been a less painful circumstance to me, to have heard, that in consequence of your non-compliance with their request, they had burnt my House, and laid the Plantation in ruins. You ought to have considered yourself as my representative, and should have reflected on the bad example of communicating with the enemy, and making a voluntary offer of refreshments to them with a view to prevent a conflagration.
It was not in your power, I acknowledge, to prevent them from sending a flag on shore, and you did right to meet it; but you should, in the same instant that the business of it was unfolded, have declared, explicitly, that it was improper for you to yield to the request; after which, if they had proceeded to help themselves, by force , you could but have submitted (and being unprovided for defence) this was to be prefered to a feeble opposition which only serves as a pretext to burn and destroy.

I am thoroughly perswaded that you acted from your best judgment; and believe, that your desire to preserve my property, and rescue the buildings from impending danger, were your governing motives. But to go on board their Vessels; carry them refreshments; commune with a parcel of plundering Scoundrels, and request a favor by asking the surrender of my Negroes, was exceedingly ill-judged, and 'tis to be feared, will be unhappy in its consequences, as it will be a precedent for others, and may become a subject of animadversion…[see  digital reproduction of letter]

In this furious letter Washington implied that the British had stolen his property. however, his friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, had told him quite bluntly, “when the enemy came to your house many Negroes deserted to them.” Even as Washington spoke of plantations along the Potomac being “stripped of their Negroes and moveable property,” he knew his slaves had left him of their own volition, just as his white indentured servants had done. In his response to the young Frenchman, Washington also chose to apply the verb “deserted” in the place of “taken.” Perhaps Washington remembered what Lund had told him at the time of Dunmore’s proclamation: “there is not a man of them, but woud leave us, if they believe’d they could make there escape… Liberty is sweet.”4

According to a note later added to Lund’s list, several of the runaways had been recaptured: "Frederick, Frank, Gunner, Sambo, Thomas recovered in Philadelphia” Lund wrote. “Lucy, Esther were recovered after the siege of York. The Genl. pd. salvage on Tom, in Philadelphia but I cannot tell what it was. I pd. 12 Dollars expence on him from Philadelphia to here." During 1783, Washington tried to recover the rest of his runaways in New York. He had asked the army contractor, Daniel Parker, to keep an eye out for his lost property. “I am unable to give you there descriptions; their names being so easily changed, will be fruitless to give you,” he told Parker. “If by chance you should come at the knowledge of any of them, I will be much obliged by your securing them so I may obtain them again.” 5

The choice of Parker was strategic. The army contractor had done personal errands for Washington in the past; on this matter he was uniquely positioned to help. Only a week before Washington wrote to ask this favor of the army contractor, Carleton had chosen Parker to be one of the American commissioners appointed to inspect all embarkations and report any infraction of the treaty. In his capacity as American commissioner, Parker inspected all but two of the ships in the evacuation fleet that sailed on April 27, 1783. In his capacity as his general’s slave catcher, Parker proved impotent. Three of Washington’s runaways were among those who departed for Nova Scotia under his frustrated gaze.

1 Log of HMS Savage commanded by Captain Thomas Graves, ADM 51/862, National Archives of UK. 

2 Lund Washington to Washington April 8, April 11, 1778, September 2, 1778.

3 Washington to Lund Washington, February, 24 and 26, 1779. 

4 Washington to Lund Washington, 30 April, 1781, John C Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of Washington, (United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1937-38), 14-15. Lafayette to Washington, 23 April 1781, and Washington to Lafayette, 4 May 1781, in Stanley Idzera (ed.), Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790, 1981, 60, 85. Lund Washington to Washington, 3 December 1775, The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, vol. 2, 480.

5 Washington to Parker, April 28, 1783, The Writings of George Washington, 369-70.