Jefferson’s Faulty Math: The Question of Slave Defections in the American Revolution

IN Londonin April 1786, Thomas Jefferson found himself in the awkward position of negotiating with British merchants to whom he owed a great deal of money. On more than one occasion, Jefferson excused his incapacity to pay by claiming that General Charles Cornwallis had carried off thirty of his slaves, “the useless and barbarous injury he did me in that instance was more than would have paid your debt, principal and interest.” Writing from Paris to a putative historian of the Revolution, Jefferson amplified this claim, saying Cornwallis “carried off also about 30. slaves: had this been to give them freedom be would have done right, but it was to consign them to inevitable death from the small pox and putrid fever then raging in his camp. This I knew afterwards to have been the fate of 27. of them … I supposed the state of Virginia lost under Ld. Cornwallis’s hands that year about 30,000 slaves, and that of these about 27,000 died of the small pox and camp fever.” When he was Secretary of State, Jefferson took the part of his fellow Virginians to argue they should not be obliged to pay their debts because the British made the first infraction of the Paris Peace Treaty by refusing to return their runaway slaves. Virginia, the state that had incurred the greatest debt, also had incurred the greatest loss, he reasoned.[1]

Since that time, Jefferson’s estimation of thirty thousand slaves taken from Virginians in one year has been repeatedly quoted and has become a cornerstone of scholarship on the slave response to the American Revolution. Herbert Aptheker led the way with his 1940s pamphlet, extended into a full monograph in 1960, in which he highlighted the flight of enslaved people to the British as “surely one of the most dramatic, and pathetic, features of the American Revolution.” Attempting to quantify this phenomenon, he wrote:

Thomas Jefferson declared that Virginia alone in the single year 1778 [sic] lost 30,000 slaves through flight; it is certain that many more Virginia slaves escaped both before and after that year. Responsible citizens of Georgia declared that their state lost from 75 to 85 per cent of its slaves (totaling about 15,000 in 1774), and South Carolinians asserted that of the 110,000 slaves in their state when the Revolution started, about 25,000 succeeded in escaping by the time it had ended … If to all this one adds the slaves who escaped from North Carolina, Maryland, Delaware, and the northern states, particularly New Jersey and New York, it appears to be conservative to say that from 1775 until 1783, some 100,000 slaves (i.e., about one out of every six men, women and children) succeeded in escaping from slavery.[2]

In 1967 Richard B. Morris may have taken his lead from Aptheker, though he furnished no citation for his remark that the numbers of runaway slaves evacuated with the British “may have at least equaled the total of white Tories who fled America.” This reckoning put the number at eighty thousand or more. Benjamin Quarles was more circumspect in estimating numbers, speaking only of tens of thousands, though he has been incorrectly credited with the claim that the South lost sixty-five thousand. In a 1976 study of the black evacuees who went to Nova Scotia, Canadian historian James W. St. G. Walker gave an estimate of tens of thousands of slaves fleeing to British lines and reminded his readers that “Thomas Jefferson declared that Virginia alone lost 30,000.” In a parallel study, writer Ellen Gibson Wilson frankly acknowledged that “there is no way of knowing” how many slaves were lost to the British, yet then went on to cite Morris as evidence that the number “could be as many as 80,000 to 100,000.”[3]

Wilson’s hesitant guesswork is cited as the source for Sylvia R. Frey’s estimation of “eighty thousand to one hundred thousand” in her influential book, Water from the Rock. In addition to Wilson, Frey also quoted contemporary accounts: “George Abbott Hall maintained that over twenty thousand slaves from South Carolina were carried off by the British … Jefferson estimated that Virginia lost thirty thousand slaves in the single year 1781 … James Jackson, revolutionary soldier, governor of Georgia, and United States Senator, maintained that between five and six thousand slaves left with the British at the evacuation of Savannah.” This footnote was one of several references to Jefferson’s claim of his, and Virginia’s, slave losses. Frey speculates that he probably consulted the claims for total economic losses lodged against the British by Virginians in 1782–83, which “amounted to approximately three million pounds Sterling,” to extrapolate slaves losses, though there is no evidence Jefferson had anything to do with those claims, other than to lodge one for himself.[4]

It is curious that historians usually deeply suspicious of the motives of slaveholders should so readily accept their claims about slave losses and fail to scrutinize the context in which these claims were made.[5] None of the historians who rely on Jefferson appears to have noticed that he made his estimation of thirty thousand when he was thousands of miles away in Paris. They also seem not to have read the letter in full, which says nothing about data gathering, but strongly suggests that Jefferson came by his figure by simply adding naughts to his own personal loss. Moreover, they fail to detect that either Jefferson was being disingenuous or his memory was seriously faulty, since his personal loss of slaves to the British was not what he said it was.

Here are the facts of Jefferson’s slave losses in 1781. In early June Cornwallis set up his headquarters at Elk Hill, one of Jefferson’s plantations on the James River in Goochland County. When he left ten days later, twenty-three people enslaved to Jefferson on three different plantations in three separate counties went with him. These defections had the hallmarks of well-planned, premeditated action. From Elk Hill, Joe, Jenny, Nat, and Judy ran, as did Black Sal with her three small children. From the neighboring plantation at Willis Creek in Cumberland County, they were joined by Hannibal, his wife Patty, and six of their children, together with Sam, his wife Nancy, and an old woman called Lucy. From fifty miles to the west at Monticello, in Albemarle County, came Robin, Barnaby, and Harry, as well as a boy named Will. Though Jefferson would later claim his property was “carried off,” soon after the event he grimly listed their names in his farm book as having “fled to the enemy” or “joined the enemy” or simply “run away.”[6]

Jefferson had not inoculated his slaves against the smallpox that dogged Cornwallis’s army and, soon after Cornwallis departed from Elk Hill, five of the enslaved people left behind died of smallpox. It is highly likely that many of the twenty-three runaways died of the disease before reaching Yorktown. A list that Jefferson made in his farm book in January 1783, preparing a claim against the British that was sworn on January 27, 1783, in the county of Cumberland, indicated that all of Hannibal’s family were dead with the exception of a child, Isabel. Also dead were Nancy, Lucy, and Black Sal, along with her three children. Jefferson employed an agent to recover any survivors after the fall of Yorktown and was able to regain Robin and Barnaby, as well as the boy Will, and to return them to Monticello. Barnaby died soon after, Robin was sold in January 1782, and Will was sold in 1790. Nat and Judy were returned to Elk Hill and were subsequently sold at auction on January 31, 1785. Isabel was given to Jefferson’s sister in 1786. When he claimed they were dead as the result of British perfidy, he repressed the knowledge that they were sold off or given away on his own instruction. The three people for whom Jefferson could not account were Sam, Jenny, and Harry. He did not lodge a claim for their loss in January 1783, yet by the time he was in Paris he presumed them dead.[7]

The ready acceptance of Jefferson’s faulty math and self-serving narrative points to a problem at the heart of the historiography of black runaways during the American Revolution. The generally accepted number of eighty to one hundred thousand slave runaways is so huge compared with the less than three thousand black people documented in British and American records in the “Book of Negroes” as evacuated as free people from New York, that the inescapable conclusion is an astonishingly large number—as many as ninety-seven thousand on the accepted figures—must have died or been reenslaved in the West Indies.[8] What Aptheker, Quarles, Frey, and others celebrate as a mass movement for liberation is rendered, as Aptheker put it, one of the most pathetic stories of the Revolution; a tale of victimization at the hands of the treacherous British.

A dissenting voice on the question of numbers is Allan Kulikoff who suggested in 1983 that the figures on black runaways were “highly inflated,” giving an estimation that five thousand enslaved people from Virginia and Maryland reached British lines and that thirteen thousand South Carolina slaves escaped. Kulikoff ‘s much lower estimates, repeated in his Tobacco and Slaves, however, have generally been ignored in favor of the numbers in Frey’s book. In Moving On: Black Loyalists in the Afro-Atlantic World, the editor writes that Aptheker’s original estimates of eighty to one hundred thousand runaways “have recently been substantiated by Sylvia Frey (1995), suggesting that the number of black loyalists may have equaled if not exceeded the number of their white counterparts.” Gary B. Nash, in his introduction to the 1996 reissue of The Negro in the American Revolution, also notes that Frey’s “rigorous research” found Aptheker’s numbers to be sound. On the other hand, Ira Berlin inclines toward Kulikoff ‘s more modest numbers in his masterful survey of the history of slavery, Many Thousands Gone, where he writes “in all, more than 5,000 Upper South slaves escaped slavery during the war” and that “the retreating British carried thousands—maybe as many as 20,000—slaves from the Lower South.”[9]

A review of the available evidence, especially British sources, suggests that the loss in slaves was indeed dramatically less than prominent slave owners asserted, and the subsequent claims of massive slave defections to the British represent a gross exaggeration. There were not only far fewer runaways to the British than has been previously understood but also a far greater percentage of those who fled to the British who achieved liberation than scholars have been inclined to believe.

The best documented incident of mass slave defections was in response to Dunmore’s proclamation issued on November 14, 1775, when the beleaguered royal governor of Virginia had taken refuge on a British ship in the James River. He offered freedom to “all indented Servants, Negroes, or others … that are able and willing to bear Arms.” Within a fortnight Dunmore could report “between two and three hundred [runaways] already come in and these I form into a Corps as fast as they come.” Though many made good their escape, some slave fugitives were caught and imprisoned in the Williamsburg jail, with its infamous conditions in the slave section. These captives were executed, sold to the West Indies, or sent to work in the lead mines; their owners, paid compensation. The new government of Virginia was much in need of money. In January 1776 the Fourth Virginia Convention resolved some seized runaways would be sold in the West Indies and money paid to the treasurer. The first shipload was sent to Antigua for sale in May that year. Commissioners appointed by the Fifth Virginia Convention sold the eleven slaves Dunmore left behind at his mansion in Williamsburg at public auction on June 25.[10]

Among those sent to the West Indies to be sold was a captured runaway owned by Edward Moseley of Princess Anne County, who had lost most of his slave property to Dunmore as had his neighbor, John Willoughby. In his petition for compensation, Willoughby listed eighty-seven people who had run to Dunmore, including twenty-one women ranging in age from eighteen to fifty-five and fifty children. This demographic profile was typical of the response to Dunmore’s proclamation and stands in stark contrast with the pattern of slave flight prior to the Revolution when it was almost always young men who ran. Most of the hundreds of fugitives who fled to Dunmore from January to June 1776 were in family groups—extended families, husbands with wives, mothers with children—all taken aboard Dunmore’s fleet.[11]

Despite the negative accounts Virginians had circulated about the British intention to sell any runaways who could not bear arms, there is no evidence that any of those who ran to Dunmore were subsequently sold to the West Indies. Death was a much more likely outcome of their flight. As Elizabeth A. Fenn has documented, smallpox erupted in Virginia in 1776 and the disease hit black recruits especially hard. They died by the hundreds. To isolate the sick and allow surgeons to inoculate recruits, Dunmore moved in March to a spit of land near Portsmouth. When he again moved his base to Gwynn Island in late May, Dunmore left behind the graves of almost three hundred people. At this time he could report that “there was not a ship in the fleet that did not throw one, two, or three or more dead overboard every night.” Tragically, Dunmore continued to draw fresh black recruits at the rate of six to eight each day, most of whom succumbed to the disease as soon as they arrived. Eyewitnesses concurred that the death toll on the island from one cause or another was “near 500 souls.” Moreover, those who recovered from the inoculation fell victim to an outbreak of typhoid fever, which “carried off an incredible number of our people, especially the blacks,” Dunmore lamented to the Secretary of State. With his forces “too few to stay off Virginia having lost many by Sickness,” the dispirited Dunmore sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay for a British enclave in New York.[12]

From British and American accounts, it seems that Dunmore recruited more than the eight hundred runaways estimated by Benjamin Quarles. Dunmore claimed that without disease he would have had two thousand men under arms in his Ethiopian Regiment, to which should be added women and children. Allowing for an element of boasting from the defeated Dunmore, it appears that the number of men, women, and children was around fifteen hundred and that disease took two-thirds of the runaways. When he left Gwynn Island, Dunmore had only three hundred men left in his Ethiopian Regiment, as well as women and children. Of the eighty-seven people who had run to Dunmore from Willoughby, there are records of only eleven survivors.[13]

Also seeking refuge in New York in September 1776 were the deposed royal governors of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia who each brought a retinue of runaways, many of whom were mustered into a company of Black Pioneers made up of seventy-one men with their families, mostly from North Carolina. A few runaways came from as far afield as Georgia, recruited when British warships entered the mouth of the Savannah River seeking provisions in January and February 1776. Concerned about security in Georgia, the South Carolina Committee of Safety sent Colonel Stephen Bull to take charge of a Committee of Safety in that colony. In his report to Henry Laurens, Bull noted that nine slaves of Arthur Middleton had presented themselves to the British ships anchored just outside the river mouth, along with other runaways, “the whole in Number about Twenty five.” By the next day, rumor about Middleton’s slaves had inflated the number to “between forty & fifty,” said to be part of a group including “above One hundred & fifty more” congregated on Tybee Island. Laurens wrote to his son concerning “upwards of 50 Negroes from Mr. Arthur Middleton’s plantation,” and two days earlier he told his wife that “about 65 Negroes” had been taken from Middleton. Months later Laurens noted that the British purpose was to “basely trepan & sell them into ten fold worse Slavery in the West Indies.” Laurens would have been surprised to know that eight people who had been enslaved to Middleton found permanent refuge with the British and were evacuated to Nova Scotia at the end of the war. Perhaps there were only nine who ran off, as first suggested.[14]

There appears to be no evidence of so large a runaway encampment on Tybee Island. British officials, including Governor Wright, and refugee loyalists with some of their slaves were using houses on the island as an alternative to the cramped conditions on the fleet. The Committee of Safety ordered local militia, aided by Creek Indians, to attack these houses on March 25. In the process of attacking the island, they arrested the loyalists and burned their houses but found no runaway encampment, only a party of marines landed to cut firewood. According to the logs of the nearby British ships Tamar, Hinchenbrook, and Cherokee, a British party was landed to rescue the marines and “take off the well-affected people.” These logs give no indication that large numbers of runaway slaves were also taken aboard. The patriot militia got away with several loyalist prisoners with one or two slaves, as well as a marine who subsequently escaped. Notwithstanding, the runaway encampment on Tybee Island and the fifty to sixty-five slaves lost to Middleton have now entered the historiography as established fact.[15]

In January 1777 British warships again entered the mouth of the James River as part of a naval blockade of the Chesapeake Bay. The British naval presence encouraged a new rash of slave defections in response to General William Howe’s proclamation that all slaves belonging to rebels would receive protection within the British lines. Well over half of all who fled were in groups of parents and children, sometimes with grandparents, aunts, and uncles. When Howe’s army arrived in the upper Chesapeake on August 25, 1777, these people were absorbed into the assault on Philadelphia, along with others from Maryland and Pennsylvania that the army attracted along the way. Once again the available data suggests that these numbered no more than a few hundred runaways.[16]

British ships continued to harass plantations along the Chesapeake until summer 1779, encouraging the enslaved to come away with them. Edmund Pendleton estimated that the British took fifteen hundred slaves as a consequence of a destructive raid into Portsmouth in May 1779—an estimate much quoted by historians. Yet when this fleet returned directly to New York with the runaways they had taken in the Portsmouth and Norfolk area, the commander listed 256 men, 135 women, and 127 children. Pendleton wanted to believe that the British were stealing slaves as booty to sell in the West Indies. On the contrary, analysis of the group who fled in May 1779 points to a series of premeditated and well-organized escapes by interconnected family groups, demonstrating a complex demographic profile of kin and marriage across numerous plantations in several counties. Half these people would have been of little use to the British, being disabled men, elderly women, small children, and adolescents. It was nonsensical for the British to have gone from plantation to plantation seeking out kinfolk to ensure that those they took were members of large extended families. The evidence of black evacuations suggests that in total the number of runaways from the Chesapeake from 1779 to 1780 who were subsequently absorbed into support functions for the British military was less than one thousand.[17]

The numbers for the lower South seem to be much inflated also. Frey claims that as many as five thousand slaves in Georgia escaped bondage in 1779, a number that her footnote attributes to Laurens. At one point he claimed “thousands of Negroes” were with the British, which seems to have been a sweeping overestimation calculated to inspire Congress to supply an adequate defense of South Carolina. Certainly, the British made good use of runaways when they took Savannah in January 1779. In the chaos that followed, white Georgians fled, often leaving enslaved people behind, some of whom sought protection from the British. The reinstalled royal governor informed his superiors in London that “vast numbers” of runaway slaves had come into the captured city. In reality it was not likely to have been much more than fifteen hundred, since during the subsequent siege of Savannah by French and American forces, 620 African Americans were listed on the British payroll. Given that those who supplied support services—as butchers, cooks, nurses, and laundrywomen, including David George, his wife, and members of his small Baptist congregation—were not listed on the payroll, that number could easily be doubled, yet there is no evidence of a very large black workforce within the British enclave in Savannah. George’s account suggests the numbers of runaways attached to the British were modest.[18]

Thousands of enslaved people in Georgia were left behind when their patriot masters fled and were considered “sequestered slaves” assigned to work on abandoned plantations under the direction of a specially appointed commissioner. Sometimes sequestered slaves were impressed to work for the military, yet they were not entitled to freedom under Howe’s proclamation.[19] Official British policy in Savannah was to respect the property of loyalists and to return their slaves, so the status of the three to four thousand people enslaved to the loyalists who were concentrated in Savannah did not change. In this brutal fratricidal war, loyalists and patriots seized slaves, many of whom were spirited into and out of East Florida by freebooters, called banditti, of no particular political allegiance. In addition, some enslaved people undoubtedly took the opportunity presented by chaos to flee into East Florida, but the number was not likely to have been in the many thousands.

In South Carolina, as in Georgia, Henry Clinton’s invading army, armed with a proclamation offering freedom to those slaves who deserted their rebel masters, found no difficulty recruiting runaways to work as laborers, foragers, artificers, servants, cooks, laundresses, and nurses. They also brought black recruits with them: from New York Clinton brought a company of seventy Black Pioneers and their families, and another company of nearly two hundred Black Pioneers with ninety-six women and seventy-four children came from Georgia. After Charleston fell so many runaways poured into the British lines that Cornwallis sought advice from Clinton for measures to hold back the tide. Clinton told him to return loyalist slaves; however, Cornwallis’s policy that no runaway would be repatriated to a former owner without freely giving their consent ensured that such measures did nothing to stem the flow.[20]

The often repeated claim that at least ten thousand black loyalists were evacuated from Charleston is very misleading. Most of the black people evacuated were loyalist slaves and sequestered slaves taken by loyalists in place of the slaves seized by patriots. Enslaved people who had been abandoned by their masters or captured in the service of patriots, and therefore deemed not to have willingly defected, were put to work on confiscated plantations to cultivate food, tend livestock, and produce materials for the army. John Cruden, a wealthy Carolinian loyalist, was given the position of Commissioner for Sequestered Estates with responsibility for confiscated estates across the Carolinas and Georgia. He employed one hundred overseers to manage the estates using a workforce of more than five thousand sequestered slaves. Sequestered slaves were given rations and clothing, provided with medical treatment, and inoculated against smallpox. For them, Clinton’s offer of freedom to “Every Negro who shall desert the Rebel Standard” was not applicable.[21] Higher estimates conflate loyalist and sequestered slaves in Georgia and South Carolina with runaways who actually allied themselves with the British.

Many slaves escaped to the protection of the British during the campaigns of 1780. When Clinton left Charleston, he took a whole company of Black Pioneers and their families to New York; several hundred went as servants to officers or with civil departments. Cornwallis also took hundreds of black recruits, perhaps a third of the number in Charleston, when he traveled north. Throughout the march into North Carolina, these black recruits were beset by disease, including a severe outbreak of smallpox near Camden in August 1780. As his army marched north, Cornwallis attracted many more black recruits. “Upon the approach of any detachment of the King’s troops,” one of Cornwallis’s senior officers observed, “all the negroes, men, women, and children … quitted the plantations and followed the army.” By the time Cornwallis reached North Carolina, the massive number of runaways constituted a small army in itself, albeit one without any tents or blankets and without the disciplined routines that enforced at least a modicum of sanitary practice and discipline among the soldiers. The number of black camp followers was such that officers were allocated up to four black recruits to serve as couriers and batmen, whereas the quartermaster of every regiment was allocated “Eight Negroes to Assist him in receiving provns.”[22]

Cornwallis was to combine forces with Benedict Arnold in Virginia at the end of spring 1781. Arnold’s aggressive push up the James River had brought him large numbers of defecting slaves and by the time he had secured Portsmouth as a base, he had at least three hundred working for him. When Cornwallis arrived the health problems that bedeviled his army had already taken a toll in Virginia, with an outbreak of typhus or typhoid fever killing a large number of black recruits.[23] Disease continued to plague Cornwallis’s army on his excursion up the James River to Elk Hill. Even so, as he retreated eastward he had a large train of black camp followers, many of them having come north with him from the Carolinas.

The number of runaways following the army, however, appears to have been exaggerated by contemporary and subsequent historians. Johann Ewald, a senior Hessian officer, claimed that every soldier “had his Negro, who carried his provisions,” whereas the officers had “three or four Negroes, as well as one or two Negresses for cook and maid.” Ewald also observed that all the army wives had black servants. Hearsay put the number of runaways at two or three thousand, according to Richard Henry Lee, who lamented that his brother had lost sixty-five of his chattel to Cornwallis, though other neighbors “lost every slave they had in the world.” Robert Honyman reported that the British “enticed and flattered” the slaves to go with them, yet he believed “they did not compel any.” His hearsay evidence (neither Lee nor Honyman was in the vicinity) was that in the counties of New Kent and Hanover, runaways “flocked to the enemy from all quarters, from even remote parts … some lost 30, 40, 50, 60, or 70 Negroes … some plantations entirely cleared and not a single Negro remained.” The subsequent claims for losses to the British from forty-three slave owners from New Kent and Hanover, however, amounted to a total of 103 lost slaves, with no single slave owner claiming more than sixteen.[24]

British sources suggest that by the time Cornwallis had dug in at Yorktown, he had some three thousand African Americans at the garrison. At least one thousand had traveled north from the Carolinas. By July 1781 there were another fifteen hundred at nearby Portsmouth. Though British surgeons had inoculated runaways at Portsmouth, fresh defections meant that variola managed to take hold in that garrison when “above 700 Negroes are come down the river in the Small Pox.” By August the commander reported “hundreds of wretched Negroes [are] dying by scores every day.” Having already sent 150 black recruits to Yorktown in response to Cornwallis’s demand for labor, he was only able to send an additional four hundred to Yorktown. These were described as “a vast Concourse” in the intelligence report sent to General Lafayette, who was keeping the garrison under surveillance. When Portsmouth was abandoned, the commander reported that about one thousand sick runaways were left in the loyalist strongholds of Norfolk and Princess Anne County, with enough provisions for ten days.[25]

Within two weeks smallpox had taken hold among the black recruits at Yorktown. In the final terrible days before Cornwallis’s capitulation, most of the black recruits who could walk—men, women, and children—were sent out of the garrison, with what little rations could be found, to fend for themselves. When the victorious Americans entered Yorktown they found it littered with people dying from wounds and smallpox. St. George Tucker, who heard about the smallpox epidemic from Thomas Nelson Sr., quoted him as saying “an immense number of Negroes have died in the most miserable manner at York.” Smallpox typically killed about 60 percent of those that caught the disease, yet in this case some were inoculated against it, so perhaps half the runaways survived the smallpox epidemic, though typhus and injury also took a toll at Yorktown. Maybe two thousand survived. It is impossible to establish what happened to them. Quite a few escaped northward. Some proportion, perhaps half the survivors, must have been forced back into slavery as members of the Continental army competed with French forces to lay claim to those runaways who had fled from Yorktown.[26]

How many runaways were with the British in the South from 1775 to 1781? Kulikoff estimates that up to three to five thousand ran away in Virginia. This figure, he explains, “comes from two sources: one is the number of slaves who left New York in 1783 with the British (multiplied by 3.0, assuming that a third died and a third were recaptured), and the other uses all known estimates for 1775–1779 (multiplied by 1.5) and adds in runaways from individual planters, 1780–1781 (multiplied by 10).” In South Carolina Kulikoff considered the censuses of 1770 and 1790, the level of slave imports, and “the deaths of immigrant slaves and the natural increase of the remainder” to estimate that some thirteen thousand slaves were lost.[27] The evidence reviewed here indicates that Kulikoff is correct in dramatically reducing the numbers of runaways, but his figure for Virginia is too low and his figure for South Carolina needs to be disaggregated, as he, like Frey and Quarles, has conflated runaways with enslaved people who were evacuated with the loyalists. Though firm numbers are impossible to gauge, it is possible to make tentative estimates that will stand up to interrogation against the documentary record.

In Virginia and Maryland, there seem to have been around six thousand runaways allied to the British military in the whole period from 1775 to 1781. This broad estimation was arrived at using two methods. The first was to add up estimates gleaned from British records of the size of the black entourage. There appears to have been fifteen hundred black recruits with Dunmore in 1775–76; more than five hundred were taken in Virginia in 1777–79, with another three hundred or so coming from Maryland; fifteen hundred had congregated in Portsmouth in 1781; and two thousand were collected by Cornwallis on his march through Virginia to Yorktown, yielding an estimate of nearly six thousand. The second method was to consider the record of claims for losses to the British submitted to the Virginia legislature in 1782. These claims were lodged in response to special courts established in each county in May 1782 to collect information about the losses and injuries sustained from the depredations of the British. Of the forty counties affected by the British invasion, twelve counties are not represented in the documentation that survives in the Virginia State Library archives. Most claims are for property other than slaves; however, 450 individuals lodged claims for slaves lost, with a total loss of 1,390 people, though this figure by no means adds up to all the slave losses, even for the counties represented. Many loyalists are not included, which greatly underrepresents the claims from hard-hit counties such as Princess Anne and Norfolk. Some parishes are missing, as are key individuals such as Benjamin Harrison and Jefferson. As there is little discernable overlap between these claims and the twelve hundred people from Virginia evacuated from New York who are listed in the Book of Negroes, the claims must represent less than half the actual loss in those counties. It would be appropriate to multiply the base figure by 2.5, to get 3,475. Then there are the twelve missing counties that had not lodged returns, so an additional 30 percent raises the number to 4,517. This figure does not take account of the considerable number of slaves recovered from the British—estimated at 20 percent—which lifts the number to 5,420. With the addition of about three hundred slaves for Maryland, the total is 5,720.[28]

Indicators for the numbers of runaways allied to the British in the lower South are not easy to find. British records in South Carolina, as discussed earlier, suggest the number of those who sought protection of various British proclamations was in the vicinity of three thousand. Likewise, in Georgia the number who sought protection with the British appears to have been no more than two thousand. Very little evidence exists for North Carolina after 1776, when maybe two hundred runaways left with the British fleet. A calculated guess would be that the total number of North Carolina runaways allied to the British was no more than one thousand. On this basis a tentative estimation would be six thousand runaways with the British in the lower South.

The number of runaways with the British in the North is even less documented, though a wealth of British and American anecdotal sources suggests that the British stronghold in New York was a magnet for runaways. Because of the shortage of white workers, there was plenty of employment in the Quartermaster General’s, Wagonmaster General’s, and Forage and Provision Departments and the Commissary.[29] Black artisans worked on rebuilding projects and in the naval yards; black teamsters hauled provisions and collected firewood; black nurses and orderlies staffed the hospitals; black laundresses and needlewomen did the washing and sewing; black pilots guided the ships safely in and out of the port; black musicians entertained at social events; black jockeys rode the horses at the races; black cooks, servants, and valets ensured the comfort of the elite.

The seminal research on New York has been done by Graham Russell Hodges who has shown that during the period of British occupation, the number of absconding slaves from New York and New Jersey exploded, with the number of fugitives in the seven-year period four times greater than in the previous seventy years. Though Hodges is willing to accept estimations of between twenty-five and sixty-five thousand runaways for the South, he remains cautious about figures for his own region, suggesting that some 525 enslaved people from New York and east New Jersey defected. His figures are based on runaway notices for the period that dramatically underreport escapes during this volatile period, so it would be appropriate to double or even triple that number. To these need be added a steady trickle of runaways from neighboring colonies. Hodges claims that the British zone had a black workforce of some four thousand by 1782. The high numbers of women and children would suggest the number was closer to five thousand. Given that 65 percent of the black workforce in British-occupied New York came from the South, another 5 percent from the Caribbean, and another 5 percent were free, it is unlikely that the number of runaways from the northern colonies with the British exceeded two thousand, including several hundred who were evacuated from Boston in 1776 and others who escaped to Canada from other northern ports.[30]

The Royal Navy and its accompanying fleet of privateers continually recruited seamen all along the Atlantic seaboard throughout the revolutionary period, with ships’ masters and press gangs actively recruiting black runaways who were less likely to desert than white seamen. Port towns along the coasts of Massachusetts and Connecticut were persistently raided for skilled seamen. The British also tapped a ready pool of skilled maritime workers in Virginia and South Carolina who willingly fled enslavement to join the British navy. Nearly every ship in the entire British fleet in America carried at least a handful of African American crew members; some had as many as 20 percent, whereas on privateers the percentage might be even higher. In view of the high percentage of black crew members on captured British vessels, a conservative estimate would be five thousand marine recruits during the war, with most drawn from New York and the northeastern seaboard.[31]

Surveying this fragmentary evidence has yielded an estimate of about twenty thousand runaways with the British over the period covered by various British proclamations, from 1775 to 1782, with around twelve thousand coming from the South. This figure is conservative, but it is one that can stand up against the documentary record.[32]

How many of these twenty thousand runaways survived to be granted freedom by the British? In Virginia epidemic disease probably killed 50 percent from 1775 to 1782, and slave owners would have recovered about 20 percent. Probably no more than two thousand survived to gain freedom. Disease did not have the same disastrous effect in the lower South. Though there were smallpox outbreaks in the British garrisons in South Carolina and Georgia, as well as on the march through North Carolina, a regime of inoculation was followed in British garrisons that held it in check. Musters from the Royal Artillery Regiment in Charleston at the time of the smallpox epidemic in that city suggest that 20 percent of the black labor force was affected. Perhaps another 10 percent died of wounds. Within the maritime workforce, it is reasonable to assume 25 percent would have died or been captured.[33] Because of epidemic disease and the capitulation at Yorktown, the attrition was higher in the South than in the North where the loss to disease and recapture would have been substantially less than 25 percent. What happened to the roughly twelve thousand who survived death and avoided reenslavement?

For the most part, runaways were evacuated with the British in 1782–83. The evidence for an evacuation of free black people from the three major British enclaves is variable. For Savannah scraps of documentation such as lists of refugees from Savannah to East Florida compiled for Governor Patrick Toyn reveal that in addition to some 2,563 enslaved black people evacuated with loyalists there were several dozen who were free. Other British documentation points to about two hundred who went with Hessian and provincial regiments. Dozens more went to Jamaica as emancipated indentured servants. Several hundred free blacks were evacuated from East Florida in 1785. In Charleston evacuation numbers are easier to find. The scattered record of embarkations in Charleston and arrivals elsewhere yields a total of 6,940 African Americans who were evacuated to East Florida, St. Lucia, Jamaica, Nova Scotia, New York, and England.[34] As that number did not include those who left on the multitude of small vessels that were not part of the official evacuation fleet or the 10 percent in the Royal Navy, a more realistic figure would be closer to eight thousand. Most of the black people evacuated from Charleston were people enslaved to loyalists; however, the accumulated evidence shows that about 15 percent, maybe twelve hundred, left free, in one capacity or another, as indentured servants, cooks, soldiers, or free settlers.[35]

In New York the Book of Negroes listed the names and some distinguishing details of 2,744 people evacuated as free people on evacuation ships that were inspected by American and British commissioners from April to November 1783. As Congress complained, many more runaways left New York than were acknowledged in that document, which covered only a short period and included neither merchant vessels nor troop ships. Once again it is a conservative estimate to agree with Quarles that at least four thousand free black people were evacuated from New York.[36] Another conservative estimate that 10 percent of the Royal Navy and merchant fleet were black seamen yields a figure of more than three thousand such mariners at the end of the war who were undoubtedly evacuated to England. Evidence from postwar London suggests up to five thousand black people, many of them sailors, went to England, one way or another.[37] So a revised estimate of African Americans evacuated from America from 1775 to 1783 as free people would be no less than eight thousand and no more than ten thousand—about 50 percent of those who defected to the British and about 80 percent of those who survived.

Contrary to received opinion, the British did not renege on their promises of freedom; they emancipated those survivors to whom they believed they were obligated by various British proclamations. They took their black allies away with them in direct contravention of the Paris Peace Treaty and in the face of bitter opposition from George Washington, Congress, and the governors of Virginia, South Carolina, and New York. The evacuation of America would have to be the most significant act of emancipation in early American history. Of course, not everyone chose to leave with the British. As Ira Berlin suggests, several thousand runaways, some of them never directly allied to the British, simply blended into the free black population of the new Republic.[38]

Cassandra Pybus is a professor of history at University of Tasmania, Australia. This research note owes a debt to Nan Cole and Todd Braisted whose Web site is the outcome of astonishing detective work in British, American, and Canadian archives. The author would like to acknowledge the Fulbright Foundation for a senior scholars award in 2002, the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies for an international fellowship in 2003, and the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library for a visiting fellowship in 2004. She would like to thank Ira Berlin, Christopher Brown, Elizabeth Fenn, Sylvia Frey, James Henretta, Ron Hoffman, Rhys Isaac, Gary Nash, Marcus Rediker, Cinder Stanton, Andrew O’Shaughnessy, Judith Van Buskirk, James Walvin, Henry Weincek, and Alfred Young for stimulating discussions about this topic.


1� On Apr. 23, 1786, Jefferson held a meeting with Duncan Campbell, the chairman of the British Merchants’ Association, to explain why Virginians could not meet their massive debts. Thomas Jefferson to Alexander McCaul, Apr. 19, 1786, in Julian P. Boyd et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, N.J., 1954), 9: 388–90;Jefferson to William Jones, Jan. 5, 1787, Jefferson to William Gordon, July 16, 1788, Jefferson to George Hammond, Dec. 15, 1791, Jefferson to Hammond, May 29, 1792, Notes of a Conversation with George Hammond, 3 June 1792, ibid., 11: 14–18, 13: 362–64, 22: 409, 23: 568–608, 24: 26–31.

2� Herbert Aptheker, The American Revolution, 1763–1783 (New York, 1960), 218.

3� Richard B. Morris, The American Revolution Reconsidered (New York, 1967), 76 ; Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1961), 31. Quarles never made any such claim. That figure was given by Melvin Drimmer in the introduction to Benjamin Quarles, “Evacuation with the British” in Black History: A Reappraisal, ed. Drimmer (New York, 1968), 133. James W. St. G. Walker, The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783–1870 (Toronto, 1976), 3; Ellen Gibson Wilson, The Loyal Blacks (New York, 1976), 21.

4� Sylvia R. Frey, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton, N.J., 1991), 211n. 22.

5� Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1999), 219, also quotes Jefferson to gauge an estimate of runaways in Virginia, recognizing that the number of thirty thousand represents “considerable exaggeration.”

6� For Cornwallis’s headquarters, see [J. G. Simcoe], Simcoe’s Military Journal: A History of the Operations of a Partisan Corps … (New York, 1844), 224. Edwin Morris Betts, ed., Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book (Princeton, N.J., 1953), 503–5. The page from Jefferson’s Farm Book is reproduced with his marginal comments in Lucia Stanton, Free Some Day: The African-American Families of Monticello (Charlottesville, Va., 2000), 52. Jefferson’s thirty could have been arrived at with the inclusion of six or seven domestic slaves who went with Lt. Col. Simcoe from Jefferson’s house in Richmond in January 1781, though Jefferson never acknowledged the loss of these people and they were all recovered in 1781; see the account of Isaac Jefferson, in “Memoirs of a Monticello Slave,” in Jefferson at Monticello, ed. James A. Bear Jr. (Charlottesville, Va., 1967), 7–10. I am especially grateful to Cinder Stanton of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies for help with this thorny issue.

7� See Betts, Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, 503–5, and Stanton, Free Some Day, 52–57; Jefferson’s Statements of Losses to the British at His Cumberland Plantations in 1781, 27 January 1783, in Boyd et al., Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 6: 224–25; for slaves sold, see “Jefferson’s Farm Book, 1774” and “Jefferson’s list of slaves sold or given away between 1784 and 1794,” reproduced in Lucia Stanton, Slavery at Monticello (Charlottesville, Va., 1996), 15–16.

8� For the documented evacuation of African Americans from New York, see the lists compiled by British and American commissioners known as the Book of Negroes, PRO 30/55/100, National Archives of the United Kingdom, which listed 3,000 people, of whom 2,744 were deemed to be free by the British commissioners (the remaining few being the property of departing loyalists).

9� Allan Kulikoff, “Uprooted Peoples: Black Migrants in the Age of the American Revolution, 1790–1820,” in Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution, ed. Ira Berlin and Ronald Hoffman (Charlottesville, Va., 1983), 144n. 2. Historians should also have become highly skeptical of a massive wartime exodus of blacks after Peter H. Wood’s synthetic overview of population in the eighteenth-century South in “The Changing Population of the Colonial South: An Overview by Race and Region, 1685–1790,” in Powhatan’s Mantle: Indians in the Colonial Southeast, ed. Peter H. Wood, Gregory A. Waselkov, and M. Thomas Hatley (Lincoln, Neb., 1989), 35–103.
Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680–1800 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1986), 418; John W. Pulis, ed., Moving On: Black Loyalists in the Afro-Atlantic World (New York, 1999), xiv–xv; see also Graham Russell Hodges, The Black Loyalist Directory: African Americans in Exile after the American Revolution (New York, 1996), xiv, who says “estimates of 25,000 to 55,000 fugitives in the southern states alone added up to the largest black escape in the history of North American slavery.” Gary B. Nash, introduction to The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1996), xxv n. 15; Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, Mass., 1998), 263, 303.

10� An original copy of Dunmore’s proclamation is held by the University of Virginia; Lord Dunmore to Major General William Howe, Nov. 30, 1775, in William Bell Clark, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington, D.C., 1966), 2: 1209–11; for the Williamsburg jail, see Robert L. Scribner and Brent Tarter, eds., Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence (Charlottesville, Va., 1981), 6: 426; for examples of the captives policy, ibid., 6: 305, 485; 7: pt. 1, 284. For sale of runaways to the West Indies, ibid., 5: 423, 426 n. 14. Notice of the auction of Dunmore’s slaves was printed in the Virginia Gazette (Purdie), June 21, 1776.

11� For Moseley and Willoughby, see Scribner and Tarter, Revolutionary Virginia, 5: 141–42, 207; for Moseley’s runaways, see Book of Negroes; for Willoughby’s petition, see Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (Richmond, Va., 1827), 55. Lathan Algerna Windley, A Profile of Runaway Slaves in Virginia and South Carolina from 1730 through 1787 (New York, 1995), 162–64. The profile is from my analysis of survivors in the Book of Negroes. See also the fragment of muster found on Gwynn Island published in the Virginia Gazette (Dixon), Aug. 31, 1776.

12� Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775–82 (New York, 2001), 58–60; Clark, Naval Documents, 5: 500 (“dead overboard”); Virginia Gazette (Purdie), July 19, 1776(“near 500 souls”); Lord Dunmore to Lord Germain, June 26, Sept. 4, 1776, CO 5/1373, National Archives.

13� Quarles, Negro in the American Revolution, 31; Lord Dunmore to Lord Germain, June 26, 1776, CO 5/1373, National Archives; Andrew Snape Hamond’s narrative suggests that there were about two hundred effective black troops on Gwynn Island, whereas the diary of Miguel Antonia Edwardo, a visitor to the fleet in late June, estimated three hundred black soldiers (Clark, Naval Documents, 5: 1344–45). Willoughby’s surviving runaways are listed in the Book of Negroes.

14� Henry Clinton to William Howe, Apr. 20, 1776, List of the names of Negroes Belonging to Captain Martin’s Company, Clinton Papers, Clements Library, University of Michigan. For a brilliantly researched biography of company sergeant Thomas Peters, see Gary B. Nash, “Thomas Peters: Millwright and Deliverer,” in Struggle and Survival in Colonial America, ed. David G. Sweet and Gary B. Nash (Berkeley, Calif., 1981), 69–85. Stephen Bull to Henry Laurens, Mar. 12–14, 1776, Laurens to Bull, Mar. 16, 1776, John Laurens [Sr.] to John Laurens [Jr.], Mar. 16, 1776, Laurens [Sr.] to Martha Laurens, Mar. 14, 1776, Laurens [Sr.] to Laurens [Jr.], Aug. 14, 1776, in The Papers of Henry Laurens, ed. David Chesnutt and C. James Taylor (Columbia, S.C., 1988), 11: 152–57, 162–64, 171–75, 159–60, 222–35. Details of Middleton slaves from the Book of Negroes, PRO30/55/100, National Archives.

15� For detailed accounts of the attack on Tybee Island, see Clark, Naval Documents, 4: 515–16, 636, 1437–78; James M. Johnson, Militiamen, Rangers, and Redcoats: The Military in Georgia, 1754–1778 (Macon, Ga., 1992), 154–55. A sample of historians who repeat this story as fact: Peter H. Wood, “The Dream Defered” in In Resistance, ed. Gary Okihito (Amherst, Mass., 1986), 179–80; Quarles, Negro in the American Revolution, 118; Sidney and Emma Nogrady Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution (Amherst, Mass., 1989), 78; Frey, Water from the Rock, 66.

16� Major General William Howe’s proclamation, Aug. 23, Nov. 30, 1776, PRO 30/55/3, National Archives. Analysis of runaways from data in the Book of Negroes, which lists fewer than one hundred evacuees from Pennsylvania and Maryland; Maryland Gazette, Dec. 30, 1777; Return of Capt. Allen Stewart’s Company of Black Pioneers, July 13, 1777, Howe Orderly Book, Clinton Papers; Abstract of the men Women and Children Victualled at the Commissary General’s Provision Stores, July 17–20, 1778, Clinton Papers; Memorial of Robert Crowe, Loyalist Claims Commission, AO13/17/310, National Archives.

17� Edmund Pendleton to William Woodford, June 21, 1779, in David John Mays, ed., The Letters and Papers of Edmund Pendleton, 1734–1803 (Charlottesville, Va., 1967), 1: 290–92; Return of Persons that came off from Virginia with General Mathew, Aug. 24, 1779, CO 5/52/63, National Archives. The common story about clandestine sale of runaways to the West Indies has no evidence to support it. Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy informs me that when he was researching his book, An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean (Philadelphia, 2000), he searched for evidence about this trade in slaves from the American colonies but could never find any.
The demographic profile is based on my analysis of nearly three hundred runaways from the Portsmouth area in 1779 identified in the Book of Negroes. The figure of less than one thousand is based on my analysis of Virginia runaways: 320 people from Virginia who indicate that they went with the British in 1779 and 1780 were evacuated from New York and listed in the Book of Negroes, assuming, following Kulikoff, that this number of people represented about a third of the original total.

18� Frey, Water from the Rock, 86; Henry Laurens to William Read, Feb. 9, 1779, in Paul H. Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789 (Washington, D.C., 1990), 12: 39; James Wright to Lord Germain, July 31, 1779, CO 5/665/305, National Archives; Abstract of Men Women and Children, Negroes and prisoners victualled at the Commissary General Stores October 11–20, 1779, Clinton Papers; Regimental Order Book, Siege of Savannah, July 1–Oct. 2, 1779, Library of Congress; further data on Savannah from the Georgia Royal Gazette, Nov. 18, 1779. For David George, see passes issued to George signed by Edward Cooper, Dec. 11, 1779, RG 1/170/332, Public Archives of Nova Scotia, and “An Account of the Life of Mr David George from Sierra Leone in Africa, given by himself,” in “Conversation with Brother Rippon and Brother Pierce of Birmingham,” in The Baptist Annual Register, 1790–1793, ed. J. Rippon (London, 1793), 473–77.

19� For captured slaves, see Nisbet Balfour to Lord Cornwallis, June 24, 1780, PRO 30/11/2, National Archives. Four hundred sequestered slaves were impressed to build earthworks in Savannah at the end of 1780; see James Wright to Lord Germain, Dec. 1, 1780, Clinton Papers.

20� Clinton’s proclamation, June 30, 1779, PRO 30/55/17, National Archives; also Rivington’s Royal Gazette, July 3, 1779. For black recruits, see “Muster Rolls of a Company of Blacks,” Dec. 7, 1779, Ward Chipman Papers, MG23, Public Archives of Nova Scotia; Abstract of the Number of men Etc Victualled at Gibbs landing April 6, 1780, Frederick Mackenzie Papers, Clinton Library. A Hessian officer noted three hundred black laborers working on the construction of the earthworks prior to the siege; see “Diary of Captain Hinrichs,” in Bernard Alexander Uhlendorf, ed. and trans., The Siege of Charleston, with an Account of the Province of South Carolina … (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1938), 167. Henry Clinton to Lord Cornwallis, May 20, 1780, PRO 30/11/2, Clinton memorandum, PRO 30/55/23, Alured Clarke to Lord Cornwallis, July 10, 1780, PRO 30/11/2, National Archives.

21� This claim was first made by Quarles in Negro in the American Revolution, 172, and has remained unchallenged in the literature on the South in the Revolution (see Frey, Water from the Rock, 174; Berlin, Many Thousands Gone, 303). For Cruden Report on sequestered estates, see Guy Carleton to Charles Townshend, May 31, 1783, CO 5/109, National Archives.

22� The Book of Negroes lists about two hundred evacuated from New York who defected in South Carolina in 1779–80. “Memoirs of the Life of Boston King, a Black Preacher,” Methodist Magazine 21 (March 1798): 107–10; Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 (1787; repr., Spartanburg, S.C., 1967), 89–90; Order, Feb. 5, 1781, Regulations concerning Horses & Negroes, Feb. 19, 1781, in A. R. Newsome, ed., “A British Orderly Book, 1780–1781, III–IV,” North Carolina Historical Review 9, nos. 3–4 (July–October 1932): 296, 370.

23� Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal, trans. and ed. Joseph P. Tustin (New Haven, Conn., 1979), 278, 300; William Phillips to Henry Clinton, Apr. 3, 1780, writes of 250 runaways “who have come in,” PRO 30/11/96, National Archives. For outbreaks, see David Jameson to James Madison, Mar. 10, 1781, Edmund Pendleton to Madison, May 7, 1781, in Robert A. Rutland et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (Chicago, 1963), 3: 16, 111.

24� Ewald, Diary of the American War, 305; Richard Henry Lee to Arthur Lee, June 4, 1781, to William Lee, July 15, 1781, to the Commander in Chief of the Armies of the United States, Sept. 17, 1781, in James Curtis Ballagh, ed., Letters of Richard Henry Lee (1914; repr., New York, 1970), 2: 230, 242–43, 256; Diary of Robert Honyman, June 5, 1781, Library of Congress; House of Delegates: Correspondence re: Losses from the British, RG79, Virginia State Archives.

25� Alexander Leslie to Lord Cornwallis, July 31, 1781, PRO 30/11/6, Charles O’Hara to Cornwallis, Aug. 9, 1781, PRO 30/11/70, National Archives. For map, see Howard C. Rice Jr. and Anne S. K. Brown, eds., The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army (Princeton, N.J., 1972), map no. 103: City of Portsmouth in Virginia as it was when occupied by the English in 1780 and 1781; O’Hara to Cornwallis, Aug. 7, 1781, PRO 30/11/70, National Archives. Josiah Parker to General Lafayette, Aug. 19, 1781, in Stanley J. Iderza, ed., Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776–1790 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1981), 4: 334. Cornwallis to O’Hara, Aug. 7, 1781, PRO 30/11/89, O’Hara to Cornwallis, Aug. 9, 1781, PRO 30/11/70, Cornwallis to O’Hara, Aug. 10, 1781, PRO 30/11/89, O’Hara to Cornwallis, Aug. 17, 1781, PRO 30/11/70, National Archives.

26� Ewald, Diary of the American War, 335–36. This expulsion by Cornwallis is consistently seen as a brutal act; however, he had no better option. He recognized that in the face of his inevitable surrender he could ask no quarter for those runaways. He may have thought they would spread the disease into the American lines, though he probably knew that the Continental army had introduced mass inoculation against smallpox.
St. George Tucker, Yorktown Diary, Oct. 11, 1781, Manuscript Collection, College of William and Mary. At least ten of George Washington’s runaways got to Philadelphia and New York. For American recovery of runaways, see Articles of Capitulation, PRO30/11/58, National Archives. George Washington to David Ross, Oct. 24, 1781, in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799 (Washington, D.C., 1937), 23: 262. For the French taking runaways, see Washington to Comte de Grasse, Feb. 6, 1782, ibid., 23: 488–89; Edmund Pendleton to James Madison, Sept. 2, 1782, in Rutland et al., Papers of James Madison, 5: 290–91; Benjamin Harrison to Count Rochambeau, June 26, 1782, and Harrison to Washington, July 11, 1782, in H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Official Letters of the Governors of the State of Virginia (Richmond, Va., 1929), 3: 257, 265–66.

27� Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves, 418n. 74; Kulikoff, “Uprooted Peoples,”144n. 2.

28� House of Delegates: Losses sustained from the British, RG 79, Virginia State Archives. The eighty-seven slaves known to have been lost by John Willoughby are not claimed in Princess Anne County; the affected counties that are missing are Fairfax, Westmoreland, Prince William, Stafford, Richmond, Accomack, Brunswick, King and Queen, York, Charles City, Elizabeth City, and Goochland.

29� Much of the anecdotal evidence on runaways in New York has been tapped by Judith L. Van Buskirk, Generous Enemies: Patriots and Loyalists in Revolutionary New York (Philadelphia, 2002); see also Thomas Jones, History of New York during the Revolutionary War, and of the Leading Events in the Other Colonies at that Perioa (New York, 1879). For employment of runaways, see various returns and musters of civil departments in the Ward Chipman Papers, MG 23, Public Archives of Nova Scotia; Muster Rolls for Commissary General’s Department and Quartermaster General’s Department during August 1781, PRO 30/55/32, National Archives.

30� Graham Russell Hodges, Slavery and Freedom in the Rural North: African Americans in the Monmouth County, New Jersey, 1665–1865 (Madison, Wis., 1997); Hodges, “Black Revolt in New York City and the Neutral Zone: 1775–83,” in New York in the Age of the Constitution, 1775–1800, ed. Paul A. Gilje and William Pencak (Cranbury, N.J., 1992), 20–47; Hodges, Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613–1863 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1999); Hodges, Black Loyalist Directory, xx.
There were 302 free black people listed in the Book of Negroes, but few of them correspond to ads from New York and New Jersey, which would suggest considerable underreporting of fugitives (Hodges, Root and Branch, 155). Percentages are based on analysis of the three thousand people listed in the Book of Negroes. Possibly as many as five hundred runaways from Boston were evacuated in 1776.

31� W. Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Cambridge, Mass., 1997), 30–32; Gerald W. Mullin, Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (New York, 1972), 94–98, calculated that 25 percent of runaway slaves in Virginia were maritime workers, whereas Philip D. Morgan, “Colonial South Carolina Runaways: Their Significance for Slave Culture,” Slavery and Abolition, 7 (December 1985): 65, estimates maritime work was the third largest occupation for enslaved males. A wealth of anecdotal evidence exists for black crews on Royal Navy ships, much of which is documented by Bolster. Most black claimants to the Loyalist Claims Commission were seamen from the Royal Navy. In Savannah in 1779, thirty-six black seamen were listed as Royal Navy crew. British ships captured by patriots were found to have between 13 percent and 30 percent black crews; see Quarles, Negro in the American Revolution, 154–55. Sadly, surviving musters for British warships in the American theater rarely distinguish seamen by race, though common slave names can readily be found in crew lists.

32� Sixty-five percent of those listed in the Book of Negroes were from the South.

33� Analysis of the fragmentary records of the Admiralty suggests a casualty rate of 25 percent for seamen in the Royal Navy in the American theater. The Book of Negroes identifies nearly twelve hundred runaways from Virginia, yet there is also evidence of Virginia runaways staying on as free people in New York and Philadelphia. For the maritime workforce, see, for example, “Returns of Negroes Employed by the RAD,” June 30, 1780, Clinton Papers.

34� Lists of Ships from Savannah, CO 5/106/323, Return of Refugees from Georgia, CO 5/560, National Archives. I agree with Kenneth Coleman, The American Revolution in Georgia, 1763–1789 (Athens, Ga., 1958), 145, who estimates from British sources that thirty-five hundred blacks left during the evacuation of Savannah and that James Jackson’s estimate of five to six thousand, quoted with approval by Frey, is “excessive.” See also Wilbur Henry Siebert, Loyalists in East Florida, 1774–1785 (Deland, Fla., 1929), 1: 130–31. For evacuation to Jamaica, see John W. Pulis, “Bridging Troubled Waters: Moses Baker, George Liele, and the African American Diaspora to Jamaica,” in Pulis, Moving On, 181–85; for evacuation from East Florida, see Return of Persons Emigrated from East Florida, May 2, 1786, CO 5/561/817, National Archives; for those with East Florida regiments, see Carole Watterson Troxler, “Hidden From History: Black Loyalists at County Harbour Nova Scotia,” in Pulis, Moving On, 40; for Charleston evacuations, see, for example, lists compiled for the Navy for the period 1782–83, ADM 49/9, Return of Refugees to East Florida from South Carolina compiled by Governor Toyn, CO 5/560, National Archives. The best summary of the Charleston evacuation is Eldon Jones, “The British Withdrawal from the South, 1781–1785,” in The Revolutionary War in the South: Power, Conflict, and Leadership, ed. W. Robert Higgins (Durham, N.C., 1979), 268–69.

35� Guy Carleton to Charles Townshend, Jan. 18, 1783, CO 5/108/72, National Archives. For black soldiers from Charleston, see George F. Tyson Jr., “The Carolina Black Corps: Legacy of Revolution, 1782–1798,” Revista/Review Interamericana 5, no. 4 (Winter 1975–76): 648–64. For free blacks evacuated to Jamaica, see Pulis, “Bridging Troubled Waters,”187; Wilbur H. Siebert, The Legacy of the American Revolution to the British West Indies and Bahamas (Columbus, Ohio, 1913), 172. My speculation that 15 percent were free echoes the view of those who have made a detailed study of the evacuation of Charleston who have suggested that 80 percent of the blacks who left were chattel slaves; see Joseph W. Barnwell, “The Evacuation of Charleston by the British in 1782,” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 11, no. 1 (January 1910): 2–26; Robert Olwell, Masters, Slaves, and Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740–1790 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1998), 270.

36� Evacuations from New York before the register of names was begun included numerous runways; see Evacuation Fleet for Halifax on Oct. 20–21, 1782, PRO 30/55/52, National Archives. The frustration experienced by the American commissioners appointed to inspect the embarkations is apparent in a series of letters sent to George Washington in late May and early June 1783, in which they indicated that the outgoing transports that they were permitted to inspect contained only a fraction of those departing. They were not allowed to inspect the many merchant vessels leaving the port. See W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series (Charlottesville, Va., 1992), 1: 51–56. Washington claimed the British allowed inspection of only the ships they chose and described the exercise of scrutinizing the evacuation as “little more than a farce” (George Washington to Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Sept. 27, 1785, in Fitzpatrick, Writings of George Washington, 28: 283); Quarles, Negro in the American Revolution, 172.

37� This estimate is based on my analysis of the parish records of black baptisms for 1770–90 for the parishes of greater London using data supplied by the Greater London Records Office, as well as trial records from the Middlesex Assizes at the National Archives and the Old Bailey Session Papers. In certain poor maritime parishes, such as Deptford, the number of adult black baptisms had a greater than fourfold increase after 1783. My figures are supported by Norma Myers, Reconstructing the Black Past: Blacks in Britain, c. 1780–1830 (London, 1996), who estimated a population of more than ten thousand in the 1780s. Mary Beth Norton misjudged the demographics in her article, “The Fate of Some Black Loyalists of the American Revolution,” Journal of Negro History 58, no. 4 (October 1973): 402–26, in which she estimated the black population in London to be at minimum twelve hundred. For a contemporary account of the large number of blacks in London, see Gilbert Francklyn, Observations, occasioned by the attempts made in England to effect the Abolition of the Slave Trade … (London, 1789).

38� For General Carleton’s intransigence on this point of honor, see “Substance of a Conference between General Washington and Sir Guy Carleton,” May 6, 1783, in Fitzpatrick, Writings of George Washington, 26: 402–6; Carleton to Washington, May 12, 1783, CO 5/109, Carleton to Lord North, June 21, 1783, CO 5/8, National Archives.
Berlin, Many Thousands Gone, 263. There are many instances of runaways never accounted for yet believed to still be in the country after 1783 (see Petition from Henrico County in 1784, Virginia Legislative Papers, Virginia State Archives). The governor of Virginia thought that his runaways, and those of fellow Virginians, stayed on in New York; see Benjamin Harrison to George Clinton, in Boyd et al., Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 6: 430n. Six of George Washington’s runaways, all skilled tradesmen, were never recovered, and all eight of Landon Carter’s runaways were also never accounted for.


BY: Cassandra Pybus



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