Stout Fellows and Fine Girls: Williamsburg, Virginia, and the Book of Negroes

In an recent exchange about the stellar new Canadian television series “Book of Negroes,” based on a novel, which is itself based on a set of historical documents listing former slaves, and soon to be broadcast as a miniseries on BET, an acquaintance on Facebook asked me about the men and women from Williamsburg, Virginia, whose names appear it in.  This post is by way of an answer.

They don’t look like much.  At first glance, one might dismissively confuse them as 18th-century merchant ledgers of some sort, listing goods and services rendered rather than people.  But the fact that the pages do mark people who were once goods, but returned to being individuals again by a British government that kept a promise made in 1779 for freedom to all enslaved men and women who made it to their lines during the war against the American patriots, makes the manuscript ledgers that make up the “Book of Negroes” nothing short of remarkable.

The books were created in 1783, during the British evacuation of New York City, the last royal hold on what had become the United States of America.  At the time, the city was teeming with former slaves who were fearful for their tenuous liberty and their former owners whom were keen to have them returned to a lifetime of servitude.  A few slaveowners, such as Carter Braxton–a reluctant signer of the Declaration of Independence–sent agents to seek them out and attempt to return them.  When Braxton’s agent, Williamsburg merchant Robert Prentis, found a few and attempted to leave New York with them, another Virginian told him not to bother.  Beverly Robinson, the brother of a former speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses, was in Manhattan, too, but in another capacity–as a British officer, the commander of the largest loyalist regiment raised in the American colonies.  Robinson, who had lived in the Hudson Valley for a time before the war, warned Prentis that the British high command would stand behind the Philipsburgh Proclamation, issued by Henry Clinton in June 1779.  Clinton, the commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, made it official British policy that no one could claim another person as his property within British lines and all former slaves were free to seek whatever occupation, choose whatever life, they wanted to.  Robinson informed Prentis essentially what Charles Cornwallis had told Virginia governor Thomas Nelson in 1781: slaveowners could enter Yorktown to look for slaves and former slaves were free to leave with their former owners, but only if the former slaves chose to.  Otherwise, they weren’t going anywhere they did not want to go.  Prentis left New York empty-handed, and Braxton admitted that independence might have been a hasty mistake.

The books themselves were generated in 1783, after the terms of the Treaty of Paris were agreed to, granting American independence.  In it, an important provision, insisted upon by the Americans in Article VII, was that “any negroes or other property of the American inhabitants” would not be taken away by the British when they left.  To the Americans, that meant slaves would be returned, of course.  But to the British, the key words in the treaty were “other property,” and because of Clinton’s proclamation, the former slaves were people, not property at all, and therefore not covered by the article.  No matter how many times George Washington appealed to Clinton’s successor, Guy Carleton, for the return of the slaves, the answer was always the same: No.  But what to do with them?  Thousands had found their way to New York City, along with loyalists and what was left of the British army.  So the decision was made to evacuate them, along with everyone else, to other British colonies in Canada and the Caribbean.  Some went to Britain.  Most went north, to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.  Others were less fortunate and sent south, to the Bahamas and other islands in the Caribbean.

As the books record a striking amount of information about each individual, we know that almost 1000 Virginians were among them.  Clerks listed each of them as they boarded their assigned vessels to leave.  Consequently, we know what they looked like, how old they were, where they had lived, whom had once owned them, and when they left.  We know that some took their liberty in 1775, at the very beginning of the conflict, when then-governor Lord Dunmore issued his famous proclamation offering freedom to slaves whom would fight the patriots.  A number of others went in 1779, during a major, but brief, British invasion of the Chesapeake, not long after Clinton’s proclamation was issued and became widely known.  But most seem to have joined the British armies of Robinson, Cornwallis, and Benedict Arnold in 1781, when many free and enslaved Virginians thought the war lost by the patriots as much of the Old Dominion was returned to royal control.  Lord Dunmore had even been ordered back across the Atlantic to resume his old post (he was on a ship headed to Virginia when Cornwallis surrendered).  And we know that several, such as 20-year-old Deborah–“stout wench, thick lips, pock marked,” had belonged to George Washington.

At least 14 came from the old capital of Williamsburg, including one owned by George Wythe.  Their entries from the Book of Negroes are transcribed below.  Of their fates, we know almost nothing, but their names deserve to be remembered and their stories to be told.  And like all good history, the sources beg more questions than reveal answers.

Williamsburg in the Book of Negroes

Isaac, 21, squat stout mulatto. Formerly slave to John Henderson, Williamsburgh, Virginia; brought off by his parents 5 years ago by proclamation [1778].
 
John Jones, 40, slow, well sized man, M. Formerly slave to Richard Jones, Williamsburg, Virginia; left that with Lord Dunmore in 1776. 
 
Peter Prentice, 32, squat, scar on right wrist, (Engineer Department). Formerly slave to John Southern, Williamsburg, Virginia; left him 3 years ago [1779].
 
Jupiter King, 24, stout fellow. Formerly slave to Col. King, Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him 3 years past [1779].
 
Sally Dennis, 20, stout wench. Formerly the property of [Lewis] Burrell of Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him 2 years ago [1781].
 
John Gustus, 19, stout fellow. Formerly the property of John [Tazewell] of Williamsburg, Virginia; left him 4 years ago [1779].
 
Hannah Jackson, 12, fine girl. Formerly the property of William Holt of Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him 4 years ago [1779].
 
Nancy Dixon, 30, sick at present with a girl her daughter, 6 years old. Formerly the property of John Dixon of Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him 3 years ago [1780].
 
Simon Johnson, 16, likely lad, (Trumpeter, American Legion). Formerly slave to John Cooper, Williamsburgh, Virginia; joined the army with General Arnold in 1781.
 
James Rea, 24, ordinary fellow without legs. Formerly slave to George [Wythe], Williamsburg, Virginia; left him in 1779.
 
Robert Holt, 24, stout fellow. Formerly slave to William Holt, Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him in 1779.
John Gray, 28, stout fellow. Formerly slave to Captain Howard Harrand, Williamsburgh, Virginia, who put him in the Army from whence he deserted. [UNK]
Nancy Moody, 14, fine girl. Formerly the property of Henry Moody of Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him 5 years ago [1778].
Peggy Minton, 22, likely wench, Quadroon. Formerly slave to William Black, Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him in 1779.

For more on the historical context of the Book of Negroes, I highly recommend Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution.  For a terrific website that offers considerable access to a number of primary sources, including the Book of Negroes, visit Black Loyalist.  There are two copies of the original texts, one set in Canada and the other in Britain.  It is from the latter copy that I made the above transcriptions.

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Feet of Clay: Benjamin Harrison, Founding Father…and Smuggler?

Berkeley PlantationNot many people know much about Benjamin Harrison (c1726-1791), one of the patriots’ “principal & most violent Leaders” (according to an anonymous loyalist observer), a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a governor of Virginia.  According to Edmund Randolph, writing long after the American Revolution, Harrison was a “favorite of the day” and “scrupled not to utter any untruth,” although his frankness was “sometimes tinctured with bitterness.”  Not that you’ll get much reliable information about him if you visit the impressive but poorly interpreted Berkeley Plantation, his home on the James River between Williamsburg and Richmond, he did lead an interesting life, that bespeaks, as my grandmother used to say, “something rustling behind the curtain.”  His father and two sisters were killed by lightning strikes in 1745; his mother died the same year, leaving him, at about 19 years old, and fresh from the College of William & Mary, in charge of his surviving family and hundreds of enslaved men and women.  Even in those circumstances he was a complicated figure: Benjamin Rush reported that pleasure was his ultimate goal, so it makes sense that his favorite book seems to have been Fanny Hill, yet he was also responsible for what might have been the first and largest mass inoculation against smallpox, including his enslaved families, in early American history, when the pestilence threatened his own daughters.

And he was also a smuggler.  Like John Hancock, he was one of those patriots who inveighed against the tightening of the Navigation Acts because it meant more British warships patrolling the Chesapeake Bay and, consequently, threatened his own bottom line.  How do we know this?  Well, we could just say that the apple fell not far from the tree and leave it at that.  Both his father and grandfather were accused of, and investigated for, smuggling dating back to the late 1600s.  But Harrison made it easy for historians by simply telling us.  Hardly an Israelite without guile, documents now at the Houghton Library of Harvard University spell out his schemes in letters with his primary accomplice, a Boston merchant and Son of Liberty.  In the late 1760s and early 1770s, they kept their eyes peeled for any opportunity at all to skirt import restrictions, especially when it came to illicit cargoes of dried fish and wheat from New England.  In 1772, for example, he wrote a letter to his Boston accomplice, complaining about the effectiveness of the officer in command of the British warship then on the Virginia station–the crew of which could have also included Francis Otway Byrd, a Royal Navy Midshipman and son of Harrison’s neighbor, William Byrd III.  Any illegal effort, Harrison wrote in January, “will Depend on the lookout that is kept here by the Men of War,” but “at present there is no doing any thing in the smugling [sic] way.”  But if they were to find their way to rid themselves of the troublesome naval captain, “I shall carry my former Scheme into Execution.”  “[T]wo or three successful Voyages of this sort,” Harrison observed, “would make a fortune.”

I write this not to besmirch the memory of a celebrated American “founding father” (a rather meaningless label that I try, and often fail, to avoid).  After all, passing judgment on people of the past–even of the present, for that matter–isn’t my job as a historian (although I will confess to a sincere hatred of Alexander Hamilton and William Byrd II).  Instead, the point is a useful reminder that these people were, like all people, hopeless flawed and very messy, which is what makes studying and reading about their real lives and experiences so terribly interesting.  Getting them right is especially important now, with shows like “Sons of Liberty” and “Turn” taking our Revolutionary history and throwing it into a multimedia grinder on a weekly basis.  Yes, Benjamin Harrison was a smuggler, which almost certainly influenced his political behavior on behalf of the patriots.  Political economics had an enormous and complicated influence on the course of the American Revolution, which is the subject of my next book.  But, like it or not, those are the kind of persons who made America, men and women with feet of clay whom, in the end, created an extraordinary work of art.