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about the stellar new Canadian television series “Book of Negroes,” based on a novel, which is itself based on a set of historical documents listing former slaves, and soon to be broadcast as a miniseries on BET, an acquaintance on Facebook asked me about the men and women from Williamsburg,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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“Having never been a Favourite of the Great”: A Revolutionary Printer’s Commitment to His Principles

The Ludwell-Paradise House.
The Ludwell-Paradise House.

This post is about the sincerity with which people up and down the social scale applied political thought to personal action in the revolutionary world.  Here I’m referring to William Rind, one of Williamsburg’s printers, who lived at the Ludwell-Paradise House on Duke of Gloucester Street, and probably there printed his edition of the Virginia Gazette.

Neither one of the well-known (and well-heeled) “Founders” who led provincials into secession from the British Empire, nor one of the almost-as-celebrated (and probably almost-as-apocryphal) men and women of the lower sorts who pushed the elites into rebellion, Rind was one of those folks whom often get lost in the historiographical scrum over who mattered most in the American Revolution. His American Revolution seems not to have been one imposed from the top down, nor one instigated from the bottom up, but perhaps was one that developed from the middle out (I’ll direct any more considered inquiry of the role of printers in the Revolution and Early Republic to my friends Joe AdelmanJeff Pasley. and Todd Andrlik). In any case, Rind was a particular favorite of the patriots in Williamsburg and seems to have taken the lofty motto he chose for his newspaper–“Open to all Parties but Influenced by None”–quite seriously, as the letter below suggests.

This unpublished letter (until recently stuck in a drawer at Eyre Hall on the Eastern Shore) was written in February 1769 in response to a complaint from a Northampton County patriot, Severn Eyre, that Rind had not been quick enough about printing an essay criticizing the new governor, Lord Botetourt. While unique in a number of respects, it is of especial interest for the window it opens–however briefly–into a particular moment in the lives of people who lived in this place during the constitutional crisis.  Rind and his assistant, William Lumley, permit us to follow them on a cold winter’s day from Blovet Pasteur’s shop (next to the Raleigh Tavern), down the street to Rind’s office, into Lumley’s trunk, and then inside Rind’s own head as he considers the practical issues of printing a newspaper and its connection to his political faith. It allows us a glimpse into the ways political thought informed the daily lives of people such as Rind, and does so in a way that helps us attend to the complex intersection of constitutional abstraction, political culture, and individual behavior in Revolutionary Williamsburg, which makes studying that time and place so terribly interesting.

Sir,
I received yours of the 22d ultimo by which I am sorry to see you have taken offence at my not publishing the Piece signed Curtius sooner. It would have been very inconvenient to me to have printed it then, as it would have put me to the Expence of giving a Supplement, at a Time I was so scarce of Paper, as to be afraid I should be obliged to stop my Gazette for want of it. You say, “you know the Piece was delivered into my own Hands ….” What Wm Lumley, who lives with me, Subjoins to this will, I doubt not, convince you that you was misinformed in that Point, as also that no “Court Sycophant” (having never been a Favourite of the Great) nor any Person out of my House, had ever Seen it till it was printed. I have ever made it a Rule to consult no Man what Pieces I shall publish, and shall ever adhere to it. But, I think, the Authors should give their Names to the Printer for his private Satisfaction, which should by no means be divulged, when the Pieces are of such a Tendency as to create him Enemies, and as he is ignorant in anonymous Pieces whether they come from Friends or Foes, the Consequences may be often hurtful to him. I do not expect any Gentleman will insure me his Vote; but I hope you will do me the Justice to believe that I act up to my Motto, and I think I have often proved it, Sometimes to my great Loss; both by the Expense of printing 2000 Supplements a Week, and by losing many subscribers, who prefer old News, to new Pieces, of what Nature soever. I will therefore still hope for the Continuance of your Friendship, which I desire no longer that I shall be thought to maintain a free Press. I am, with Gratitude and Respect, Sir,
Your much obliged humble
Servant,
Wm. Rind

Sir Williamsburg, Feby 11th 1769
The piece signed Curtius was left at Mr. B. Pasteurs Shop, where I happened to step in, when he gave it me. I know not whether it was the same Day that it was left with him, or the next.
I opened it in the Shop, & seeing it was a Piece for the Press, I put it into my Pocket without reading it. When I came home I shewed it to Mr. Rind, & we both read it; & then I took it into my own Room, & locked it up in my Trunk, with some other Pieces; & there it has remained til given to the Compositor to set for the Press. These particulars I could very safely make Oath to, were it necessary.
I am very respectfully
Sir, Your unknown hbl Sevt
Wm. Lumley

[Eyre Family Papers, VHS]

“An accursed Violation of the most sacred Right of human Nature”: The Somerset Case in Williamsburg

If I was Counsel for Somerset the Negro, (says a Correspondent) I would take up the Matter higher than any of his Counsel have yet done.  I would urge, and I think I could prove, that he neither now is, nor ever was, the Property of his Master; that the original Vendor had no Right to sell, nor the original Purchaser to buy him; that all Mankind, as they are born, ought to live, equally free; and that the Slave Trade, whatever the mercantile World may urge to the contrary, is an infamous bartering of human Flesh and Blood, an accursed Violation of the most sacred Right of human Nature.

This strenuous opinion is remarkable not that it was printed at all–it first appeared in the London Public Advertiser of 16 May 1772–but that it was reprinted in the Virginia Gazette of Alexander Purdie and John Dixon just over two months later, on 23 July.  Regardless of the actual holding in the case of James Somerset, which held that slaves were servants under a 1679 statute and not chattel property, which did not actually make Somerset, or any other slave, legally free, the perception was quite different.  Somerset himself was said to have reported to a relative that he told the servants that “Lord Mansfield had given them [slaves in England] their freedom.”  The news spread across the Atlantic. In late 1774, one planter advertised that an enslaved man in Virginia had run away, probably to get to England, based on “the Knowledge he has of the late Determination of Somerset’s Case.” It certainly stands as a strong reminder of the power of perception to shape opinion and behavior, rather than the actual facts of the case, of the difference between rhetoric and reality, especially when it comes to our understanding of the personal and constitutional tensions involved in the struggle for independence.

Grave Truths: A Williamsburg That Is “For Ever England”

We know there are graveyards large and small throughout Williamsburg, Virginia, that date from the revolutionary era.  There are formal cemeteries, like that surrounding Bruton Parish Church, and much more intimate family graves, tucked discretely behind colonial houses.  They represent the final resting places of the well-known (a signer of the U.S. Constitution, children of U.S. presidents and their wives, etc.) and the forgotten (have you ever heard of Edward Nott or the “Hammer Man of Williamsburg”?).

But their markers represent only a fraction of revolutionary Williamsburg’s grave truths.  Historical evidence tells us that Bruton Parish churchyard, for example, is littered with the unmarked remains of once-prominent figures, such as printer Alexander Purdie, alongside numerous infants who never even received a name, much less a gravestone (think of Williamsburg’s own foundlings when you visit “Threads of Feeling“).  We also know from other sources that Mary Stith asked to buried behind her house on Duke of Gloucester Street and members of the Anderson family, her neighbors, were interred behind theirs, but no traces of either plots remain today.  But, as James Shirley so memorably put it almost 400 years ago, death is “the Leveller,” and “in the dust be equal made” both free and enslaved, famous and infamous, so drivers today unknowingly pass the large ravine next to the Virginia DMV on Capitol Landing Road, where the bodies of executed criminals were cast after meeting their unseemly ends on the nearby gallows.

Archaeology has given us an important layer of information about the final resting place of those who gave, in Lincoln’s words, “the last full measure of devotion” to the American cause.  Behind the Governor’s Palace, in as peaceful and picturesque a spot as one can imagine, at least 156 soldiers of the United States lie under a carefully kept lawn, casualties of the last battles of the Revolutionary War–their devotion marked by a tablet on the adjacent wall. On the other side of town, their allies, more than 130 French soldiers, are buried in a marked plot in a small grove tucked away behind Providence Hall Lodge, within sight of the tennis courts.  Their contribution is commemorated in annual ceremonies open to the public.

But where are the British and loyalist graves?  History tells us that they are certainly here somewhere.  They, just as their American and French opponents, died by the dozens in Williamsburg, from battle and smallpox, during the time the British army controlled the city in the spring and summer of 1781.

Take the case of Charles Jones, a young man who represents the American Revolution as the civil war it really was.  Hardly your stereotypical British officer, caricatured in American literature and theater since the war as an effete, bewigged gentleman of privilege who had not set foot in, or given a second thought to, America before 1775.  Jones was, in fact, as American as Thomas Jefferson.  Born in Weston, Massachusetts, which remains little more than a hamlet along the Boston Post Road, a long day’s ride west of the city, he was a first-year student at Harvard when the war began.  The same college that produced arch-patriots such as Samuel and John Adams was also the alma mater of a number of loyalists, such as this privileged son of a former member of the Massachusetts legislature, who took a rather different course when he left Harvard to join a loyalist unit in 1778 or so, when he was 19 years old, and just about to graduate. By the middle of 1781, Charles had risen to the rank of Cornet in the cavalry of John Graves Simcoe’s famous Queen’s American Rangers. On June 26, he was killed in a skirmish with the Marquis de la Fayette‘s forces at Spencer’s Ordinary, not six miles from Williamsburg.  According to Simcoe’s journal, his body was retrieved by his comrades and “buried at Williamsburg the next day, with military honours.” But where?*

Rupert Brooke, a remarkable member of that exceptional cohort of English poets who attempted to capture the meaning and experience of World War I, wrote:

“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.”

So somewhere in Williamsburg, like in so many plots along the Battle Road north of Boston, there is a place that is “for ever England.”  That unknown “rich earth” conceals the remains of those men who gave their lives in the belief that the old British Empire was a better guarantor of freedom than the new American nation.  Perhaps one day we will find that earth, but until then, perhaps every Union flag that flies in the city can serve as a reminder of a time when to breathe in Williamsburg was to breathe English air, and also of the men who fought to keep it that way.

*There are legends that the British buried their dead under what is now Palace Green, but that is highly unlikely as the Palace Green probably did not exist during the American Revolution as it appears today, a verdant lawn–it was then Palace Street, a broad, tree-lined thoroughfare.