Author: Tom Costa

a professor of history at the University of Virginia's College at Wise, in Wise, Virginia. He is the director of the online project The Geography of Slavery in Virginia"""

Runaway Enslaved People and Indentured Servants in Colonial Virginia

Runaway enslaved people and indentured servants were a persistent problem for enslavers and masters in colonial Virginia. They fled from abusive masters or enslavers, to take a break from work, or in search of family members from whom they had been separated. Early court cases reveal that whites and Blacks sometimes ran off together but that punishments for the latter could be much harsher. As early as 1643, the General Assembly passed laws that established penalties for runaway enslaved people and servants, regulated their movement, identified multiple offenders (by branding them or cutting their hair), and provided rewards for their capture. In October 1669, the burgesses admitted that these laws “have hitherto in greate parte proved ineffectuall,” as enslaved people and servants continued to brave numerous dangers to flee. They fled mostly into Maryland but sometimes as far north as New Netherland and New England. In 1705 a sweeping new law allowed enslavers to discipline enslaved people with death or dismemberment or, in some cases, to kill runaways without penalty. Beginning in 1736, masters and enslavers advertised in the Virginia Gazette for their runaway servants and enslaved people; they describe more than 3,500 fugitives from 1736 until 1783. These advertisements affirmed a lingering desire for freedom on the part of enslaved people.