Murray was born around 1730 probably at Taymount, the estate of his parents, William Murray and Catherine Nairne Murray, in Perthshire, Scotland. He served as a page to Charles Edward Stuart (often called Bonnie Prince Charlie) during the Jacobite rising of 1745–1746, in which his father also took part, but by 1750 he had nevertheless received a commission as an officer in the 3rd Foot Guards, of which his loyal uncle, the second earl of Dunmore, served as colonel. As a captain, Murray took part in raids on the coast of France during the Seven Years’ War (1754–1763). He left active military service in 1758 and resigned his commission about two years later. His father succeeded to the earldom in 1752 and died in December 1756, at which time Murray became the fourth earl of Dunmore. On February 21, 1759, he married Lady Charlotte Stewart, daughter of the sixth earl of Galloway. They had five sons and at least five daughters.
Originally connected in politics with William Petty-Fitzmaurice, second earl of Shelburne and later first marquess of Lansdowne, Dunmore sat in the House of Lords as a Scottish representative peer from 1761 to 1774 and again from 1776 to 1790. During the 1760s, his voting record on American affairs was a moderate one. By the end of the decade, family connections had brought Dunmore into the political orbit of Granville Leveson-Gower, second earl Gower, a leader of the group known as the Bedford Whigs, who took a hard line toward colonial protestors. By then, Dunmore had serious financial problems. He may have made some unwise investments, and he purchased an estate in Stirlingshire and erected a singular summerhouse there, called Pineapple, that featured an outsized representation in stone of a pineapple set on a Palladian pavilion. Dunmore sought a royal appointment with a salary to alleviate his difficulties. Gower was probably responsible for his being appointed governor of New York early in 1770.
Dunmore sailed for New York and took office in October of that year. He quickly became involved in an unseemly salary dispute with the lieutenant governor, who had governed before his arrival. Dunmore liked New York and set about securing a large grant of land in the colony, but Gower arranged for him to be promoted to governor of Virginia on January 19, 1771. Dunmore was not pleased and unsuccessfully sought permission to remain in New York because, he argued, Virginia’s warmer and less-healthy climate would preclude his family from joining him. He finally moved to Virginia and took office on September 25, 1771. His wife and children, who had remained in Great Britain, arrived in Williamsburg in February 1774. Word of Dunmore’s reluctance to serve in Virginia reached Williamsburg before he did and led some influential Virginians to form an unfavorable impression of him and to contrast him harshly with his courtly predecessor as governor,.
Governor of Virginia
Dunmore made an effort to identify himself with the colony. He purchased a plantation in York County and enslaved laborers to work it and at the governor’s palace. Dunmore named a daughter, born in December 1774, Virginia, and he enrolled three of his sons in the College of William and Mary. He also vigorously pressed the colony’s claim to the area around Pittsburgh, which because of uncertainty about the location of the boundary both Virginia and Pennsylvania claimed. Dunmore also joined influential Virginians in the rush for . Interpreting his royal instructions very broadly, he made grants to Virginia veterans of the Seven Years’ War that lay west of the Proclamation Line of 1763. In March and April 1772 the General Assembly named a new county in the Shenandoah Valley for him and a new county in the southwest for his eldest son, the viscount Fincastle.
Dunmore’s good intentions did not always bear fruit. He had an impulsive nature and sometimes overreached, characteristics that may have contributed to his financial difficulties in the 1760s. In Virginia, Dunmore competed with and alienated some influential land speculators, and he annoyed the king’s ministers with his acquisitiveness. Rumors of philandering before his wife reached Williamsburg also dampened his political influence, and, after the break with Great Britain became unavoidable, some colonists employed those rumors to discredit his administration and the royal government that had appointed him. That Dunmore had to govern with no explicit instructions from London for several months at a time as the crisis of the American Revolution (1775–1783) approached made his task almost impossible, but he also made matters more difficult for himself.
Dunmore dutifully dissolved the General Assembly in May 1774 after it protested Parliament’s Coercive, or Intolerable, Acts, but he was unable to prevent the first of the five Revolutionary Conventions from assembling in August andto the First Continental Congress. In the summer of 1774 Dunmore’s attention was fixed on the West. He sent an agent, John Connolly, to occupy Fort Pitt, which he renamed Fort Dunmore. Because the colony’s militia law had not been renewed before the assembly was dissolved, Dunmore had to ask for volunteers to march to the frontier to protect settlers there from Indian raids. In the resultant conflict, known later as Dunmore’s War, Virginians defeated Indians at Point Pleasant in October before the force that Dunmore commanded reached the area. He then negotiated a treaty with Cornstalk, leader of the Shawnee, to protect the western settlers.
When Dunmore returned to Williamsburg in December 1774 he received a shower of congratulations, but his popularity was short-lived. The crisis between the colonies and Great Britain grew more serious, and in March 1775 he was unable to prevent the second of the Revolutionary Conventions from electing delegates to the Second Continental Congress and from voting to put the colony in a posture of defense. Citing rumors of an impending slave rebellion, Dunmore removed gunpowder from the public magazine in Williamsburg in April, an action that triggered a rapid deterioration in his relations with Virginia’s other political leaders. He sent his family back to Britain, fled Williamsburg early in June, and tried to gather Loyalist supporters in Hampton Roads. His pleas for reinforcements brought only a small force of British regulars. Dunmore sent Connolly back to Fort Dunmore to recruit western Loyalists and Indians, but Connolly was captured en route, which exposed Dunmore’s plans and further discredited him.
On November 7, 1775, Dunmore proclaimed martial law and offered freedom to enslaved people and indentured servants who escaped from supporters of the resistance and agreed to fight for the king. He recruited the Queen’s Own Loyal Virginia Regiment, composed of white Loyalists, and Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, which had white Loyalist officers. Dunmore did not free his own enslaved laborers. His offer of freedom to enslaved people to fight against white Virginians and his recruitment of a regiment of Black soldiers alienated most of the remaining influential planters and political leaders who until then had stayed loyal to the Crown.
Dunmore ordered a strike against a Virginia regiment at Great Bridge, near Norfolk, on December 9, 1775, but his force was decisively defeated. On January 1, 1776, his warships fired on Norfolk. Dunmore ordered his men to set fire to the warehouses on the wharves. Virginia and North Carolina soldiers who had occupied the town burned most of the other buildings, for which Dunmore was blamed. He abandoned his base near Norfolk and in May moved to Gwynn’s Island in what later became Mathews County, where smallpox and other diseases ravaged his forces and took a particularly heavy toll on the Ethiopian Regiment. By August 1776, Dunmore realized that he would not receive reinforcements. He sailed for New York, where he briefly served as a volunteer during military action on Long Island. He returned to Great Britain later in the year but remained Virginia’s royal governor and drew his salary until the end of the war. After Dunmore’s departure, the General Assembly in 1776 divided Fincastle County into three counties and eliminated its name, and in October 1777 renamed Dunmore County as Shanando (later Shenandoah) County.
At the end of 1776 Dunmore resumed his seat in the House of Lords. He staunchly supported the war and, in one of his rare speeches, in 1777 defended using Indians to fight against the Americans. When British forces returned to Virginia in 1781, Dunmore and a contingent of Loyalist refugees from Virginia tried to go back as well in hopes of restoring the royal government, but the British surrender at Yorktown in October diverted his expedition to Charleston, South Carolina. There, he developed schemes for continuing the war with Loyalist volunteers and advocated raising more Black troops. After Dunmore returned again to Great Britain, he pressed for the further prosecution of the war, and he voted against the peace preliminaries in 1783.
After the war, Dunmore devoted himself to the interests of Loyalist Virginians. With former attorney general John Randolph, he pressed Virginians’ claims before the American Loyalist Claims Commission, which oversaw the reimbursement of Loyalists for their property losses. Dunmore himself filed a claim for £35,723, £15,000 of which he had already received from the government in 1776 for personal losses.
In 1787 Dunmore became governor of the Bahamas. His controversial tenure lasted until 1796, by which time Gower, his chief patron and by then marquess of Stafford, had resigned from the ministry, and one of Dunmore’s daughters had attracted royal disfavor through an illegal morganatic marriage to one of‘s younger sons. Dunmore died on February 25, 1809, at his retirement home in Ramsgate, Kent, England, and was buried at the Church of Saint Laurence, Thanet, there. Later in the nineteenth century his body, along with the remains of his wife and one of their daughters, were deposited in a mausoleum at the church.