Protected: Indentured Servant and Slave Patrols in Virginia
Indentured servant and slave patrols in Virginia sprung from the English tradition of hue and cry, in which the public’s aid was solicited in the apprehension of criminals. By the late 1650s, Virginians had codified the custom of hue and cry on which servant, and later slave, patrols were based. The House of Burgesses in 1663 declared the business of pursuing runaway indentured servants or enslaved people a public expense that would be repaid by the owner. In 1691, the General Assembly empowered county sheriffs to raise patrols to apprehend enslaved persons who were “lying out” or runaway. In 1727, the General Assembly authorized the creation of militias to control the movements of bound and enslaved persons, which marked the state’s formalization of a system to capture runaways. Over time, the patrols’ responsibilities were expanded to include regular surveillance of the enslaved population. As cities expanded in the early 1800s, some urban areas in Virginia created municipal patrols to police their growing enslaved populations. With the coming of the American Civil War (1861-1865), some slave patrols were incorporated into or worked alongside of white vigilante or paramilitary groups that sought to suppress any hint of Black revolt. After the Civil War, slave patrols were disbanded but often rematerialized in different forms. Some of the functions of the slave patrols, particularly in enforcing the Black Codes designed to limit the movement and labor of Black people, were absorbed by law enforcement in Virginia.
Three indentured servants, John Punch, Victor, and James Gregory, abscond from their master Hugh Gwyn and escape to Maryland before they are brought back and tried in a case that provides an early account of servant and slave patrols in Virginia.
An Act “Concerning Huie and Cries” is passed in the House of Burgesses, making it the earliest legislation in the Virginia colony concerning the business of apprehending fugitive servants and enslaved people.
The House of Burgesses passes “An act concerning the pursuit of runaways” that declares the business of pursuing runaways a public expense that would be repaid by the master.
The House of Burgesses extends the incentive offered under “An act concerning the pursuite of runaways” to all citizens, offering 1,000 pounds of tobacco to anyone who apprehended a runaway indentured servant or enslaved person.
Finding it “burdensome on the public” because too many fraudulent claims for rewards were made and no wanted to pay that much for recovering servants found nearby, the House of Burgesses reduces the reward for taking up runaways from 1,000 pounds of tobacco to 200 pounds.
In “an act for the apprehension and suppression of runawayes, negroes and slaves,” the colony promises “the neighbouring Indians” who secured fugitives “the recompence twenty armes length of Roanoake or the value thereof in goods as the Indians shall like.”
The General Assembly enacts the first law requiring enslaved people to carry passes when they are away from their enslavers’ premises.
“An act repealing the act concerning the pursuit of runaways” is repealed.
The General Assembly passes “An act for suppressing outlying slaves” that empowers county sheriffs to raise “forces from time to time … for the effectual apprehending” of enslaved persons who were “lying out” or runaway, marking the first time that law enforcement officers were involved in raising patrols.
The General Assembly adopts an ambitious plan to secure fugitives, authorizing the creation of militias to control the movements of bound and enslaved persons in the earliest known invocation of the word “patrole” regarding the taking up fugitives.
William Parks founds the Virginia Gazette, which includes notices of runaway slaves and servants.
Slave patrols are empowered to visit “all negro quarters, and other places suspected of entertaining unlawful assemblies of slaves, servants, or disorderly persons” and to whip enslaved persons found to be traveling without passes, while patrollers are exempt for militia muster and public, county, and parish taxes.
The burgesses charge those who failed to serve when called up for a slave patrol five shillings, largely codifying a patrol system that remains in place until the Civil War.
Alexandria and Richmond create a night watch and a public guard, respectively, to police the urban enslaved population.
The General Assembly passes the Vagrancy Act allowing authorities to arrest anyone found to be wandering about or “vagrant” and hire them out for up to three months.
The commanding general of the U.S. Army in Virginia, Alfred H. Terry, issues a proclamation forbidding civil and military officials from enforcing the Vagrancy Act.
Planters in Rockbridge County and other areas create patrol-like groups under the auspices of “rifle clubs.”
- Bly, Antonio T. and Tamia Haygood. Escaping Servitude: A Documentary History of Runaway Servants in Eighteenth-Century Virginia. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2015.
- Dunbar, Erica Armstrong. Never Caught: The Washington’s Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge. New York: Atria / 37 Ink, 2017.
- Hadden, Sally. Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.
- Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1975.
- APA Citation:
- Bly, Antonio. Protected: Indentured Servant and Slave Patrols in Virginia. (2023, May 11). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/servant-and-slave-patrols-in-virginia.
- MLA Citation:
- Bly, Antonio. "Protected: Indentured Servant and Slave Patrols in Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (11 May. 2023). Web. 31 May. 2023