“Concerning Huie and Cries”
On July 9, 1640, three indentured servants, John Punch, Victor, and James Gregory, absconded from Hugh Gwyn’s property in Charles River County. The fugitives made it to Maryland before they were caught, brought back, and tried for their insolence in a case that provides an early account of servant and slave patrols in Virginia. Although the court minutes do not explicitly disclose the means through which Gywn reclaimed his property, it is doubtful that he would have ventured into Maryland himself. Instead, like other planters of his day, the England-born Gwyn likely enlisted the services of some enterprising person or persons to reclaim what he had lost under the English tradition of hue and cry, in which the public’s aid was solicited in the apprehension of criminals. This tradition is a cornerstone of the history of the servant and slave patrols in early Virginia.
The earliest legislation in the Virginia colony concerning the business of apprehending fugitives was passed in March 1658. In an act entitled “tobacco.,” the Virginia decreed that all petitions to retrieve indentured servants who absconded, a “great damage and loss of the inhabitants of this colloney,” shall be signed, made public, and widely circulated from county to county. In the absence of a printer, most of these petitions were circulated in manuscript form. County officials were encouraged to be diligent in the “speedy conveyance” of appeals for assistance in reclaiming runaway servants. To that end, these petitions were read aloud on public days, which in effect deputized interested individuals and discouraged those who might have been sympathetic to the plight of the fugitive in question. In instances in which negligence could be proven on the part of constables who were charged with the task of apprehending runaways, they would be fined 350 pounds of
In Virginia, where life was measured in pounds of the leaf that drove the colony’s economy over a century, this created a culture of surveillance. If caught harboring runaways, for example, offending persons were fined twenty pounds of tobacco for every night a servant dishonored the terms of his or her contract and forty pounds for each day a master had to make do without the labor of their servant. Runaway servants also were punished. For the first transgression, servants were fined in additional service: double the amount of time they were absent from their owners. For the second transgression, besides extra time laboring in the tobacco fields, servants were branded. In 1656, the burgesses declared that runaway individuals shall have the letter “R”—for “incorrigible rogue”—burned onto their cheek. A year later, the burgesses decided to demonstrate magnanimity by moving the location of the brand from the cheek to the shoulder. Consequently, by the late 1650s, Virginians had codified the custom of hue and cry on which servant, and later slave, patrols were based.
“Concerning the pursuite of runawayes”
Despite the best efforts to instill among Virginians a healthy respect for the full force of the laws of the land, the servant patrol system in the colony did not appear to work well. In 1663, the burgesses declared that the system of hue and cry was “ineffectuall for the recovery” of runaways. Other measures previously employed to convince servants to behave also proved unsuccessful. When not branding those who absconded, county officials cut their hair close above the ears so that the public at large would “know a runaway servant.” In addition to the threat of being fined for being irresponsible, constables were offered a reward of two hundred pounds of tobacco for working assiduously to return servants. Moreover, as the number of enslaved Africans in the colony began to increase, white servants discouraged from absenting themselves from their masters in the company of enslaved Blacks. If they ran away with a man or woman of African descent, indentured servants received their proscribed punishment plus double the time the enslaved person had been absent. If an indentured servant absconded with a Black person who died or was lost while running, an additional four-year term or a fine of 4,500 pounds of tobacco could be added to a servant’s contract.
The House of Burgesses revisited the matter of fugitives from servitude in 1663 in “An act concerning the pursuite [sic] of runaways,” in which it declared the business of pursuing runaways a public expense that would be repaid by the owner. The measure was purportedly the result of a growing concern about servants successfully escaping the jurisdiction of their masters. Many had made it as far as the Dutch plantations in what would later become New York, where they pretended to be free. As an incentive, servant catchers were promised not only the expense incurred for their trouble in taking up runaways, but also an additional bond that masters typically offered for returning their servants. If planters refused to pay, servant catchers were granted the prerogative of selling the servant or hiring them out until a time in which they were made whole for their recovery efforts. In 1669, the burgesses extended the incentive to all citizens, offering 1,000 pounds of tobacco to anyone who apprehended a runaway indentured servant or enslaved person. However, a year later they were forced to revise the measure, finding it “burdensome on the public” because too many fraudulent claims for rewards were made and no one wanted to pay that much for recovering servants found nearby. The reward for taking up runaways was reduced from 1,000 pounds of tobacco to 200 pounds.
Not long thereafter, Native Americans were solicited for assistance. In 1672, in “an act for the apprehension and suppression of runawayes, negroes and slaves,” the colony promised “the neighbouring Indians” who secured fugitives “the recompence twenty armes length of Roanoake or the value thereof in goods as the Indians shall like.” (Roanoke were white beads the and other Algonquian-speaking natives used as currency.)
“More effectual provision”
As the century progressed and fear of slave revolts grew alongside the growth of the enslaved population, efforts increased to supervise the movements of enslaved people. In 1680, the General Assembly enacted the first law requiring enslaved people to carry passes when they were away from their enslavers’ premises. This measure was apparently insufficient, however, because in 1691 the General Assembly passed “An act for suppressing outlying slaves” that empowered county sheriffs to raise “forces from time to time … for the effectual apprehending” of enslaved persons who were “lying out” or runaway. This marked the first time that law enforcement officers were involved in raising patrols. On February 1, 1727, the General Assembly adopted a more ambitious plan to secure fugitives, authorizing the creation of militias to control the movements of bound and enslaved persons. Always fearful of slave insurrection, especially during the Christmas and Easter holidays when many enslaved persons were granted time off, these militias were granted broad powers. Leaders were permitted to deputize as many people as they deemed necessary to apprehend a runway and patrol officers were allowed to commandeer boats, guns, and ammunition.
Militia officers were paid in tobacco at public expense. A commander in chief received seventy pounds of tobacco, a lieutenant of horse (a mounted officer) received thirty pounds, and a drummer eighteen pounds. Artisans whose services were needed were paid between forty and fifty pounds per day, depending on the nature of the work. This legislation marked Virginia’s formalization of a system to capture runaways and the earliest known invocation of the word “patrole” regarding the taking up of fugitives.
Over time, the patrols’ responsibilities were expanded to include regular surveillance of the enslaved population. In 1738, for example, patroles were empowered to visit “all negro quarters, and other places suspected of entertaining unlawful assemblies of slaves, servants, or disorderly persons … strolling about from one plantation to another.” If a servant or an enslaved person were caught without a pass, patrollers were instructed to administer “any number of lashes, not exceeding twenty, on his or her bare back, well laid on.” As additional incentive to join patrols, patrollers were “exempted from attendance at private [militia] musters, and from the payment of all public, county, and parish levies.”
Beginning in 1736, the colony also was served by an official newspaper, the Virginia Gazette, which published notices about runaway servants and enslaved people. These advertisements included a description of the person and the clothes they were wearing, as well as any reward offered and other pertinent details. When “Will, a Negro man” who belonged to Daniel Trueheart ran away in 1777, for instance, Trueheart informed the readers of the Gazette of his belief that this “cunning sensible Fellow” would make his way back to Middlesex County, “where his Mother Lives.” These more widely circulated published notices created additional incentives to apprehend those who had liberated themselves.
In 1754, in addition to reiterating the monetary benefits of serving on patrols, the burgesses—many of whom refused to serve on patrols themselves—fined those who failed to serve five shillings. The General Assembly passed similar legislation in 1757, 1766, and 1785, largely codifying the patrol system that would remain in place until the Civil War.
Slave Patrols in Action
Slave patrols were most active at night and during the holidays, when enslaved persons had more liberty to move about between plantations. They also surveilled enslaved people’ social gatherings, including dances, funerals, and church services. As Austin Steward, who was enslaved in Virginia, recalled in Twenty-two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman, the local slave patrol was “always on duty every Sunday,” which was the customary day off for the enslaved. The patrol would go “to each plantation under their supervision, entering every slave cabin, and examining closely the conduct of slaves; and if they find one slave from another plantation without a pass, he is immediately punished with a severe flogging.” While fear of encountering patrollers was omnipresent, many enslaved people took pride in their ability to avoid patrols, posting sentries outside dances and other gatherings to listen for the tell-tale pound of hoofbeats, using their knowledge of the local terrain to outwit the patrols, and taking refuge in remote areas like swamps.
Some urban areas in Virginia created permanent municipal patrols to police enslaved populations, many of whom through practices like hiring-out lived away from their enslavers and exhibited a greater degree of autonomy than rural enslaved populations. As historian Sally Hadden noted, “Establishing a city patrol gave the impression of greater safety for whites, while exempting town residents from service in the surrounding area.” The growing cities of Alexandria and Richmond created a night watch and a public guard, respectively, around 1800, while a smaller city like Abington did not hire its first paid patrol until 1857.
The coming of the Civil War increased southern whites’ anxiety about controlling the enslaved population. Some slave patrols were incorporated into or worked alongside of white vigilante or paramilitary groups that sought to suppress any hint of Black revolt in the run-up to and the early stages of the war.
Patrols after the Civil War
In the aftermath of the Civil War, slave patrols were disbanded but often rematerialized in different forms. In 1866, the Vagrancy Act allowed authorities to arrest anyone found to be wandering about or “vagrant” —which described the majority of recently freed enslaved people who were unemployed and homeless—and hire them out for up to three months. If these “vagrants” ran away and were recaptured, they would be forced to work for free while wearing a ball and chain. The Union general in charge of Virginia, Alfred H. Terry, annulled the act because he said it would return free Blacks to “slavery in all but name.”
Across Virginia, patrol-like groups were created by white planters under the auspices of “rifle clubs” like the one created in Rockbridge County in the spring of 1868. This was followed across the South by the rise of white vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was formed in Tennessee shortly after the war by Confederate veterans, only to collapse in the 1870s with increased federal scrutiny before being resuscitated in the early 1900s. The tactics of the Klan were similar to those of slave patrols, notes Hadden: they often operated at night “using horses to move about rural areas,” they required passes from freedmen, they heavily scrutinized Black social gatherings, they drew from every class of white society, and they meted out violence to control the Black population. Klan violence was more likely to be deadly, however, because unlike prewar enslavers they had no stake in the lives of Black people.
After the war, 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. Policing remained a largely white institution throughout the South, borrowing language like “beat,” which had been used to delineate the territory of patrols, and techniques like surveillance from slave patrols. As the century progressed, police used curfews and vagrancy laws to target Black citizens and had wide latitude to hold and question suspects, but outsourced to the resurgent Klan the “more ruthless aspects of slave patrolling,” notes Hadden.
Whether they were the official institution established in 1727 or the earlier system of hue and cry recognized as early as 1640, slave and servant patrols represent a significant institution in the history of Virginia, existing at the intersection of slavery and freedom and reminding everyone of their place in Virginia society. Ultimately, the servant and slave patrols signified power.