Who Built Virginia?
Thomas M. Costa
|From the earliest days of the settlement of Virginia by the English, labor was a major problem. The initial settlement at Jamestown comprised a large proportion of "gentleman adventurers" who were more interested in striking it rich quickly than in working-even to feed themselves. It was only after John Rolfe's successful cultivation of a strain of tobacco that would sell in England and Europe that the colony's success was ensured. The resulting boom, however, in which cultivation of "smoke" became the way to wealth, only highlighted the need for labor. The relative abundance of land meant that few were willing to work for others if they could establish their own estate; thus free labor remained scarce, expensive and uncertain throughout the seventeenth century. In order for a planter to secure any profit from growing tobacco, it was necessary to exploit the labor of others. The supply of fit persons to work Virginia's tobacco plantations was therefore of major concern to the large landowners. (1)|
|Initially, the Virginia Company intended emigrants to the colony to sign contracts binding them to serve seven years in return for transportation, food, and clothing. This proved unworkable, and the service contracts were soon transferred to private individuals who were willing to reimburse the Company the costs of transportation. This was the forerunner to the institution of indentured servitude that quickly became the earliest solution to the labor problem. Poor immigrants to the colony agreed to bind themselves for a set term, usually four years, in return for their passage across the Atlantic, food, clothing, and usually some form of "freedom dues" at the end of their term of servitude. (2)|
|Large numbers of white indentured servants arrived in the colony until the 1680s. Officials fretted over controlling these landless bound laborers, and while outright rebellion was rare, misbehavior, especially running away, was a constant problem. The colony's statute books and local records attest to numerous examples of servants' recalcitrance and running away. (3)|
|While officials expressed concerns about the behavior of Virginia's servants, the colony could not have functioned without them. Servants were vital to the growing of the colony's staple tobacco during the seventeenth century, so much that a runaway servant might mean the loss of an entire crop. (4) There is also evidence that some runaways may have used flight to negotiate better terms for their indentures. In 1662 master Edward Dale of Lancaster County agreed to subtract a year off his servant Thomas Knight's term "provided always he noe more [runs] away." And Robert Beverley's servant John Burdon, after an absence of nearly five years, agreed to return to work for his master for six more years, "either as Gang leader Overseer or otherwise as a good and faithfull Servant ought to doe without departeing from or neglecting his Service." Furthermore, Beverley agreed to pay him for his work. (5)|
|Problems with Virginia's indentured servants may have been a factor in the gradual growth of African slavery that began during the second half of the seventeenth century. But from the 1670s, when importations of African slaves began to swell Virginia's labor force, control of all of Virginia's laborers continued to be a major concern of landowners. The statutes aimed at controlling bound laborers began to distinguish between servants-white, Christian and serving limited terms-and slaves-individuals of African descent, mostly non-Christian, and bound for life. These distinctions operated overwhelmingly to the great disadvantage to the African laborer. White servants, on the other hand, reaped the benefits of a society that was creating an underclass based on racial and cultural differences. (6)|
|African slaves also represented a long-term investment that gave the largest landowners with the most capital and the best credit the advantage in the labor market. The increased importation of Africans into Virginia was thus a crucial factor in the emergence by the early eighteenth century of a relatively stable political and economic structure in which the largest landowners, increasingly relying on slave labor, came to monopolize economic, political, and social leadership of the colony. The formerly restless white servant population faced fewer restrictions on their freedom or access to land once their terms were up and thus acquiesced in the gentry-dominated society. (7)|
|Despite the increased importance of slave labor, however, white servants continued to fill important economic functions in eighteenth-century Virginia. Continued imports of white servants into eighteenth-century Virginia were facilitated by British policy: in 1717 Parliament enacted a statute formalizing the transportation of convict servants to America. Sporadic in the seventeenth century, the convict servant trade became a regular feature following 1717. The Act fixed a seven-year term for a range of felony offenses and specified fourteen years of service as a commutation of the death penalty. Estimates of the total number of convicts transported during the years from 1718 to 1772 vary, but one source lists upwards of 30,000 from all regions in England. Most were brought to the Chesapeake. It was a practice criticized by many who feared not only the introduction of such an undesirable element into American society, but the host of diseases brought with the convicts. (8) A slowly growing group of white servants, although not as large as it was during the seventeenth century, continued to enter the colony. Eighteenth-century white servants labored in Virginia's tobacco fields, but they also filled other functions in the colony's developing economy. For example, bound servants helped to build the grand homes and made many of the furnishings that filled them. The eighteenth-century Virginia economy also featured a growing extractive and manufacturing sector, chiefly represented in iron mines and foundries in Virginia and Maryland. The iron foundries of Virginia and Maryland employed bound white servants, many of whom were convicts, as well as slaves in an occupation that was arduous and hazardous. It is not surprising, therefore, that such laborers, both slave and indented, ran away in relatively large numbers.|
|Neither servants nor slaves produced much written evidence to illustrate their lives. Exceptions for white servants are the fascinating journals of Philip Vickers Fithian and John Harrower, educated men who worked as tutors in the households of Virginia's wealthier gentry in the eighteenth century. (9) But of the mass of slaves and servants who toiled for their masters, growing Virginia's staple and food crops, building houses, constructing roads and bridges, weaving cloth and sewing clothes, preparing Virginians' food, and countless other activities, there is little written evidence to account for their lives. Court records, to be sure, sometimes show us glimpses of the laboring classes and their experiences, usually after they had fallen afoul of the gentry's law code.|
|After 1736, however, when William Parks published the first issue of the Virginia Gazette, we can look at the lives of servants and slaves whose decision to run away prompted their masters to advertise for their return. Many of the advertisements contain quite vivid, detailed and specific descriptions of both slaves and servants and provide us with a window on the lives of individual bound laborers, white and black. The notices also show us that bound laborers were active in every phase of Virginia's economy; they did not simply work in the tobacco and corn fields. In addition, the announcements relate fascinating stories of persons caught up in the Anglo-Atlantic laboring world. (10)|
|Among runaway servants, there was a high proportion of the sort of professional criminal decried by those who wished transportation ended. Richard Kibble, "a middle siz'd young fellow" with a tattoo of a woman and cherry tree on his chest, was one of a group of servants who ran from Augustine Washington of Prince William County in April 1738. Washington reported that the runaway servants stole a boat and that he suspected they would sail to the Eastern Shore or North Carolina. Kibble made it all the way back to England, where he "was convicted again . . .upon Six new Indictments," and was transported a second time to the colonies. He served his new master only three days before running away again. Returning to England once more, he was convicted of further crimes and finally hanged in the early 1740s. (11) Thomas Butler, a twenty-five year old plasterer and convict servant who ran away from Caroline County in 1745, also made his way back to England. Caught breaking the law again, he was sentenced to hang. Butler confessed to the jail chaplain that although "not unmindful of his Sentence of Banishment," he possessed "a strong Desire to see London, and know whether his old Friends and Companions were yet in Being." (12)|
|While such professional criminals as Kibble and Butler comprised a large number of runaway servants, there were also many skilled white laborers who chose to run off. Their stories indicate the range of skills demanded by Virginia's mature society in the eighteenth century. Robert Robinson, for example, described by his master as "a valuable joiner and carpenter," ran off from Lancaster County in 1775. Born in Scotland, the accomplished Robinson made "a good appearance both in person and in dress." He had worked in Edinburgh and Kelso on Tweed in his native land "and also undertook and built a church at Inverness." His Virginia master, Mungo Harvey, had purchased him off the ship Friendship, which had arrived from Edinburgh some three weeks prior to Robinson's absconding. (13)|
|Francis Etheridge, who ran off from his master in Northampton County, was described as "a Brass Founder by Trade, but pretends to be skill'd in the Silversmith's Business." Etheridge indeed considered himself a skilled artisan. He carried with him a pair of brass buckles "of his own make, which he brags very much of." He petitioned the Northampton County Court and claimed to be a free man. When the justices of the peace rejected his request, Etheridge decided to leave his master. (14)|
|Colonial Virginia's master crafts persons regularly employed both servants and slaves, some of whom appear in the runaway ads. Elkanah Deane, Williamsburg coach maker, advertised for runaway John Hunter in 1775. Hunter, a native of London, "speaks very quick, and has a comical, sly, squinting look, and a bushy head of hair." Matthew Tuell, Williamsburg carpenter, also employed black slaves as apprentices. George and Stepney, each eighteen years old, had been apprenticed to Tuell by their owner William Digges of Yorktown since they were eleven. They ran off in 1772 and Tuell believed that Digges, "under Pretence of their Time being expired (which I am ready to dispute to the contrary) sent a Negro in the Night Time to inveigle them away." (15)|
|One of the most important skills possessed by Virginia's bound laborers during the eighteenth century was that of waterman. Virginia's great rivers and numerous creeks and inlets, as well as the de-centralized nature of the tobacco trade, in which vessels would ply up and down the waterways to load cargoes, made skilled boat handlers vital. The runaway ads offer us many examples of the maritime abilities shared by white and black workers. Charles Evans, described as a mulatto, ran off from Fredericksburg in 1770. He belonged to Williamsburg's Benjamin Waller before he spent time in prison in Orange County for a debt. Released by William Taliaferro, he was then sold to William Walker as condition of his release. Walker hired Evans to Capt. George Weedon as a crewman aboard Weedon's vessel. Benjamin Johnston, who placed the ad for his capture, described Evans as "acquainted on James river." (16)|
|John Holladay's Cambridge, who ran away early in 1768, assisted Holladay, customs inspector for the Rappahannock River Customs District, based at Fredericksburg. Cambridge formerly belonged to Benjamin Hubbard, a prominent landowner of Spotsylvania County; Hubbard sold him to Pye Chamberlyne, who owned land in King William and New Kent Counties, on both sides of the Pamunkey River. According to Holladay's ad, the skilled waterman was "so well known as to need no other description." The extent of Cambridge's voyages as a crewman up and down Virginia's rivers was attested by Holladay's statement that "he has a wife at almost every landing on Rappahannock, Mattapony, and Pamunkey rivers." (17)|
|Among Virginia's skilled slaves, it would be hard for any laborer, white or black, to match the skills of a runaway named Peter Deadfoot. Deadfoot, who ran off in 1768 from owner Thomson Mason, George Mason's brother, was a virtual paragon among men. Mason described the twenty-two-year-old slave as "tall, slim, clean limbed, active, genteel, handsome fellow, with broad shoulders." He lived and worked at one of Mason's quarters in Loudon County and was "an excellent sawyer." But Deadfoot could do so much else: being "a good butcher, ploughman, and carter. . .waterman, understands breaking oxen well, and is one of the best scythemen, either with or without a cradle, in America; in short, he is so ingenious a fellow, that he can turn his hand to anything." Indeed, Deadfoot, who could also read and write and had forged himself a pass using the name William Swann, was so accomplished a man that Mason feared he might make a complete escape, as "such a fellow would readily get employment." He warned the reading public that Deadfoot might be in Prince William County or Winchester, Virginia, or Charles County, Maryland, and he had recently been detected trying to cross the Potomac to go to Philadelphia. (18)|
|Some skilled slaves were hired out by their masters who collected the fees paid for their work. Hired slaves were less closely supervised and thus sometimes took the greater freedom allowed hired slaves to run away. Six foot tall Charles, for example, "very ingenious at any work," had been hired out by former owner Joseph Jones, and kept the pass he had for that purpose when he ran off with his wife in 1767. As Charles was "a sensible arch fellow," Jones believed he and his wife would try to escape "off the continent" and he warned ship masters not to take them aboard. (19) Thomas Jefferson hired Sandy, a shoemaker, horse jockey and carpenter, to a neighbor. In 1768, Sandy ran away. Jefferson advertised for his skilled slave and noted that "he is greatly addicted to drink, and when drunk is insolent and disorderly, in his conversation he swears much, and in his behaviour is artful and knavish." Jefferson captured Sandy, kept him for another four years, and then sold him to neighbor Colonel Charles Lewis for £100. (20)|
|Who built Virginia? The runaway ads show a great variety of skills available to Virginia's gentry. Not only were their fields cleared and crops tended by unfree workers, but their homes and furniture, roads, fords, and ditches, coaches and wagons, food, clothing, and other necessaries and luxuries were built, maintained, prepared or otherwise tended by Virginia's bound laborers, black and white, servant and slave, convict and apprentice. These persons depicted above in the runaway ads form only a small fraction of the thousands of servants and slaves who built colonial Virginia.|
Ekirch, A. Roger. Bound for America: The Transportation of Bound Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Farish, Hunter Dickinson, ed. Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian, 1773-1774: A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Incorporated, 1943; reprint, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1968.
Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1975.
Mullin, Gerald W. Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Riley, Edward Miles, ed. The Journal of John Harrower, an Indentured Servant in the Colony of Virginia, 1773-1776. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Incorporated, 1963.
Smith, Abbot Emerson. Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1776. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1947.End Notes:
1 The best account of the early history of the Jamestown settlement and its labor problems remains Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1975), especially chapters 4-6.
2 Abbot Emerson Smith, Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1776, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1947), pp. 8-13.
3 See, for example, William Waller Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, From the First Session of the Legislature, in 1619, 13 vols., (Richmond, New York, and Philadelphia, 1819-1823; Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia for the Jamestown Foundation of the Commonwealth of Virginia, 1969), I:253-255; Northampton County Wills and Deeds Book IX (1657-66), p. 29; Accomack County Wills and Deeds Book I (1663-66), p. 26.
4 Darrett B. Rutman and Anita H. Rutman, A Place in Time: Middlesex County, 1650-1750, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1984), p. 130.
5 Lancaster County Orders (1655-66) p. 179 and Middlesex County Orders (1689-94) p. 428 cited in Ibid., p. 133.
6 See Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, especially chapters 15-16.
8 In 1767 the pages of the Maryland Gazette carried an exchange of letters debating the propriety of a quarantine law enacted by the Maryland Assembly. See Maryland Gazette, July 9, July 30, August 20, 1767.
9 Hunter Dickinson Farish, ed., Journal & Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian, 1773-1774: A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion, (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Incorporated, 1943) and Edward Miles Riley, ed., The Journal of John Harrower, an Indentured Servant in the Colony of Virginia, 1773-1776, (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Incorporated, 1963).
11 Virginia Gazette (Parks), 2 June to 9 June 1738, 29 June to 6 July 1739. See also A. Roger Ekirch, Bound for America: The Transportation of Bound Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 148-149 for "Transported for theft to Virginia, Richard Kebble, was given 'great Liberties,' because his master 'looked upon him as a civil young Man.'", citing A Genuine Account of the Behaviour, Confessions, and Dying Words, of the Malefactors. . . (London, ).
14 Northampton County Orders, 1748-51; Maryland Gazette, 13 December 1749.