TOPICS: Featured Document(s), George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette, Mount Vernon, Revolutionary War, Short Biography, Slavery, Washington or Custis Family, Women in the Founding Era
by Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
December 15, 2017
In April 1781, about six months before the American victory at Yorktown, an opportunity for a different kind of liberty arose for Deborah, an enslaved 16-year-old at Mount Vernon. A fleet of British “plundering vessels” had appeared in the Potomac, burning homes and destroying property as they advanced.1 The Savage, a sloop of war commanded by Captain Thomas Graves, approached within a quarter mile of the home of the Continental Army’s commander in chief.2 Deborah saw an opportunity to join the British and gain her freedom.
Lord Dunmore, the English colonial governor of Virginia, had published a proclamation in November 1775 declaring “all indented Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms.”3 Lund Washington, George Washington’s cousin who managed Mount Vernon in its owner’s absence, reported rumors that “there is not a man of them, but would leave us, if they believe’d they could make there Escape.” He acknowledged that for slaves as well as rebels, “Liberty is sweet.”4
The English offer of liberty was not motivated by humanitarian ideals. Cornwallis was happy to take runaways as a kind of economic warfare. However, as he was unable to feed and maintain even his own troops, the thousands of enslaved people who joined him faced sickness and starvation. As smallpox began to spread, Cornwallis wrote to an officer, “It is shocking to think of the state of the Negroes […] but we cannot bring a number of sick & useless ones to this place.”5
Deborah seized her chance for freedom and boarded the Savage. In an attempt to retrieve her and other slaves who had escaped with her, Lund Washington boarded the vessel himself, bringing provisions for the British officers. When the Marquis de Lafayette heard of this, he was disgusted. He wrote to Washington:
When the Ennemy Came to your House Many Negroes deserted to them. This piece of News did not affect me much as I little Value those Concerns —But You Cannot Conceive How Unhappy I Have Been to Hear that Mr Lund Washington Went on Board the Ennemy’s vessels and Consented to give them provisions. This Being done By the Gentleman who in Some Measure Represents you at your House will certainly Have a Bad effect, and Contrasts with Spirited Answers from Some Neighbours that Had their Houses Burnt Accordingly.6
George Washington wrote his cousin a scolding letter: “to go on board their Vessels—carry them refreshments—commune with a parcel of plundering Scoundrels—and request a favor by asking the surrender of my Negroes, was exceedingly ill-judged.”7
Lund Washington sent George a list of the slaves who had left on the Savage. “Peter. an old man. Lewis. an old man. Frank. an old man. Frederick. a man about 45 years old; an overseer and valuable. Gunner. a man about 45 years old; valuable, a Brick maker. Harry. a man about 40 years old, valuable, a Horseler. Tom, a man about 20 years old, stout and Healthy. Sambo. a man about 20 years old, stout and Healthy. Thomas. a lad about 17 years old, House servant. Peter. a lad about 15 years old, very likely. Stephen. a man about 20 years old, a cooper by trade. James. a man about 25 years old, stout and Healthy. Watty. a man about 20 years old, by trade a weaver. Daniel. a man about 19 years old, very likely. Lucy. a woman about 20 years old. Esther. a woman about 18 years old.” And finally, listed last, “Deborah. a woman about 16 years old.”8
In the midst of the battle of Yorktown, John Parke Custis wrote to his mother, Martha Washington, “Please to inform Mr Washington that I have made every possible Enquiry after his Negroes but have not seen any belonging to him the General or myself.” He added that “most who left Us are not existing, the Mortality that has taken place among the Wretches is really incredible. I have seen numbers lying dead in the Woods, and many so exhausted that they cannot walk.”9
Years later, on April 28, 1783, Washington wrote to Daniel Parker, a commissioner of embarkation at New York, “Some of my own slaves, [and those of Mr. Lund Washington who lives at my Ho.] may probably be in N York but I am unable to give you their Descriptions; their Names being so easily changed, will be fruitless to give you. If by Chance you should come at the knowledge of any of them, I will be much obliged by your securing them, so that I may obtain them again.”10
The English resisted returning escaped slaves to their former masters. Sir Guy Carleton, the British agent responsible for negotiating English withdrawal from the United States, argued that “delivering up the Negroes to their former Masters would be delivering them up some possibly to Execution and others to severe Punishment which in his Opinion would be a dishonorable Violation of the public Faith pledged to the Negroes in the Proclamations.”11 Washington disagreed, but he and Carleton compromised: the names of all former slaves leaving from New York would be recorded, and their monetary value repaid to their former owners. (There is no evidence that this compensation ever took place.) Washington described the compromise as “totally different from the Letter and Spirit of the Treaty.”12
So, what happened to Deborah?
Because of Carleton’s attempt to keep a list of former slaves, officers in New York interviewed people boarding ships for resettlement in Nova Scotia, recording their names, former owners, and other signifying information. This list became known as “The Book of Negroes,” a valuable historic document for the study of black refugees in Canada. A woman named Deborah Squash, around 20 years of age, married to an enslaved man named Harry Squash, appears in the book on April 27, 1783. The officer described her as “pock-marked,” giving a hint to her struggles in pursuit of freedom. Under “Remarks” about Deborah, the officer recorded that she was “formerly Slave to Genl Washington came away about 4 Years ago”13 The day Washington penned his letter to Daniel Parker in an effort to retrieve Deborah and others of his slaves, she was already aboard the ship, escaping the newly independent U.S. for her own chance at liberty.
- “To George Washington from Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, 10 April 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-05356.
- Fritz Hirschfield, George Washington and Slavery (University of Missouri Press: Columbia and London, 1997), 23.
- “Mr. Purdie,” Virginia Gazette, Nov. 24, 1775, p. 2.
- “To George Washington from Lund Washington, 24 November 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0387.
- Gregory J.W. Urwin, “When Freedom Wore a Red Coat: How Cornwallis’ 1781 Virginia Campaign Threatened the Revolution in Virginia,” in The U.S. Army and Irregular Warfare, 1775-2007, ed. Richard G. Davis (Center of Military History United States Army: Washington D.C., 2007), 86.
- “To George Washington from Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, 23 April 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-05506.
- “From George Washington to Lund Washington, 30 April 1781,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-05583.
- George Washington to Lund Washington, 30 April 1781, n. 20, George Washington Papers, Series 3, Varick Transcripts, 1775 to 1785, Subseries 3H, Personal Correspondence, 1775 to 1783, Letterbook 2: Jan. 2, 1780 – Dec. 18, 1782. 1780. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/mgw3h.002/. (Accessed December 12, 2017.)
- John Parke Custis to Martha Washington, 12 Oct. 1780. Facsimile from Huntington Library, Catharine Turney Papers.
- “George Washington to Daniel Parker, 28 April 1783,” Fitzpatrick, Writings, 22:364.
- “Substance of a conference between General Washington and Sir Guy Carleton,” Fitzpatrick, Writings, 22:404.
- “George Washington to Lund Washington, 6 May 1783,” Fitzpatrick, Writings, 22:407.
- See Book of Negroes and Deborah Squash’s corresponding entry in the database.