Runaway slaves and indentured servants were a persistent problem for landowners in colonial Virginia.
They fled from abusive masters, to take a break from work, or in search of family members from whom they had been separated. Some servants were lured away by neighbors attempting to steal labor. Early court cases reveal that whites and blacks sometimes ran off together but that punishments for the latter could be much harsher.
As early as 1643, the General Assembly passed laws that established penalties for runaway slaves and servants, regulated their movement, identified multiple offenders (by branding them or cutting their hair), and provided rewards for their capture.
In October 1669, the burgesses admitted that these laws “have hitherto in greate parte proved ineffectuall,” as slaves and servants continued to brave wide rivers, often dangerous Indians, and the storm-tossed Chesapeake Bay. They fled mostly into Maryland but sometimes as far north as New Netherland and New England.
In 1705 a sweeping new law allowed planters to discipline slaves to death or, in some cases, to kill runaways without penalty.Robert “King” Carter sought and received permission to dismember his runaways. Beginning in 1736, landowners advertised in the Virginia Gazette for their runaways; they describe more than 3,500 fugitives from 1736 until 1783. These advertisements affirmed a lingering desire for freedom on the part of slaves.