George Washington’s Runaway Slave, Harry

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: His journey would take him a world away from Mount Vernon.

George Washington and his servant Billy Lee. Artist: John Trumbull. 1780. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

While Washington’s plantation manager, Lund Washington, professed to having “not the least dread” that the general’s slaves would join this mad melee and flee their supposedly benevolent master, Washington knew better, privately admitting that “the momentum of slave defections would be ‘like a snow ball in rolling.’ ” 

The general was right: Harry, seizing his opportunity and always fleet of foot, ran away in 1776, along with three white indentured servants. And they were not the last to do so: As late as April 1781, 18 slaves fled the plantation. Though the war was raging, Washington was determined to retrieve his property, hiring a slave catcher who managed to return seven, but not Harry.

Harry served nobly in Dunmore’s all-black Loyalist regiment called “the Black Pioneers.” He rose to the rank of corporal, participating in the invasion of South Carolina and the siege of Charleston, and serving in charge of “a company of Black Pioneers attached to the Royal Artillery Department in Charleston in 1781.” 

At war’s end, with the British defeat, Harry was part of a black community consisting of some 4,000 people who found safe haven in the British zone in New York, nervously awaiting their fate, since the victorious Americans insisted in the peace treaty that all runaway slaves be returned. As Pybus reports, Washington, despite the victory over British tyranny, remained ever-determined to regain his escaped property. He instructed his army contractor, Daniel Parker, to do his best to find his slaves: “If by chance you should come at the knowledge of any of them, I will be much obliged by your securing them so I may obtain them again.” 

But the British kept their word: Onboard a ship named L’Abondance in July 1783, along with 405 other black men, women and children, a 43-year-old Harry set sail with his wife, Jenny, for Nova Scotia and freedom, in a settlement they named “Birchtown.”

Nova Scotia, it turned out, was not to be the promised land that Harry and his compatriots hoped it would be. The weather was horrible, rocky land allocated to the black settlers was difficult to cultivate and white settlers often underpaid black workers. For some, it was another nightmare — better than slavery, but just barely. After protesting to the British government in 1791, half of the black settlers were relocated to Sierra Leone in Africa, lured by the promise of “20 acres for every man, ten for every woman and five for every child.”

If Canada was not the promised land, neither, unfortunately, was Sierra Leone. Although Harry and his wife managed to start their own farm, the settlers suffered unduly from a tax imposed by the Sierra Leone Company called a “quit rent,” which created a system of perpetual indebtedness that in effect was a British forerunner of sharecropping. When Harry — a revolutionary to the end — protested, he and his supposed collaborators were arrested, charged with “open and unprovoked rebellion” and tried by a military tribunal. Harry, now aged 60, along with 23 of his fellow rebels, was banished from his community “across the Sierra Leone River to the Bullom Shore” for life. And there, the historical record ends.

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.