Date of Award

Spring 2011

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



Committee Director

Jane T. Merritt

Committee Member

Maura Hametz

Committee Member

Carolyn Lawes

Call Number for Print

Special Collections LD4331.H47 D74 2011


This thesis explores the social, political, and cultural significance of escaped indentured servants, convict servants, and slaves in colonial Virginia. By analyzing judicial records, letters, diaries, independent documents, and particularly, runaway advertisements, researchers can develop a clearer understanding of bondsmen's activities and identities while gaining valuable insight into the relationship between masters and laborers. As a key group of defiant laborers, runaway servants and slaves engaged in powerful acts of resistance that exposed the precarious nature of the colony's social order and added to planters' worries over labor management and colonial affairs, facilitating Virginia elite's participation in the movement for independence.

Virginia's colonists built their wealth by depending on bondsmen to cultivate land and harvest tobacco, and when laborers defied planters by escaping, they threatened planters' authority and economic security. After Bacon's Rebellion in the late seventeenth century, wealthier planters exercised their political power to better control their laborers and mitigate class conflict. Lawmakers and planters developed strict legal measures, such as the slave codes, promoted class and racial divides, and developed new measures of social control; however, laborers' defiance and class conflict continued to trouble tobacco growers. Wealthy planters used patriarchism to better articulate their supremacy, and by the late 1730s, Virginia emerged as a distinct slave society built upon hierarchal responsibilities and deference. Planters continued to strive for domestic tranquility, but the activities and crimes of defiant bondsmen weakened their authority. Runaway advertisements show that despite the harsh consequences of capture, many bondsmen devised clever strategies and used vital resources to reinvent themselves as free people, challenging the institutions of servitude and slavery. Throughout the eighteenth century, colonists worried over escaped laborers' resistance and their fears culminated when the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, emancipated laborers in 1775. For decades, colonists sought to minimize the number of runaways and defiant laborers, and emancipation not only undermined planters' objectives and legislation, but it threatened their way of life and their identity. Colonists were well aware of the problems that bondsmen caused once they declared their own freedom, thus Dunmore's emancipation of bondsmen encouraged Virginia's participation in the American Revolution.


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