During the spring of 1781, seventeen Mount Vernon slaves took advantage of the arrival of the British warship Savage on the shores of the plantation to make a bid for freedom. With George Washington away from his home serving as commander of the Continental Army, the Savage arrived at Mount Vernon seeking supplies. Writing about the experience years later, Lund Washington (the temporary manager of Mount Vernon) explained that the Savage sent a message to Mount Vernon that it would be burned unless the ship was given “a large supply of provisions.”
As explained in today’s featured Digital Encyclopedia entry, while supplies were being sent to the British ship, seventeen Mount Vernon slaves took the opportunity to flee their bondage. Escape to and service under British forces offered the promise of freedom for Virginia’s enslaved population. Early in the war the Royal Governor of Virginia John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore, issued a proclamation offering “Freedom to All Indented Servts & Slaves (the Property of Rebels) that will repair to his majestys Standard–being able to bear Arms.”
The event illustrates the complexities and contradictions of the American Revolution, as well as changing definitions of freedom and liberty. In addition, the events surrounding the Savage illustrate the bravery of this group of individuals and their desire to escape from the harshness of their lives as slaves.
Adam D. Shprintzen, Ph.D.
Editor, Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington
The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington is a new digital history project that allows users to interact and explore primary source materials and objects from the Mount Vernon collection. Entries focus on the totality of Washington’s life and experiences, while also covering the Mount Vernon Estate, its history, and preservation. The encyclopedia includes entries written by Mount Vernon staff and experts, as well as a team of more than thirty outside scholars of history and related fields. Periodically, encyclopedia entries will be highlighted on this blog.
Watch the following video for additional background information on the arrival of the HMS Savage at Mount Vernon in 1781.
Is Mount Vernon Burning?
*Please note this link will bring you to YouTube. If YouTube is blocked in your school, you may still be able to access the video from our George Washington Wired Blog post from April 7, 2008 by clicking here.
Provide the following documents to students. Before reading the documents, ask your students what they expect the documents will say based on their previous knowledge of the topic. As a class, read each primary source out loud and instruct students to think about the following questions:
- When was the document written?
- What was happening at the time the document was written?
- Why was the document written?
Engage your students in a class discussion, using previous knowledge and the two primary sources above to give evidence, using the following prompt:
If you were a slave at Mount Vernon in 1781, would you have tried to escape to the HMS Savage?
Additional discussion prompts:
- How would you have known about Lord Dunmore’s 1775 Proclamation?
- Do you believe Lord Dunmore’s promise in the Proclamation?
- How concerned was George Washington in 1781 about the loss of his slaves?