On this day in history, John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore and Royal Governor of Colonial Virginia, promised freedom to “all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others…” who belonged to the patriots if they enlisted in the army on the British side against the American revolutionaries. You can read the text of his proclamation here. Many slaves leaped at the offer.
When the War of Independence was over, George Washington met with the British Commander, Sir Guy Carleton, and asked about getting the slaves back (including some of his own who had run off during the war), as per the terms of the peace treaty. Carleton countered that in his interpretation, the term “property” meant property owned by Americans at the time the treaty was signed, so did not include those who had responded to British proclamations years before. Moreover, the British would not violate the faith of the blacks by delivering them up to their former masters after they had fought for them.
Thus, when the British ships left New York Harbor in 1783, they not only carried tens of thousands of white loyalists, but over 3,000 blacks (1,136 men, 914 women, and 750 children). The blacks ended up in Nova Scotia, England, and Sierra Leone.