On November 8, 1775, a 22-year-old slave named Titus ran away from his owner and master, John Corlies of Colts Neck. Corlies is a Quaker but does not hold with Quaker views on the handling of slaves. Quakers during this period thought slaves should be taught to read and write, and set free at age 21. Corlies did none of these things, and was known to be hard on his slaves, not sparing the whip. Ultimately, the Quakers would revoke Corlies’ membership because of his handling of slaves.
One day earlier, on November 7, 1775, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore and royal governor of Virginia, declares martial law, and promises freedom for American slaves and indentured servants who leave their owners and join the royal forces. This triggered a flood of escapes and runaway slaves, which angered slaveowners, both Patriot and Loyalist. Dunmore’s Proclamation stated in part that, “all indentured servants, Negroes, or others…be free that are able and willing to bear arms…” Dunmore believed that the fear of losing precious slaves would provide incentive for colonists to abandon the pursuit of independence from England, in addition to adding badly needed men to his small army of 300.
The day after Dunmore’s Proclamation is issued, the slave Titus runs away from John Corlies. While news of Dunmore’s offer traveled very quickly, historians believe that Titus cannot have known about the offer at the time he ran away. “Titus’ decision to flee hinged on a combination of local factors. He surely had observed the Quakers’ failed attempts to convince Corlies to free his slaves. He no doubt was also aware that his recent 21st birthday marked the age at which nearby Quakers freed their slaves. He may also have been alienated by Corlies’ refusal to educate his slaves at a time when Quakers were encouraging such programs.
At the same time, rumors had been coming out of Virginia for months, and so it is also possible that Titus anticipated Lord Dunmore’s offer; it is also possible that if convinced that the British were going to make an offer to slaves, slaveowners would take precautions to prevent runaways, and Titus saw the chance to leave before that could happen.
Historians have estimated that between 800 and 2,000 slaves reached Dunmore seeking to join his forces. This group became known as Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment. The only battle in which Dunmore’s Regiment fought was a decisive British loss at Great Bridge, Virginia.
On November 12, 1775, Corlies places an ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette (see image above) , that read: THREE POUNDS Reward. Run away from the subscriber, living in Shrewsbury, in the county of Monmouth, New-Jersey, a NEGROE man, named Titus, but may probably change his name; he is about 21 years of age, not very black, near 6 feet high; had on a grey homespun coat, brown breeches, blue and white stockings, and took with him a wallet, drawn up at one end with a string, in which was a quantity of clothes. Whoever takes up said Negroe, and secures him in any goal (sicl), or brings him to me, shall be entitled to the above reward of Three Pounds proc. and all reasonable charges, paid by John Corlis (sic). November 8, 1775.
Allen, Thomas B. (2010). Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War. HarperCollins, New York, N.Y. P. 316-320.
Hodges, Russell Graham (1997). Slavery and Freedom in the Rural North: African Americans in Monmouth County, New Jersey, 1665-1865. A Madison House Book, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Md., P. 91-107.
Adelberg, Michael S. (2010). The American Revolution in Monmouth County. The History Press, Charleston, S.C., P. 75-97.