Billy, a Slave on the Run–An Oatlands story

As our research progresses here at Oatlands, we discover bits and pieces of lives.  Here’s one story we’ve recently unearthed.  Imagine what is left to be found!

From the Alexandria Daily Gazette, February 8, 1809

Ten Dollars Reward.
RAN AWAY from the subscriber, on the first instant, a Mulatto Man, a slave, named BILLY, sometimes calls himself William Jordan Augustus – his color nearly as light and approaches that of a white man – his hair is straight and he generally wears it platted and turned up behind with a comb – his visage is remarkably thin, and his cheek bones high – he has been brought up in the house and is a very good dining room servant – is about 5 feet 10 or 11 inches high, very straight built – his constitution is not strong and he is subject to indisposition – is about 30 years of age. I cannot describe any part of his clothing, except that he wore a blue coat and a silver watch – As Billy is related to some mulattos emancipated by R. B. Lee, Esq. who live in the neighborhood of Alexandria and George-Town, the probability is that he is to be found in that neighborhood. I will give the above reward and reasonable charges if brought home.
George Carter.
Oatlands, near Leesburg

Billy, a slave at Oatlands, ran away early in February 1809 and by May 13th, George had increased the financial reward to $100 for Billy and his wife Nelly, who had also fled from owner A. Long of Culpepper County. It is through a collection of George’s letters (from the collections of the Virginia Historical Society) that we learn the rest of Billy’s story:

September 25, 1817, to his nephew: I was well convinced he would never be of the least service to the Dr as I was confident he would run away again as soon as he was at large. He had left your mother in the first place without any cause for so doing it was my most ardent desire to punish him for this act of disobedience by sending him to Georgia.
(So Billy had a habit of running away, his attempt in 1809 clearly wasn’t his first… but Billy wasn’t sold South when he was previously caught, the typical punishment George inflicted on his captured runaway slaves)

September 25, 1817: The sensation of surprise, mortification and I may add humiliation I underwent last evening after reading a letter from R. C. Lockwood of the 18th instant in which he informs me that Billy had returned to Philadelphia.
(Billy had made it to Philadelphia earlier but it seems he was caught by slave catchers)

November 1817, to Tom: from his [Billy’s] late confinement in the Publick jail of Baltimore.
(Yup, Billy got caught and was transferred to a jail in Baltimore, awaiting the punishment of George)

November 1817, to Tom: But as he had lived in Pennsylvania for the last 8 or 10 years as a free man, where he had enjoyed every privilege as such we could have.
(So Billy’s escape in 1809 not only got him to Pennsylvania, but he was able to start his life over as a free man… that is, until he got caught.)

September 25, 1817: What childish, trifling event could have induced you to have ever let Billy come out of jail, unless it was to put him unto the immediate possession of a well known Georgia Trader?
(How did Billy get out of jail and back to Pennsylvania? Clearly George had enough of his escape attempts and was getting ready to sell him South)

1817 to Dr. John Arnest: I have been taught to believe that Billy’s enlargement was produced by your informing Thomas Maund, that I had given him (Billy) to your wife, & it was in consequence of this information alone, received from you that Thomas consented to this enlargement.
November 1817, to Tom: Little did I suppose at that moment Dr Arnest was capable of uttering a falsehood, or could so degrade himself by misrepresentation from which such disagreeable consequences should proceed. Dr A was a man who stood high in my estimation for truth and Integrity. It fills me with horror when I reflect upon the part he has acted in this transaction.
(hmm… what was Dr. Arnest up to? We know from other letters that Dr. Arnest had tried to buy Billy, but George had refused to even listen to an offer. George seems to be accusing Dr. Arnest of aiding Billy in his return to Philadelphia.)

So it appears that Billy was able to return to his life as a free man in Pennsylvania, thanks to the (deliberate?) help of Dr. John Arnest. Billy’s story looks to end there, and somewhat happily, as no mention of him can be found again. This is only one of many stories that we hope to collect as our research progresses further.

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About oatlandsva

Director of Development at Oatlands, a National Trust Historic Site.
This entry was posted in Historic Site Information, Slave Life at Oatlands. Bookmark the permalink.

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