“My Dear Brother, I wish you to give Howell some advice how to Proseed in regard to two Negroes that Runaway from me a few days before Christmas…”
With those words in the early spring of 1794, Betty Lewis informed her brother, George Washington, of a difficult situation. She also provided us with a few clues about the identities of two more members of the enslaved community at Kenmore during the Lewis era, and a larger story of resistance and survival.
Betty wrote the letter quoted above from Kenmore on February 9, 1794. By that time, Betty’s financial situation was precarious at best. Her land was not producing a crop that could support her, her debts were mounting, and although all of her grown children were living on their own, she was caring for at least two grandchildren and one niece, all living under her roof. Her youngest son, Howell (mentioned in the letter) actually lived on his own property in Frederick County, and handled much of his mother’s farming and land affairs on occasional visits to Kenmore. Betty would only remain at Kenmore for another two years before moving to a small farmhouse outside of town, much to the relief of her children. Her letter goes on to describe the runaway slaves as “the Principal hands on the Plantation,” and continues, “…the hole Crop I made the last year was thirty Barrils of Corn and a Hundred and tenn Bushels of Wheat, if I am so unfortunate as not to get them (the runaways) again, I have no chance to make any thing the insuing year.”
Who were these two men, and what can we learn about their situation? It turns out that the letter from Betty to George is only the first of several surviving documents connected to this story. On March 25, 1794 – more than 3 months after the men ran away from Kenmore – Betty placed an ad in the Virginia Gazette, offering a reward for their return. The ad provides us with their names: Stephen and Guile. Stephen’s name is not in any of the four original primary documents that began our Enslaved Community Project (click here to read more about these documents and our research into other members of the enslaved community), which tells us he was likely acquired by the Lewis family after Fielding Lewis’s death in 1781, and may have been rather new to the community at the time of his escape. Guile, on the other hand, was listed in Fielding’s probate inventory as “Guyle” and valued at £50. The 1782 Divvy List, written by Betty Lewis after her husband’s death to show which enslaved persons were to go to each of her children, shows that Guile was 9 years of age at that time (so he was approximately 21 years old at the time of his escape). He had most likely been at Kenmore for his entire life.
As is often the case with runaway slave advertisements, which were incredibly detailed, this document also provides the only physical descriptions that we have of any enslaved person at Kenmore during the Lewis era. Stephen is said to be a “black fellow,” about 24 years old, around 5’8” tall, and could play the violin very well. Betty also described him as “very impertinent and talkative.” Guile was said to have a “yellowish complexion,” about six feet tall and “large in proportion.” He also had a long scar under his right eye Betty added that he had a “down look and very little to say.” Betty summed up her thoughts on the two men by saying Stephen “…is an artful fellow and I am inclined to think he has induced the other fellow Guile to accompany him.”
Apparently sometime between writing to her brother in February about the escape, and placing the advertisement in March, Betty had learned a bit more about the two men’s plans. In her letter to George, Betty speculates that they were most likely headed for Philadelphia, where they probably believed they could gain their freedom. When Pennsylvania enacted The Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1780, Philadelphia became a center of abolition and activism as well as a major hub for the Underground Railroad. Many enslaved persons who made the risky decision to flee the South headed for Philadelphia, so Betty’s speculation was justified. However, in her newspaper ad, Betty changed her opinion, and stated that she had, “reason to believe that they are on the way to Maryland, if not already there – Stephen was formerly the property of Mr. Sprigg, in the neighborhood of Annapolis, and may now be lurking about his negro quarters.” How Betty came into this information is unknown, but it suggests that Stephen may have had a reason beyond freedom for running away. By choosing to head for Maryland instead of Philadelphia, Stephen indicated that there might be something at his old home in Annapolis drawing him back, possibly a wife or other family members who he was separated from when he came to Kenmore. The Mr. Sprigg mentioned in the advertisement was most likely Richard Sprigg of Strawberry Hill, near Annapolis. He was an associate of George Washington’s and frequently corresponded with him, usually about breeding cocker spaniels and mules, and wildlife for game parks. No apparent connection has been found between Sprigg and Betty Lewis, but evidently Betty acquired one of his enslaved workers.
If you’ve been following along with the dates of these documents thus far, you might have noticed that a rather long period of time elapsed between the time the men supposedly ran away, and the time Betty first mentioned taking any action on the matter to her brother. According to the newspaper ad, Stephen and Guile made their escape just before Christmas on December 20,1793. Betty didn’t mention it to her brother for more than a month, on February 9. That seems a long time to wait, when she was supposedly so concerned for the future of her property without the labor of the two men. What could account for it?
There’s actually a fairly good chance that Betty wasn’t aware of the escape for quite some time after it had happened. The Christmas season was a popular time among the colonial enslaved population to attempt escapes. To understand why, we have to take a look at what exactly the Christmas season was like for enslaved communities. First, it is important to understand that there was no one common practice or tradition for the Christmas season amongst the enslaved population in 18th century America. Customs and rules varied greatly by region, by town, and even from one plantation to the next. Generally speaking, most masters gave their workforce some time off during the holiday season. In most written accounts from the period, it seems the amount of time varied between 1 day and a full week, with the most common allotment being 3 days. During that time, enslaved people were often granted unusual amounts of personal freedom. They could sometimes be allowed to travel to visit friends or family members on neighboring farms, they could plan their own gatherings or celebrations, and they could take part in gift-giving and receiving, even with the master’s family.
However, time off wasn’t equally distributed between members of the same community. Because of the winter season, field hands and manual laborers got the bulk of free time, as there was simply less for them to do at that time of year. House slaves, however, saw their workload double and triple with the holiday influx of visitors, household preparations, meals, etc. This was the case for people like Billy and Charlotte, two enslaved individuals at Kenmore who we’ve met in this post and this post. As the household butler, Billy’s work was nearly unceasing during the season, overseeing all of the food procurement and preparations, taking care of the needs of any visitors staying in the house, and coordinating all of the arrangements for holiday parties and balls, including the culminating celebration on Twelfth Night. Charlotte, a seamstress, was most likely inundated with making, remaking and repairing all the Lewis family clothing needed for the season’s many special occasions. Other enslaved individuals at Kenmore known to us from this post and hired out to other farms or businesses, like the rope makers Abraham, Bob, George and Randolph, could anticipate a return to Kenmore at the Christmas season. Most of the agreements Betty Lewis and her sons made for the hiring out of their enslaved workers were for up to a year and often terminated at Christmastime. For those workers, there might have been some joy in the prospect of returning to a familiar home, family and friends.
In Betty Lewis’s letter to her brother George, she refers to Stephen and Guile as the “principal hands” of her farming operation, indicating that they were not house slaves and therefore were probably among those granted more free time during the Christmas holiday of 1793. Because of this free time, and because owners and overseers were otherwise occupied, Stephen and Guile may have had their best chance during the year to escape. And because they weren’t expected back on the property or to be performing specific jobs for quite some time, their departure might go unnoticed, giving them a sizeable head start. It may have been several weeks before Betty knew that she had lost two important assets to her income, and it was obviously several months before she had enough information to place an ad for their return in the newspaper.
So what became of Stephen and Guile? Did they make it to freedom in Philadelphia? Was Stephen reunited with family in Maryland? As it happens there is one more document in the Kenmore archives that may provide a clue as to how their story ends. On June 4, 1793, about three months after Betty placed her ad in the Virginia Gazette for the return of Stephen and Guile, she entered into an agreement with her step son John Lewis. According to a fragmented bill of sale written in John’s hand, he agreed to sell Betty two of his slaves – Reuben and Lewis – for the bargain price of £140.
The two men were among a group of ten enslaved people originally gifted to John Lewis as a wedding present from his father many years earlier. It is the only documented occasion on which Betty purchased any enslaved person following her husband’s death, and the only time such a purchase was made from one of her children, most likely indicating that it was a rare occurrence, perhaps made necessary by an emergency situation. The timing of the transaction seems to suggest that John sold Reuben and Lewis to Betty to help her make up for the loss of Stephen and Guile. Neither of the runaways’ names show up in the list of enslaved people sold at vendu following Betty Lewis’s death, and no further mention of the incident was made in Betty’s correspondence with her brother George. Taken together, all of this evidence strongly supports the conclusion that Stephen and Guile were never recaptured, and they never returned to Kenmore. Perhaps their Christmastime escape was a success.
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations
 Advertisement, Virginia Gazette, Purdie and Dixon. 25 March 1794. Copy in Kenmore Manuscript Collection, PH677.
 Bigham, Shauna, and Robert E. May. “The Time O’ All Times? Masters, Slaves, and Christmas in the Old South.” Journal of the Early Republic 18, no. 2 (1998): 265.
 Ibid, 263-88.
 Bill of sale, Lewis, John to Betty Lewis, 4 June 1794. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 385.