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‘Under the Statute of Incorrigible Rogues’
Virginia Statute on Runaway Servants, 1643

This author has broken down the single paragraph statute into four clauses for ease of reference.

1. Whereas many great abuses and much detriment have been found to arise both against the law of God and likewise to the service of manye masters of families in the collony occasioned through secret marriages of servants, their masters and mistresses being not any ways made privy thereto, as also by committing of fornication, for preventing the like abuses hereafter, Be it enacted and confirmed by this Grand Assembly that what man servant soever hath since January 1640 or hereafter shall secretly marry with any mayd or woman servant without the consent of her master or mistress if she be a widow, he or they so offending shall in the first place serve out his or their tyme or tymes with his or their masters or mistresses, and after shall serve his or their master or mistress one compleat year more for such offence committed, And the mayd or woman servant so marrying without consent as aforesaid shall for such her offence double the tyme of service with her master and mistress, And a ffreeman so offending shall give satisfaction to the master or mistress by doubling the value of the service and pay a ffine of five hundred pounds of tobacco to the parish where such offence shall be omitted....

2. WHEREAS there are divers loytering runnaways in the collony who very often absent themselves from their masters service, And sometimes in two or three monthes cannot be found, whereby their said masters are at great charge in finding them, And many times even to the losse of their year's labour before they be had, Be it therefore enacted and confirmed that all runaways that shall absent themselves from their said masters service shall be lyable to make satisfaction by service at the end of their tymes by indenture (vizt.) double the tyme of service soe neglected, And in some cases more if the comissioners for the place appointed shall find it requisite and convenient.

3. And if such runnaways shall be found to transgresse the second time or oftener (if it shall be duely proved against them) that then they shall be branded in the cheek with the letter R. and passe under the statute of incorrigible rogues,

4. Provided notwithstanding that where any servants shall have just cause of complaint against their masters or mistrises by harsh or unchristianlike usage or otherways for want of diet, or convenient necessaryes that then it shall be lawfull for any such servant or servants to repaire to the next comissioner to make his or their complaint, And if the said commissioner shall find by good and sufficient proofes, that the said servant's cause of complaint is just, The said comissioner is hereby required to give order for the warning of any such master or mistris before the comissioners in their severall county courts, where the matter in difference shall be decided as they in their discretions shall think fitt, And that care be had that no such servant or servants be misused by their masters or mistrises, where they shall find the cause of complaint to be just.

5. Be it further also enacted that if any servant running away as aforesaid shall carrie either peice, powder and shott, And leave either all or any of them with the Indians, And being thereof lawfully convicted shall suffer death as in case of ffelony.


1. This is the strongest evidence that servants had no rights other than to appeal for cruelty. It is clear that the master owned a servant woman’s body. The woman in such an illegal relationship is punished roughly 7 times more severely than the man.

2. These were standard penalties, except for the next clause, which is extreme and resulted in a legislatively recognized class of “Christian servants for life.”

3. They might be branded with a brand. However, the common method, which could be done on the trail by the slave catcher, was to make a letter R with gunpowder and then light it.

4. There is scant evidence that such laws were enforced and there was resistance to colonial statutes by owners and local assemblies made such rulings, usually, under pressure from the home country and thus had little desire to enforce them.

5. This is clear evidence, that in Virginia, individual fugitives were seeking homes among the Indians. This would be addressed by the governor, who later armed the tribe based at Richmond Falls against “the giddy multitude,” as he called the entire unfree underclass, which numbered over 90% of the population.


William Waller Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619 (New York: R. & W. & G. Bartow, 1823), 1:254–255.

So Her Master May Have Her Again

A History of Runaway White Slaves in Plantation America: Part Two

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