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‘Lie Hid and Lurk in Obscure Places’
April 1691, Virginia Slave-Catching Statute

WHEREAS many times negroes, mulattoes, and other slaves [1] unlawfully absent themselves from their masters and mistresses service, and lie hid and lurk in obscure places killing hoggs and committing other injuries [2] to the inhabitants of this dominion, for remedy whereof for the future, Be it enacted by their majesties lieutenant governour, councell and burgesses of this present general assembly, and the authoritie thereof, and it is hereby enacted, that in all such cases upon intelligence of any such negroes, mulattoes, or other slaves [1] lying out, two of their majesties justices of the peace of that county, whereof one to be of the quorum, where such negroes, mulattoes or other slave [1] shall be, shall be impowered and commanded, and are hereby impowered and commanded to issue out their warrants directed to the sherrife of the same county to apprehend such negroes, mulattoes, and other slaves, [1] which said sherriffe is hereby likewise requred upon all such occasions to raise such and soe many forces [3]from time to time as he shall think convenient and necessary for the effectual apprehending such negroes, mulattoes and other slaves, [1] and in case any negroes, mulattoes or other slaves [1] or slaves lying out as aforesaid shall resist, runaway, or refuse to deliver and surrender him or themselves to any person or persons that shall be by lawfull authority employed to apprehend and take such negroes, mulattoes or other slaves [1] that in such cases it shall and may be lawfull for such person and persons to kill and distroy such negroes, mulattoes, and other slave [1] or slaves by gunn or any otherwaise whatsoever. Provided that where any negroe or mulattoe slave or slaves [1] shall be killed in pursuance of this act, the owner or owners of such negro or mulatto slave shall be paid for such negro or mulatto slave four thousand pounds of tobacco by the publique. [4]


1. White slaves are still being named and are not distinguished from Indian slaves, although they are considered a different, joint category than the half white mulatto.

2. The worst offense was killing hogs, the lesser injuries would be theft of crops and tools, injuries, in this context indicating financial loss to the legislative class.

3. To raise forces meant conscription, or forced service as a slave catcher, which would continue to be the greatest question—tough never discussed by backward looking modern historians—concerning black chattel slavery, that poor whites must take time away from their labors to round up the escaped slave labor of the planter class. This law would be identical to Walmart or other massive retailers sponsoring legislation assigning the duty of rounding up their shopping carts to nearby small businesses. We moderns think that slavery was a purely moral issue, when in fact it was predominantly an economic issue, with the keystone being the insistence of the slave owning class that non-slave owners of far lesser remains be charged with maintainence of the police state and service in its ranks.

4. When the rich man’s slave has escaped, and the poor man has been forced to recover him, if that slave is killed, the taxpaying collective shall compensate the rich man for his loss! There is a curious absence of the white slave in the last clause. In each of the 8 clauses the white and/or Indian slave [legally the same category] is scrupulously designated. But, when it comes to compensating eth slave owner for the killing of his runaway, the collective will not be held accountable for killing a white or Indian runaway. Does this represent the high cost of blacks, which at this stage Maryland planters still complained they could not afford, or does this represent state pressure on slave owners to traffic evermore in blacks and ever less in whites? Keeping in the spirit of these laws, this author suspects that legislating compensation for whites was discouraged to benefit the wealthiest planters, who could better afford the more expensive African servants, at the expense of smaller planters, not of the legislative class, who would be more dependent on cheap white labor.

So Her Master May Have Her Again

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

Add Comment
LynnJune 26, 2017 1:38 PM UTC

It is amazing to know that taxpayer bailouts of slave owners goes back to the colonial era. Today's debt-slave owners, the banks, are "too big to fail," and must be saved at any cost.