John Murray, Lord Dunmore – the Last Royal Governor of Virginia and the First to Offer Freedom to American Slaves

Lord Dunmore Royal Governor of Virginia

John Murray, the fourth Earl of Dunmore, was a tall, athletic Scotsman with a shock of red hair. He had a flair for the military and enjoyed the benefits that life offered those born to wealth. He became Royal Governor of Virginia in 1771 and gained favor with the aristocratic gentry and plantation owners, which included George Washington and Patrick Henry who both corresponded warmly with him on many occasions. In 1775, at age forty-four, he was driven from Virginia and proved to be the last Royal Governor in residence. Political unrest, accentuated by poor negotiating skills, undermined his efforts to govern and eventually made matters untenable in the colony. He fled to New York City where the British invasion fleet was preparing to confront Washington’s forces. Within a few months he rejoined his family in Scotland and retained the seat as Royal Governor of Virginia, collecting pay until September 1783 when the Treaty of Paris ended hostilities in America.

John Murray was born in 1732 at Taymouth, Scotland. He was the son of William Murray, the Third Earl of Dunmore, and Catherine Murray. When young John was fourteen years old, he joined his father in the Highlander’s struggle to support the Jacobite Rebellion against the Hanoverians. Clans of the Highlander’s favored the Young Pretender and ‘flower of the Stuarts’ Bonnie Prince Charles.

Bonnie Prince Charlie

They hoped to gain the throne of England for Charles’ family and his father James VIII of Scotland, who was also entitled James III of England. Their efforts failed tragically. In addition, John and his father were present at the disastrous Battle of Culloden where the ‘Butcher’, Lord Cumberland, soundly defeated the Jacobites. Escaping the carnage and slaughter, father and son made their way home. The Murray family was subsequently put under house arrest and William was taken away. Pleading guilty to treason, he was jailed in the Tower of London. Lord Cumberland, son of the king and leader of the English forces, spent the next several decades ‘cleansing’ the Highlands with barbarous acts against those who fought for the Stuarts. Raping and pillaging became so commonplace that thousands of Highlanders fled Scotland, settling in large numbers in North Carolina and Virginia.

In 1750, William claimed loyalty to the crown and received a conditional pardon and release from the Tower. John, now age eighteen, joined the British army. With the death of his brother in 1752, William succeeded to the titles of Third Lord Murray of Blair, Moulin and Tillernot, as well as Viscount of Fincastle, also within the peerage of Scotland. He soon became a peer representing Scotland in the House of Lords and enjoyed his title and influence in Parliament for the four years before his death in 1756. Thus, at age twenty four, young John Murray claimed his title as the fourth Lord Dunmore.

The new Earl of Dunmore left the army and began delving into politics. Five years after his father’s death, he became a Scottish representative peer in the House of Lords, retaining the position from 1761 to 1774. He regained the seat in 1776 upon his return to England from the Americas, and he held it until 1790.

In 1770, the Earl of Hillsborough selected the thirty six year old quick-witted, articulate Scotsman to serve as royal governor of New York. It was an appointment viewed by all as one of great honor and promised to position the recipient with the means to accumulate a great deal of wealth in England’s rich colonies. John sailed for New York City and arrived in October of 1770 without his wife Charlotte, who had stayed in Scotland with their seven children.

Shortly after Lord Dunmore received the governorship of New York, Virginia’s incumbent Royal Governor, Norborne Berkeley, fourth Baron Botetourt, died after governing there for five years. Dunmore was delighted to be promoted to England’s largest and wealthiest North American colony. The tall Highlander relocated to Williamsburg the following spring and he quickly became well respected as a fair and capable politician, even though growing issues were increasing the tension between England and the colonists. George Washington and many other planters wrote to him and dined with him on various occasions. Dunmore was soon honored with a newly incorporated county named after him.

Virginia House of Burgesses

The symbiotic relationship between the governor and the wealthy plantation owners began to erode. Though congenial and open to suggestions, Lord Dunmore was not a good negotiator. He made draconian decisions without following the usual protocol of allowing those involved to believe they were an important part of the outcome. Tempers in the colonies flared in 1773 when England proposed to extradite a band of Rhode Island smugglers to England for trial. In March of that year, the Virginia House of Burgesses of the Colonial Assembly appointed a Committee of Correspondence, with Payton Randolph as chairman, to voice its concerns directly to Parliament and the decision makers in England. Dunmore saw this as a ploy to usurp his own powers and conditions worsened.

In May of the following year, England enacted the Intolerable Acts laws and closed the port of Boston as a retaliatory measure for the Boston Tea Party. The Virginia legislature adopted a resolution written by Patrick Henry expressing sympathy for the citizens of Boston and calling for a day of ‘fasting, humiliation and prayer.’ Dunmore summoned the leaders of the Burgesses to answer for their actions. Following his predecessor’s similar act in 1769, he dissolved the Assembly. The delegates, eighty nine in number, continued to gather at the Raleigh Tavern a short distance from the tall brick building or ‘capital’ that dominated the east end of Williamsburg as if nothing had happened. There, they continued their debate on how to respond to England’s growing might and issued a call to boycott many British imports as well as making a call for a Continental Congress.

The Battle of Point Pleasant during “Lord Dunmore’s War”

Hoping to regain the support he once enjoyed, Dunmore turned to the land south of the Ohio River (now West Virginia) and entered a dispute later known as Dunmore’s War. Settlers, mainly from Virginia, were being attacked by the Shawnee Nation and their allies, the Mingos. Atrocities were fueled by barbarous acts performed by both Native Americans and settlers. In the fall of 1774, Lord Dunmore led a group of Virginia militiamen to war in an effort to force the Shawnee Nation to accept the Ohio River boundary which had been negotiated with the Iroquois in the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix. At the same time, a Pennsylvania militia of just over a thousand men was moving south into the area, led by Colonel Andrew Lewis. Cornstalk, leader of the Shawnee and Mingos, feared that the two forces would combine and decided to attack the Pennsylvanians at a bluff where the Kanawha River joins the Ohio. They met on October tenth in the battle of Kanawha otherwise known as the Battle of Point Pleasant. After several hours, Cornstalk’s forces retreated, being outnumbered two to one. The militia had over two hundred casualties, including seventy five dead. The Shawnee forces had thirty-three dead and an unknown number of wounded. Shortly after, Lord Dunmore negotiated an end to hostilities and returned to Virginia as a hero.

George Washington was a large slave holder on his Mt. Vernon Farm.

1774 was a good year for Lord Dunmore. His wife and children made the passage from Scotland. He bought a private plantation outside Williamsburg called Porto Bello, and his wife gave birth to a daughter. However, nationalistic fervor continued and soon overshadowed Dunmore’s hopes for normalcy. In 1775, the Second Virginia Convention elected delegates to the Continental Congress over Dunmore’s order not to do so. On March 23rd, Patrick Henry gave his famous ‘Give me Liberty or Give me Death’ speech. An accompanying resolution called for forming an armed resistance. On April 20th, one day after the Battle of Lexington, Dunmore thought it prudent to remove gunpowder stored in a local magazine and have it loaded it onto a British ship. He ordered Lieutenant Henry Collins, commander of HMS Magadalen, to do so. Royal marines loaded fifteen half barrels of powder and transported it down the Quarterpath Road to the James River where it was stowed on board ship. The action sparked immediate unrest and militia companies mustered throughout the colony. Patrick Henry led a force towards Williamsburg to force the governor to return the powder. That night Dunmore angrily swore, “I have once fought for the Virginians and by God, I will let them see that I can fight against them.” Dunmore resolved the incident by making a payment of £ 330 for the powder. When the Hanover County militia, led by Henry, arrived outside Williamsburg, Dunmore feared for his and his family’s safety and so moved them to his plantation at Porto Bello. He issued a proclamation against Henry and ‘a number of deluded followers… who put themselves in a posture of war.’ Dunmore left the governor’s mansion on June 8th to join his family at Porto Bello.

Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation to free the slaves of patriot owners

Colonists continued to take sides in the growing dispute. Whigs (patriots) faced Tories (loyalists), many of Scottish heritage who were merchants living near coastal Norfolk. Personal clashes between neighbors became more commonplace. Dunmore started to issue orders to the many British vessels, including war ships, to assemble along the James at Norfolk. British commander-in-chief for North America General Thomas Gage ordered a small detachment of the 14th Regiment of Foot, led by Colonel Leslie, to respond to Dunmore’s pleas for ground troops. On October 12th the troops began raiding surrounding counties, looking for rebel military supplies. These actions only worsened the condition. A British ship ran aground on the James near the end of October which sparked an open confrontation. The ship was captured by Whigs during a brief skirmish near Hampton. British naval boats sent to punish the townspeople were repulsed by the arrival of the county’s militia. The resulting gun battle left several sailors captured or killed.

Ethiopian Brigade

On November 7th, Dunmore reacted with another proclamation that proved to be his most contentious and vitriolic to date. In it, Dunmore declared martial law and offered freedom to all slaves of Whigs who joined the British forces, understandably sending shock waves through the colonies. It prompted many powerful Virginians, including George Washington, to speak their damnation of the British; Washington declared that Lord Dunmore must be crushed. Given that the planters of Virginia alone denied freedom to 180,000 Africans (which exceeded the white population of the colony), the decree played upon the white dominated society’s worst nightmares. Patrick Henry, the fierce defender of liberty, claimed that to “encourage insurrection among our slaves,” revealed the King to be a “tyrant instead of the protector of his people.” He later used this act to argue for “an immediate, clear, and full Declaration of Independency.”  Ironically, after Henry’s heated response to the Dunmore proclamation, one of Henry’s own slaves named Ralph quietly slipped away from his master to join Dunmore’s forces and seek the freedom so readily denied him by the champion of liberty.

Lord Dunmore fleeing to the Fowey
Lord Dunmore fleeing to the Fowey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dunmore was active in supplementing the meager number of his regular British troops. He raised a regiment of escaped slaves that he affectionately termed his ‘Ethiopian Brigade.’ Though never numbering more than three hundred men at any one time, soldiers were equipped with firearms and uniforms with the words ‘liberty to slaves’ etched on their coats. Dunmore also raised a company of Tories, mostly Scottish immigrants, which he called the Queen’s Own Loyal Virginia Regiment. Both units fought alongside Colonel Leslie’s regulars. Dunmore wrote in November that with these forces, he would soon be able to “reduce this colony to a proper sense of their duty.” Soon after he sent his family back to Scotland and took refuge aboard the HMS Fowley, a warship anchored off Norfolk.

Great Bridge, Virginia

Events happened fast and furious over the next several months. On November 16, two militia companies were defeated in what became known as the Battle of Kemp’s Landing. The colonels of both militias, Hutchings and Lawson, were captured and imprisoned aboard the schooner Thomas. The next battle was decisive in Dunmore’s defeat and ultimate exile from Virginia.

Rendition of Battle of Great Bride from a mural near Great Bridge

Soon after Kemp’s Landing, Dunmore decided to fortify the area surrounding Norfolk, ordering a fortification built at Great Bridge that spanned the Elizabeth River, about eight miles southwest of Norfolk. He knew that his forces would not last long in Norfolk without the supplies that flowed over Great Bridge. This fact was also apparent to the Virginians. The militia arrived at Great Bridge on December 2 and began building its own fortification on the far side of the causeway from the bridge. Colonel William Woodford, commanding three county militias, had just over a thousand men present. Dunmore was unaware of the numbers he faced and on December 9, bolstered by his success at Kemp’s Landing, he ordered Captain Leslie to attack. The result was disastrous for the British. They suffered over a hundred casualties including the death of Captain Fordyce. The american militia’s casualties amounted to one injured thumb.

Mural of Virginia Militia rejoicing victory at Great Bridge. Artist Sam Welty

Shortly after, Dunmore ordered that Norfolk be abandoned and that all his forces, including many prominent Tories, should retreat onto the growing fleet that numbered more than a hundred vessels by late December. Denied supplies by the occupying militia forces in Norfolk and the continued sniping of militia rifle, Dunmore shelled the city on January 1, 1776, setting fire to the waterfront. Fearing the recapture of the city, the militia burned the remaining buildings of the city.

From January to the end of July, 1776, Dunmore’s fleet suffered defeat after defeat, exacerbated by an outbreak of smallpox. After the city’s ruin, Dunmore sent troops ashore to build barracks in an attempt to gather supplies from the countryside. Every time men ventured into the countryside, they were fired upon by Colonel Howe’s men, a strong militia sent up from North Carolina. Dunmore eventually returned to his ships. He then made several other attempts at making landfall along the Virginia rivers and Chesapeake Bay:

  • March 9th.  Chariton Creek, Virginia.  Militia attacked and drove off HMS Otter.
  • July 8-10th.  Gwynn Island, Virginia.  The base on this island of 2,000 acres, located just south of the Rappahannock River, was established soon after the shelling of Norfolk. Dunmore ultimately moved his fleet to this location, raiding the countryside and still gathering run away slaves. On July 8th, General Andrew Lewis arrived with a brigade of Virginia troops and began shelling the island. Dunmore’s forces escaped but left behind numerous graves from the devastating outbreak of smallpox.
  •  July 16th. St. George’s Island, Maryland. Dunmore landed forces near the mouth of the Potomac River. He was driven off by local militia.
  • July 23rd.  Occoquan Creek, Virginia. Dunmore sailed his fleet up the Potomac River and turned onto Occoquan Creek with its falls. He destroyed a mill, but was driven off by the Prince William County Militia.
British forces enter New York City, Sept. 16, 1776.

Finally, giving up all hope of reclaiming his governorship, Lord Dunmore split his fleet. Half sailed to Bermuda, while a smaller portion, including those escaped slaves who remained with him, sailed to New York City. He arrived in time to join the Royal marines in their invasion of New York and was present to plant the British flag atop of Fort George at half past three on September 15, 1776.

Shortly after the British set up winter quarters in New York City, he disbanded his Ethiopian Brigade; many of the escaped slaves becomingt draymen and pioneers for the British army. That fall of 1776, Dunmore set sail for home. He continued to be active in politics, retaining his peer in the House of Lords. He served as Governor of the Bahamas from 1786 until 1795. He died February 25, 1809 and was buried at the Church of St. Lawrence in Ramsgate, Kent.

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Bryan, John Stewart.  Editor.  Letters of George Washington to Lord Dunmore.  The William and Mary Quarterly, Second Series, Vol. 20 (April 1940).  Pp. 161-166.

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation web site on Payton Randolph.

Continental Line Web Site:  Article by Kyle Willyard on Battle of Great Bridge

Lanning, Michael Lee.  African Americans in the Revolutionary War.  2005.  Citadel Press.

Quarles, Benjamin.  Lord Dunmore as Liberator.  The William and Mary Quarterly.  Third Series Vol. 15, No. 4, Oct. 1958, pp 494-507.

Russell, David Lee.  The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies.  2000.  McFarland & Company, Jefferson, North Carolina

Scribner, Robert L.  Revolutionary Virginia, the Road to Independence.  1983.  University of Virginia Press.

Thwaites, Reuben Gold & Van Tyne, Claude Halstead.  Lord Dunmore’s War.   A published address delivered before the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of Michigan. 1911.

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