January 31, 2017

Eve, Tracing The Life of An Enslaved Woman

by Brandon Marie Miller

[Activity: Search Runaway Slave Advertisements]

Eve was an enslaved woman owned by Peyton Randolph in Williamsburg, Virginia. Her master was set to serve in the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia when he died in October 1775. As delegates gathered to discuss how Great Britain had enslaved the American colonists, Randolph's will was read. Randolph bequeathed possessions and land to his wife Elizabeth. He left her other important property, as well: "Little Aggy & her children, Great Aggy & her children, Eve & her children, Lucy & her children to her and her heirs forever."
The Randolph house and outbuildings in Williamsburg, Virginia

Eve was a valuable slave, worth 100 pounds, a sum that spoke to her training and skills. She probably worked as Elizabeth Randolph's personal maid. She sewed and mended, dressed her mistress, lit the fires, ran errands, and relayed Mrs. Randolph's instructions. Eve was on call 24/7 and probably slept outside the Randolph's bedroom door, or maybe even in the bedroom.

As British authority crumbled in the colonies, many royal governors fled, including John Murray, Lord Dunmore, of Virginia. Before he escaped to a British warship, Dunmore issued a proclamation in November 1775. He promised freedom to indentured servants and slaves who left rebel masters and who "are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His Majesty's Troops."
Lord Dunmore's Proclamation
Virginia Memory, Library of Congress

Dunmore's Proclamation did not include the old, sick, women, children or slaves of loyal colonists. But thousands of Virginia's enslaved, including Eve and seven others in the Randolph household, took a chance for freedom. By July, 1776, however, four of the runaways had either been caught and returned or forced back by an outbreak of smallpox in Dunmore's crowded camp. Eve was one of the people returned to Elizabeth Randolph. In 1780 Elizabeth wrote her will, and along with silver candlesticks, blankets, and curtains, wrote, "I give to my niece Ann Copland a Negro woman named Eve and her son George to her use and after her death to her Heirs." [Learn more about Elizabeth Randolph's will at

As Americans fought a war for liberty, slaves remained in bondage. In October, 1781, Eve ran away again with her fifteen-year-old son. They fled to British general Lord Charles Cornwallis's army at Yorktown, only a few miles from Williamsburg. Here, George Washington's army, aided by French troops and ships, defeated Cornwallis. As British supplies dwindled, the redcoats drove runaway slaves out from behind British lines. Thomas Jefferson estimated 30,000 enslaved people had run to Cornwallis, and out of these, 27,000 died of disease.

Eve survived. But George may have died. He isn't mentioned in an advertisement Mrs. Randolph's nephew placed in a Virginia paper in February, 1782: "TWENTY DOLLARS REWARD FOR  apprehending EVE, a Negro Woman slave, who left York after the surrender; she is about forty years old, very black and slender, has a small mouth for a Negro, and a remarkable mole on her nose...."

Eve's escape to freedom was short lived. Between the February 1782 advertisement and July 20, 1782, Eve was caught and returned to Elizabeth Randolph. On that July date, Elizabeth added a codicil to her will. "Whereas Eve's bad behavior laid me under the necessity of selling her. I order and direct the money she sold for may be laid out in purchasing two negroes Viz, a Boy & Girl I give to my niece Ann Copland in lieu of Eve, in the same manner that I had given Eve."

Eve's two attempts to run away, though sadly unsuccessful, prove how strong was an enslaved human being's desire for freedom.
Read more about Eve and other enslaved women in my book
Women of Colonial America, a New York Public Library Best Book For Teens

ACTIVITY: Try reading some selections of runaway advertisements in colonial Virginia. What do they have in common? Description of the enslaved? How much reward is offered? The name of the person placing the ad (the subscriber)? Clues to where the runaway might be found? How is the enslaved person shown as a piece of property?



  1. Excellent post. A part of American history important to tell.