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Drawn portrait of Harry Washington

Harry Washington

Harry Washington emancipated himself from George Washington's Mount Vernon and began a new life in the Black Pioneers.

Journeys to slavery and freedom

When Harry Washington stepped onboard a British ship bound for Nova Scotia in 1783, he joined a group of over 400 formerly enslaved men, women, and children starting their new lives in freedom. Twenty years before another ship carried the captive Harry, born around 1740 near the Gambria River, from West Africa across the Atlantic. Like millions of other Africans, Harry was captured, enslaved, and sold as property in North America.

A map showing the location of Daniel Tebbs plantation

Bought, sold and moved around

Harry was enslaved on the plantation of Daniel Tebbs in Westmoreland County, Virginia in the early 1760s, but George Washington purchased Harry and 3 other enslaved people in 1763.

An illustrated map showing the locations of the Great Dismal Swamp and Mount Vernon

Washington initially assigned Harry to work in the Great Dismal Swamp, but after two years Washington relocated him to his Mount Vernon estate.

A painting of Mount Vernon

Here in 1771 Harry escaped, but it was short lived. Within weeks he was returned to Mount Vernon, until a new opportunity for freedom emerged along with the American Revolution.

Image: The East Front of Mount Vernon, by Edward Savage, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

A path to emancipation

In November 1775 Virginia’s colonial governor Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation offering freedom to able-bodied men enslaved by rebellious colonists. Harry was one of many self-emancipated enslaved men who joined Dunmore’s military unit called the Ethiopian Regiment. By his own recollection, Harry fled to Dunmore sometime around 1776. From then on, Harry appears in British documents as “Harry Washington,” having adopted the surname of his former enslaver.

Dunmore and his regiment of loyalists and formerly enslaved men failed to restore British colonial rule to Virginia. They eventually fled to join the main British force in New York City. The Ethiopian Regiment disbanded, but Harry continued to serve in the British military as a member of the Black Pioneers. As a pioneer, Harry worked on engineering and construction projects, including the creation of earthworks.

An illustrated map showing the location of Charleston, South Carolina

By 1781, Harry was attached to the Royal Artillery unit stationed in British-occupied Charleston, South Carolina. He may have been part of the force which besieged and captured the city the previous year.

An illustrated map showing the evacuation to New York City

Uncertainty at the war's end

The patriot victory at Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781 effectively marked the end of the British efforts to subdue the rebellious colonies. In 1782 the garrison at Charleston evacuated to New York City, where the remaining British troops were organizing for their withdrawal from the former colonies.

An illustrated map showing the journey to the settlement in Nova Scotia

The situation in New York was tense, as patriots such as George Washington sought to reclaim their property. Ultimately though, a compromise was reached allowing formerly enslaved people to leave with the British. Harry left for a settlement in Nova Scotia, likely in July 1783.

Print of evacuation day

Thousands of other formerly enslaved men, women, and children left New York City with the remainder of British forces in the summer and fall of 1783. The deadline for evacuation, November 25, 1783, was celebrated by the patriots as "Evacuation Day."

Image: Print showing "Evacuation Day" and Washington's Triumphal Entry in New York City, Nov. 25th; Library of Congress.

British and American officials recorded the names of men, women, and children who left with the British for new settlements in other British-held territories like Nova Scotia. Harry’s name is recorded in the Book of Negroes, where he is described as a "stout fellow" who escaped to the British lines in 1776.

Freedom and hardship

As a free man, Harry arrived in a new settlement in Nova Scotia called Birchtown. But conditions there were harsh. After a few years of trying to eke out a living there, Harry joined some of the settlers in a new project to establish a colony in West Africa. This new settlement at Sierra Leone brought Harry only a few hundred miles from where he had once lived before being enslaved. But conditions were harsh there, too.

Harry helped lead an effort to reform the laws of the colony in 1800. When his efforts failed, British soldiers banned Harry from the colony. Though Harry’s ultimate fate is unknown, his story tells another side of the fight for freedom and liberty before, during, and after America’s war for independence.

Themes of the period
Modern-day Legacy

‘Black Loyalists at Birchtown’ Plaque: Birchtown, Nova Scotia

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