Women's Revolutionary Resistance to Slavery

"The Revolution affirmed the idea that freedom was a universal birthright. The outbreak of revolutionary conflict emboldened thousands of enslaved women to declare and claim their freedom... Inspired by natural rights ideology, Black women seized upon every opportunity to undermine the system of slavery through flight." -Karen Cook Bell

Long before the American Revolution, African women and women of African descent fought for their freedom. They hated being enslaved and understood that slavery robbed them of their natural rights.

In 1776, the Declaration of Independence claimed the British colonies of North America had a right to liberty. Enslaved women listened to their enslavers discuss their rights to freedom. They understood the implications for their own lives and chose to act on the ideals colonists professed.

Women who escaped slavery were abolitionists, abolishing the practice of slavery in their own lives.

Advertisements announcing the escape of enslaved people frequently appeared in Revolutionary Era newspapers. They speak to the power, ingenuity, and bravery of African women and women of African descent.

Some women took their fights to court. In 1765, Jenny Slew sued John Whipple Jr. of Ipswich in the Essex Superior Court in Salem. She argued she was a free woman and Whipple was illegally enslaving her. She ultimately won her case, and the news of her success would have been heard by other enslaved women in Salem and Essex County.

The following advertisements appeared in Massachusetts newspapers between 1775 to 1803.

Flora of Lake Champlain, June 29, 1775

Running away was a strategic act of self-emancipation. Some women escaped with men or with children. Escaping in groups usually required planning and thought.
Black and white photocopy of 18th century newspaper ad.
New England Chronicle or Essex Gazette, June 29, 1775

Courtesy of Readex Newspapers.

Run away from the Subscriber, on the 18th of June, two Negro Men, one named Exeter, the other Ireland, and a Wench called Flora, with a small child; one of the Negro Men is about six Feet high, the other five Feet and nine Inches, with each of them a (Gun?), and poorly cloathed. Whoever will take up said Negroes and return them so that I may have them, or bring them to me, shall receive Twenty Dollars Reward, and all necessary Charges paid by me, WILLIAM GILLILAND.
????, on the Wet Side of Lake Champlain, 20 miles to the Northward of Crown Point.

Sarah of Jamaica Plain, September 25, 1777

Some women escaped to be with their husbands, parents, or children. It's likely Sarah was staying with a family member or friend. Other women fled to areas occupied by British troops, seeking safety, freedom, and work.
Black and white photocopy of a 18th century newspaper ad
Continental Journal and Weekly Advertiser, September 25, 1777

Courtesy of Readex Newspapers

Jamaica Plain, Roxbury Sept. 15th, 1777
Ten Dollas Reward
Ran away from the Subscriber, a Negro Woman named Sarah, she is a short thick wench about 30 years old, she is supposed to be harboured by some free negro in Boston; any person that will take her up and send her to Goal (jail), or to the Subscriber shall have the above Reward and all necessary Charges.

Phillis of Manchester, September 18, 1783

Advertisements such as this may be evidence of the violent nature of slavery. Phillis may have injured her hand in a work accident or as a form of punishment by her enslaver.
Black and white scan of a 18th century newspaper ad.
Salem Gazette, September 18, 1783

Courtesy of Readex Newspapers

Ran Away, on the 9th of August last, from Jacob Hooper, of Manchester, a Negro Woman named Phillis, aged 24 years-- she may be known by having a stiff joint in the fore finger of her left hand, her finger bending inward.-- A reward of Five Dollars will be given, and necessary charges paid, to any person who shall return her to the said Hooper, her master.

Phillis of Wethersfield, November 22, 1803

Although Phillis was from Connecticut, her enslaver placed this advertisement in a Salem newspaper. In slavery, women lacked freedom of movement. But this ad suggests that Phillis' enslaver believed she may have resisted by travelling north to Massachusetts. It's likely he placed this ad hoping someone in Essex County would recognize Phillis and capture her.

Enslaved women could face severe punishment if caught and returned to enslaver. Phillis may have lost her front teeth as punishment for a previous transgression. It may suggest previous and repeated attempts of resistance or escape and the value Phillis placed on her freedom. Her missing teeth could also be evidence of a dangerous working environment or lack of medical care during her enslavement.
black and white scan of an 18th century newspaper ad
Salem Gazette, November 22, 1803

Courtesy of Readex Newspapers

Two Hundred Dollars Reward.
Absented herself last night from the Service of Mr. Rutledge, a negro Woman who is his property, named Phillis- the is 35 years old, about 5 feet 5 inches high, of a yellowish complextion, (between that of a negro and mulatto,) thin, has lost her front teeth, has thick lips, and a scar (from having been burnt when a child) upon her breast near the right shoulder, about half the size of a dollar. Phillis wears gold bobs in her ears, and a black straw bonnet. She carried with her, petticoats of blue cloth, dimothy, black calimanco, red homespun; dark calico gown with bright yellow spots, one of black and white, one of white checked muslin: She also took with her eight yards of dark calico with bright yellow spots, two check aprons not made up, new red and white cotton handkerchiefs, with many other articles of dress. Phillis is a good cook, washer-woman and cake-baker.
A black fellow, named Peter, also absented himself from the service of Mr. Rutledge, some weeks past, when he was at Boston. -Peter is not quite 6 feet high, much pock-marked, has red eyes, and his upper front teetch wide apart: He is an excellent coachman, a tolerably good cook, plays the tamborine, and is very fond of dancing. Peter is a little bald, wears his wool in a short queue, and occasionally wears ear rings: He took with him a variety of clothing. Whoever will apprehend and deliver these slaves to the subscriber, or secure them in any jail in New-England so that he may get to them, shall receive the above reward of 200 dollars or 100 for either of them.
Chester Clark
Wethersfield, (Connecticut) Oct. 15, 1803.
For more on enslaved women in the Revolutionary Era, see Karen Cook Bell's 2021 book, Running From Bondage: Enslaved Women and Their Remarkable Fight for Freedom in Revolutionary America.

A Note on Language

Over the course of American history, the language used to describe Black people has changed and most likely will continue to change. Some of the primary sources here used outdated terms as well as racist, sexist, and offensive language to describe Black people. Whenever using the documents, we recommend developing a plan or guidelines to ensure a respectful, reflective discussion.

Last updated: March 1, 2023

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

160 Derby Street
Salem, MA 01970



Contact Us