Ornamental Separator

Dunmore’s Flight and the Seizure of the Governor’s Palace

As John Murray, Earl of Dunmore stepped out into the humid darkness in the first hours of June 8, 1775, he left behind his family’s bright, comfortable home. He did not know, but might have guessed, that he would never return to the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg. His departure marked the end of royal authority in Virginia.

The Palace had shone for decades as a symbol of royal power in Britain’s largest North American colony. But the tumults of 1775 transformed that meaning. During the spring, some of Virginia’s enslaved people briefly saw the Palace as a beacon of emancipation. In the summer, white colonists took control of the Palace and its grounds. In the process, they transformed the Palace into a symbol of their revolutionary ambitions.

The Palace Becomes a Fortress

Sir Joshua Reynolds, portrait of John Murray 4th Earl of Dunmore, National Galleries of Scotland.

A few months earlier, the idea of Dunmore fleeing the Palace would have been inconceivable. In December, the local gentry had thrown a ball in honor of the birth of the governor’s daughter, Virginia. But Dunmore’s relationship with colonial leaders deteriorated rapidly. Following an order from London, Dunmore seized the colony’s gunpowder supply from the Williamsburg Magazine in April. That month, news also arrived of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.1

The first printed news about the Battles of Lexington and Concord in Virginia. Virginia Gazette (Pinkney), April 28, 1775, supplement, p. 2. Click the image to see it in context.

Revolutionary sentiment simmered through April and May. Rumors would spread, angry crowds would gather, and local leaders would calm them. A group of volunteers kept watch over the Palace.2 When the Hanover County militia led by Patrick Henry threatened to march on Williamsburg in early May, Dunmore turned the Palace into a fortress. He called in soldiers and sailors, who rolled cannons in. One Loyalist wrote that Dunmore had “fortified his House, with Swivel guns at the Windows.”3 An early historian claimed that “Parties of negroes mounted guard every night” at the Palace.4

Dunmore had lost the confidence of the colony’s leading men and many of its white inhabitants. But he continued to believe that he could gather support “among the Indians, negroes, and other persons.”5 According to the mayor of Williamsburg, Dunmore had boasted that he could count on “all the Slaves on the side of Government.”6 If attacked, the Palace had “two hundred muskets loaded” to defend itself. He threatened to “declare Freedom to the Slaves, and reduce the City of Williamsburg to Ashes.”7

Virginia avoided a bloody confrontation. Henry’s militia dispersed after a wealthy member of the Council agreed to pay for the gunpowder that Dunmore had seized.8 But the governor’s position remained weak during this temporary truce. Dunmore later recalled that “My house was kept in continual allarm, and threatned every night with an assault.”9 Dunmore sent his family to a nearby warship. But the governor stayed behind for several weeks.

Virginia Gazette (Dixon and Hunter), May 27, 1775, p. 3. Click the image to see it in context.

On the rainy afternoon of May 26, the sound of shattering glass filled the Governor’s Palace. Had the shooting started? As they dodged the first violent eruptions of glass, those inside the building must have wondered if they were suddenly in a warzone. Luckily for them, it was only a hailstorm. Hail of a “prodigious size” had broken hundreds of the Palace’s windows. The Palace remained secure, if a bit draftier than before.


Growing instability presented opportunities for enslaved Virginians. Resistance among enslaved people spiked in 1775.10 Diarist Philip Fithian recorded that “Slaves are running off daily.”11 Prior to Dunmore’s departure, some enslaved people even sought refuge at the Governor’s Palace. Dunmore boasted that when he was threatened by Patrick Henry and the militia, “some Slaves had offered him their Service.”12

Later, one enslaver wrote an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette about an unnamed fifteen-year-old girl who ran away from slavery for the protection of Dunmore in the Governor’s Palace.13 For these enslaved people, Dunmore’s rumored plans to arm enslaved people against white colonists made the Palace a potential site of emancipation.

Virginia Gazette (Pinkney), June 1, 1775, p. 3. Click the image to see it in context.

Cases like these reinforced a growing fear among many white colonists that British leaders were inciting conspiracies and rebellions among enslaved people.14 One writer in the Virginia Gazette anticipated that Dunmore would soon “take the field as generalissimo at the head of the Africans.” Dunmore would also invert the social order, this writer predicted, by inviting enslaved Virginians to become guests at the Palace: “The Black Ladies, it is supposed, will be jollily entertained at the [palace].”15

The Governor’s Flight

Dunmore eventually decided not to make a stand at the Palace. This was a prudent strategic decision. Unlike many other colonial capitals, Williamsburg was landlocked. Britain’s strength came from its navy, and an inland city could not be subdued as easily as a city vulnerable to the guns of warships. In a letter to London, Dunmore explained that Palace reinforcements marched several miles overland to reach the city, which exposed them to the “mercy of the People.”16 One Loyalist commented that Williamsburg was unsuitable as a capital since the government ought to be located “some place where a ship can go. What can a governor do without a little force?”17

In the early hours of June 8, Dunmore and his family (who had briefly returned) left the Palace for the warship HMS Fowey in the York River. Governor Dunmore spent the next few months fighting to reestablish his authority from aboard the Fowey. But the colonists continued to defy him. On one occasion, when his ship briefly landed for repairs near his hunting lodge, a party of seventy militiamen chased him off and ruined his dinner.18

Seizure of the Palace

When Dunmore departed the Palace in the middle of the night, by his own estimate, he left behind about £35,000 worth of property. This included land, animals, furnishings, and dozens of enslaved people and servants who lived on the Palace grounds.19

As royal authority dissolved over the course of 1775, the colonists began to slowly take possession of Dunmore’s home and property. On June 24, 1775, a group of young colonists broke into the Palace. The building’s entryway had long displayed hundreds of swords and guns. The burglars, who included college student and future president James Monroe, removed more than two hundred guns and three hundred swords.20

In the entryway to the Palace, visitors were greeted with an impressive display of guns and swords. Revolutionary colonists broke into the Palace and took these arms after Dunmore fled the building in the summer of 1775.

News traveled quickly. By the next day, Dunmore had already heard about the break-in. He complained to London that the colonists “violently forced” their way into his home, “bursting open a Window.” He noted that they took the arms and some of “my own Property; what other depredation has been Committed I am not yet able to learn.”21

A couple of weeks later, Dunmore complained that the people had “taken possession of the Park,” a piece of land that was part of the Governor’s Palace. They were using the land “for their Cavalry, wantonly Cutting and maiming my Cattle.” They had also busted into the building again. They “broke open every lock of the doors of all the rooms, Cabinets and private places” in the house in search of guns. They took “Arms of different Sorts, a large collection and valuable, my own property.”22

Final Flights

Dunmore eventually delivered on his threats. In November, he issued a proclamation offering freedom to enslaved people who joined the British cause. It was an invitation that led many enslaved people to leave their homes under cover of darkness, much as Dunmore had done under very different circumstances. About a year after leaving the Palace, Dunmore returned to Britain. He remained, for years, officially Virginia’s governor in absentia.

Dunmore’s Proclamation offered to provide freedom to enslaved people who served the British during the Revolutionary War. By his Excellency the Right Honorable John Earl of Dunmore . . . A Proclamation (Broadside 1775). Special Collections, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

As it became evident that Dunmore would not return, revolutionary leaders took control of the Palace. About a year after he left, they auctioned off Dunmore’s personal possessions, including several enslaved people.23 The Palace needed to be emptied to make way for its next occupant.

Virginians had elected Patrick Henry as their governor. As he took residence in the Palace, Henry helped to transform it from a royal space to a revolutionary one. He was an appropriate inheritor of the building. After all, he had done more than anyone else to scare away the previous occupant.

Learn More

Governor's Palace

The Enslaved People and Servants of the Governor’s Palace


COVER IMAGE: “Flight of Lord Dunmore” postcard (Norfolk, Va.: Jamestown Amusement & Vending Co., ca. 1907. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

  1. For background on the gunpowder incident and the tensions leading up to Dunmore’s departure, see Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1999), ch. 5; Michael A. McDonnell, The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2010), ch. 2.
  2. McDonnell, Politics of War, 54.
  3. Letter of James Parker to Charles Steuart, May 6, 1775, in William Bell Clark, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington, D. C.: Department of the Navy, 1964), 1:294.
  4. John Burk, The History of Virginia, from Its First Settlement to the Present Day (Petersburg, Va.: Dickson and Pescud, 1804–1816): 3:409, 4:13.
  5. Earl of Dartmouth to Lord Dunmore, Aug. 2, 1775, in Peter Force, ed., American Archives, 4th ser., vol. 3, p. 6. Link. Dartmouth is paraphrasing Dunmore’s earlier letter, dated May 1.
  6. “Deposition of Dr. William Pasteur. In Regard to the Removal of Powder from the Williamsburg Magazine,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 13, no. 1 (July 1905), 49. Link.
  7. John Pendleton Kennedy, ed., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1773–1776 (Richmond: E. Waddey Company, 1905), 231; Robert Scribner, ed., Revolutionary Virginia: The Road to Independence, vol. 3: The Breaking Storm and the Third Convention, 1775 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977), 9.
  8. See Michael Cecere, “Patrick Henry’s March on Williamsburg, May 1775,” Journal of the American Revolution, July 23, 2020.
  9. Earl of Dunmore to Lord Dartmouth, June 25, 1775, CO 5/1373.
  10. Holton, Forced Founders, 154.
  11. Diary transcription in William Henry Egle, ed., Historical register: notes and queries historical and genealogical, chiefly relating to interior Pennsylvania (Harrisburg, Pa: Harrisburg Publishing Company, 1883), 161.
  12. Kennedy, ed., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1773–1776, 232.
  13. The advertisement by Andrew Estave describes an enslaved girl who ran away “to the palace” after an altercation. Virginia Gazette (Pinkney), July 20, 1775, page 3. Link. Michael A. McDonnell, The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture, 2007), 84–86.
  14. See “The humble Address of the Mayor, Recorder, Aldermen, and Common Council, of the City of Williamsburg,” Virginia Gazette (Pinkney), April 20, 1775 (link); Holton, Forced Founders, 152–54; McDonnell, Politics of War, 52.
  15. Virginia Gazette (Pinkney), June 1, 1775, p. 3, column 1. Link.
  16. Dunmore to Samuel Graves, June 17, 1775, in Clark, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 1:710.
  17. James Parker to Charles Stewart, May 6, 1775, in Clark, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 1:294.
  18. Lord Dunmore to Lord Dartmouth, July 12, 1775, in Clark, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 1:873–74.
  19. James David Corbett, Dunmore’s New World: The Extraordinary Life of a Royal Governor in Revolutionary America--with Jacobites, Counterfeiters, Land Schemes, Shipwrecks, Scalping, Indian Politics, Runaway Slaves, and Two Illegal Royal Weddings (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), 138; Graham Hood, The Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg: A Cultural Study (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1991), 231.
  20. The Bland Papers: Being a Selection from the Manuscripts of Colonel Theodorick Bland, Jr. of Prince George County, Virginia (Petersburg: Edmund & Julian C. Ruffin, 1840), 1:xxiii.
  21. Dunmore to Dartmourth, June 25, 1775, in Clark, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 1:754.
  22. Dunmore to Dartmouth, July 12, 1775, in Clark, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 1:873.
  23. Journal of the House of Delegates of Virginia. Anno Domini, 1776 (Richmond: Shepherd & Co., 1828), 29.