Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantationby John Hope Franklin, Loren Schweninger
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From John Hope Franklin, America's foremost African American historian, comes this groundbreaking analysis of slave resistance and escape. A sweeping panorama of plantation life before the Civil War, this book reveals that slaves frequently rebelled against their masters and ran away from their plantations whenever they could. For generations, important aspects about slave life on the plantations of the American South have remained shrouded. Historians thought, for instance, that slaves were generally pliant and resigned to their roles as human chattel, and that racial violence on the plantation was an aberration. In this precedent setting book, John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger demonstrate that, contrary to popular belief, significant numbers of slaves did in fact frequently rebel against their masters and struggled to attain their freedom. By surveying a wealth of documents, such as planters' records, petitions to county courts and state legislatures, and local newspapers, this book shows how slaves resisted, when, where, and how they escaped, where they fled to, how long they remained in hiding, and how they survived away from the plantation. Of equal importance, it examines the reactions of the white slaveholding class, revealing how they marshaled considerable effort to prevent runaways, meted out severe punishments, and established patrols to hunt down escaped slaves. Reflecting a lifetime of thought by our leading authority in African American history, this book provides the key to truly understanding the relationship between slaveholders and the runaways who challenged the system--illuminating as never before the true nature of the South's "most peculiar institution."
The State, Columbia, S.C.
New York Times Book Review
"Using documentation from broadsheets to diaries, the authors provide incredible details of who the runaways were, their motivations and destinations, and how their efforts failed or succeeded. Franklin and Schweninger provide very personal accounts, giving names and personalities to an aspect of U.S. slavery that is seldom portrayed and refuting the mythology of the contented slave."Booklist
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Read an Excerpt
Dissidents in the Conscript Army
On 17 August 1840, the day of a great Whig political convention in Nashville, Tennessee, Jake, a slave owned by an old and respected farmer, Robert Bradford, refused to go to work. Like other blacks in the neighborhood, he wanted to go to the convention, listen to the speeches, and attend the celebrations. The overseer informed Bradford that Jake was "in an ugly mood" and asked him what to do. Bradford said he would speak with Jake and see if he could calm him down. Bradford was unable to placate the black man and ordered his overseer to tie him up for a whipping. Jake quickly drew a knife. "Whether he aimed to cut the rope or the Overseer no one knew," a Nashville slave recalled, "but he made a wild thrust which killed Mr. Bradford on the spot."
Jake absconded into the woods. Nine days later a notice appeared in the Nashville Whig: a thirty-year-old slave named Jake, a raw-boned, quick-spoken man of "bright complexion," weighing about 160 or 170 pounds, had murdered old man Bradford. When he escaped he was dressed in white homespun "linsey pantaloons, and roundabouts." A short time later, Governor James K. Polk offered a reward for the slave's apprehension. Despite concerted efforts by constables, justices of the peace, and local citizens, Jake remained at large for a number of months. Finally, however, he was captured, tried, convicted, and hanged. Few lamented his passing, but the death of the esteemed Bradford was universally mourned by whites in the community.
Murders such as the one on the Bradford farm in 1840 were rare under the slave regime, but the incident revealed undercurrents that were quite common. Like Jake, other slaves were frustrated, alienated, defiant, sometimes violent; indeed, Jake's anger and hostility represented a far greater proportion of the slave population than might be suspected. Echoing the words of others, one Maryland slave master described his female slave as "turbulent, disobedient and impudent beyond endurance," and worse, when excited by passion "is perfectly deranged."
To examine the discontent of enslaved and illiterate people is not without its hazards, not the least of which is that the most reliable and objective sources in our case county court records and newspaper advertisements are nearly always written by whites. But careful use of this evidence and other sources reveals the depth of hostility many slaves felt toward their owners and overseers.
The evidence shows that slaves engaged in a remarkable variety of acts to demonstrate their discontent. Many openly defied the system. Although historians have examined slave resistance from a number of vantage points ranging from finding solace in a "black community" to outright revolt the tensions, conflicts, and often violent confrontations between master and servant, or overseer and slave, have received less attention. They, nevertheless, deserve close study if one is to understand fully the problem of managing slaves in a rural or urban setting.
Day to Day Resistance
Most of what historians have termed "day to day" resistance involved "crimes" against property. Slaves pulled down fences, sabotaged farm equipment, broke implements, damaged boats, vandalized wagons, ruined clothing, and committed various other destructive acts. They set fires to outbuildings, barns, and stables; mistreated horses, mules, cattle, and other livestock. They stole with impunity: sheep, hogs, cattle, poultry, money, watches, produce, liquor, tobacco, flour, cotton, indigo, corn, nearly anything that was not under lock and key and they occasionally found the key. "He is a great old scamp," a Kentucky man wrote a relative about an elderly slave. He "took many things that were left by you." Viewing the master's property as an extension of the master himself, the destructive impulses bordered at times on the sadistic. "I have had a very seveer time among my negros," a cotton planter on Bayou Mason in Louisiana wrote in 1829; "they have bin Swinging my hogs and pigs." He caught two of his slaves, Harry and Roberson, tying the rear legs of his pigs together, throwing the end of the rope over a tree, pulling the animals into the air, and swinging them as they squealed in pain. Two of the pigs, the owner lamented, were badly crippled.
Some blacks worked slowly, or indifferently, took unscheduled respites, performed careless or sloppy labor when planting, hoeing, and harvesting crops. Some chopped cotton so nonchalantly that they cut the young plants nearly into fodder, while others harvested rice or sugar with such indifference that they damaged the crop. Slaves feigned illness, hid in outbuildings, did not complete their assigned tasks, and balked at performing dangerous work. It was difficult to sneak off for an entire day, but on some plantations slaves did so. An eighteen-year-old Louisiana female slave managed to slip off and remain in the woods, at least until the overseer found her one morning lying on her stomach in some bushes at the bottom of a gully. The overseer got off his horse and, holding the reins with his left hand, struck her thirty or forty stripes across the shoulders. He continued to whip her until groveling and screaming, she cried for mercy. "Oh, don't, sir! oh, please stop, master! please, sir!" The overseer eventually stopped. "She meant to cheat me out of a day's work and she has done it, too," the overseer complained; "Oh, you have no idea how lazy these niggers are." They would not work at all, he believed, if it were not for the whipping they would receive if they refused.
Other slaves turned to whiskey or other "ardent spirits" as an expression of their frustration. The number of blacks who drank regularly will never be known, but the comments of planters and complaints of whites who sought to curb the illicit traffic of whiskey, rum, beer, wine, and other spirits indicate that alcohol was more available than is generally believed. In towns and cities, grog shops and grocery stores catered to slaves, while planters and farmers found it nearly impossible to keep whiskey out of the quarters. Since selling spirits to blacks was illegal without the master's permission, the numerous prosecutions of whites who engaged in the practice reveal a good deal about the drinking habits of the slave population.
In Charleston in the mid-1830s, a resident noticed five black men walking down Market Street suddenly dart into a shed, followed by a white man carrying a decanter. When the door was forced open by authorities, they found three of them sitting at a table, with whiskey in some tumblers, and the decanter nearly empty. Such a scene was repeated often in Baltimore, Richmond, New Orleans, and other cities. It was also repeated in the quarters, as overseers and slave owners complained about black people who consumed illicit whiskey, drank to excess, were in the "habit of getting drunk," or suffered from the "vice of intemperance." By the time he was in his mid-forties, Tennessee slave Big Ike had threatened several times that he would run away. The manager of the plantation said that Ike was in the "habit of getting drunk & has become so addicted to drinking to excess" that he would undoubtedly make good on his promise to run away.
The frequency of these acts whether sabotage, carelessness, theft, or drinking varied from plantation to plantation, region to region, depending on the responses of masters, proximity to towns and cities, interaction with free blacks, and control by overseers and owners. There is little doubt, however, that such expressions of displeasure were widespread.
Hired Slave Dissatisfaction
Although hired slaves sometimes did careless work, they could express their dissatisfaction in many other ways. Stretching back to the years before the American Revolution, the practice of renting out black workers was widespread in the South. As time passed, the practice grew even more, and by the nineteenth century a significant portion of the slave labor force was hired out at one time or another during the year. In rural areas, planters and farmers hired extra hands for harvesting the crops and sent their skilled artisans to work for neighbors who needed carpenters, coopers, or mechanics. In towns and cities or in the South's growing industries hemp, textiles, tobacco, iron a large proportion of the workforce was hired. In antebellum Richmond, Virginia, with its demands for road workers, tobacco hands, and laborers, nearly two-thirds of the slave labor force was hired. On the eve of the Civil War, according to one estimate, 6 percent of rural and 31 percent of urban slaves were hired.
Slaves generally responded in a positive manner to being hired out by their owners. They could travel from one place to another, live more independently, perhaps earn a small amount of cash for extra work. At the same time, it also usually meant leaving their families behind for up to a year (the traditional hiring period), adjusting to a difficult, sometimes dangerous work routine, and dealing with employers who were at times harsh and ruthless. As a result, most slaves felt they should take part in decisions about how, when, and to whom they were to be hired. They wanted to know about their new employers, travel distances, work routine, days off, accommodations, clothing, wages, family visitations. When masters failed to accommodate them or when hirelings became dissatisfied with employers, conflicts arose.
The problem for slave owners was that the most talented, skilled, and proficient slaves those who could be most easily hired at the best wages were also the most self-confident and independent. Up to a point, both slave and master benefited if a slave took charge, demonstrated know-how, showed initiative, and worked without supervision. The difficulty occurred when slaves, at least in the minds of owners or employers, crossed the line. "My man Hansel and Mr. Brister it appears has fallen out," a slave owner in Southampton County, Virginia, wrote in 1832, a year after the Nat Turner uprising. "[W]ill you be good enough to go with Hansel home, and have the matter investigated, and if you think from all the circumstances that he ought to be corrected I am willing it should be done." But Hansel had already left, simply walked away, ironically not because of any disagreement with his employer, James Brister, a farmer near Jerusalem, but because of a conflict with one of Brister's slaves, "old Charlotte." The reason for his departure, however, was less important than the comments of an observer concerning Hansel: he was "permitted to do almost as he pleased," while what he needed was "a good whipping." Indeed, "the Negro acted more like his Master than otherwise."
Some hired slaves failed to show up at an employer's business or plantation, avoided work when they got there, left without permission, kept a portion of their wages, visited families and friends without permission, and demanded concessions. "I have a boy in my employ called Jim Archer," a Vicksburg, Mississippi, man wrote in 1843; "Jim does not want to be under anyones control and says Mr. Brown has no claim on him and he wants to go home this summer." The teenage slave Ephraim seemed to care little that he had been purchased for the express purpose of providing an income for the widow Ruth Riley in her old age. Taken to the hamlet of Anderson, South Carolina, Ephraim refused to be hired to certain employers and, when hired out, would wander off and not return. Because of her "extreme old age," the widow explained, she was "unable to govern, or dispose of the said negro advantageously." In a similar case, a white widow sought to provide for herself and her three children by hiring out a slave given her in trust by her deceased father. The hired slave, named Feriley, however, kept most of the earnings that were supposed to go into the trust. The funds from the slave's hire were "very inadequate," the owner noted; her trustee failed to devote "prudent and proper attention, care and management" to Feriley, and the slave had become very willful and self-sufficient.
Masters who failed to exert "prudent and proper attention" often ran into trouble with hired slaves. The hired South Carolina slave Charles, a blacksmith by trade, was proud of the fact that there was "no white man around him." When his owner announced he was moving to Mississippi, Charles refused to accompany him unless the master agreed to take his wife. At different times, he shoved one white man to the ground, threatened another, and told a third that "no white man ever had or ever would master him." When the owner's overseer attempted to whip him, he took the whip away and "struck him, and went on his way." Even when the slave was subdued and flogged "it had no effect on him; he would curse his master as soon as taken down." Apparently, Dudley, a hired field hand in Madison Parish, Louisiana, felt the same way. Ordered to work by an overseer, Dudley picked up his hoe and slashed the overseer in the face. Besides the "great physical suffering and loss of time occasioned by said act of said slave," the overseer was "impaired" for life.
For some hired slaves resistance was more devious. Following the death of her master, the twenty-six-year-old slave Ellen, who was described as "a good hand, and a very good looking negro," was hired out to a family in Davidson County, Tennessee, by the minor heirs of her former owner. As a hireling, she cleaned, washed, made beds, folded linens, swept, and cooked. After being with the family a few months, "She gave my wife a roasted apple to eat," George McMurry, the slave owner who had hired Ellen, explained. Upon cutting open the apple "to divide between my Children my wife discovered that there was something unusual placed upon the inside of it." The "something unusual" was mercury, or quicksilver. Ellen had taken a knife, scraped mercury off the back side of a mirror, carefully poked a hole in the core of an apple, poured the mercury into the hole, and roasted the apple.
If scholars have examined covert resistance to some extent, they have devoted less attention to open individual defiance. In fact, slavery by its very nature created a milieu for interracial conflict. Slaves on occasion refused to work, demanded concessions, rejected orders, threatened whites, and sometimes reacted with violence. Verbal and physical confrontations occurred regularly, without regard to time and place. Indeed, despite severe punishments, or perhaps because of them, these challenges to white authority remained as much a part of the peculiar institution as the ubiquitous slave trader.
Slaves responded in such a manner when they were chastised and punished, witnessed the harsh treatment of loved ones, or became frustrated by their condition. They reacted to being traded or sold or to having family members traded or sold. The master of Allen, a South Carolina slave, noted the change in the black man's behavior after he had been sent to another member of the same slave-owning family in a trust estate. He became, in the words of his new owner, "unfaithful, unreliable, and vicious." Some slaves responded to new conditions by refusing to obey orders, threatening fellow blacks or overseers, or striking out against white authority. They became, owners observed, disobedient, troublesome, fractious, and violent. "I have caught him stealing meat soap and other things from my locked houses," a Maryland master said of a slave named Barton; he had also caught Barton robbing the henhouses. For three or four years, Barton had been "very insolent to me personally using threats." When called up "in a proper manner" by a white man, the slave became "very insolent" and attacked him with an axe "evidently with the intent of Killing him." The man fired at the slave and grazed his neck with a ball. "He is a vindictive bad boy," the owner confessed, "and I do not feel safe with him about me."
Open defiance was not uncommon. In fact, in most sections of the South, some slaves were known by residents in the area as "vicious and violent." Burton Conner, a Kent County, Delaware, slaveholder, described his slave Caleb as "much addicted to stealing & has sustained an extremely bad character in your petitioner[']s family and throughout the neighbourhood." Caleb had committed numerous depredations, had a violent disposition, and had run away on a previous occasion for a period of eighteen months. Conner's neighbors signed a petition to have the slave sent out of the state, asserting that he was a "common plunderer and a dangerous man." The same phrase could be applied to the Charleston, South Carolina, slave Davy, who in 1800 suddenly rose up against his owner and his owner's wife. In the struggle that ensued, Davy killed them both. He then robbed the storehouse and set out across the countryside.
Similarly, Big Sandy, owned by Robert Davis of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was well known for his contempt of white authority. At six feet and 175 pounds, he was described as a "large raw boned negro," a man of unusual strength, and even at age about fifty, he was given a wide berth by most whites. When in 1856 an overseer on a plantation in West Feliciana ordered him to put down his hoe to be corrected "for some misdemeanor," Sandy said that he "would not put his hoe down, that no white man should whip him, that he would die first." The overseer drew a pistol, but Sandy refused to submit, declaring that he feared neither the white man nor his pistol.
Such confrontations were not confined to farms and plantations. Slaves encountered whites in a variety of settings on streets, sidewalks, steamboats, trains, country roads where words might be exchanged and slaves might offer resistance. Such was the case on the back road leading from Centreville to Maplesville, Alabama, in 1834, when John Richardson, a white man, met a slave named Sam, owned by Jason Pool, and the two men argued. The exact sequence of events was not reported, but the bondsman grabbed the white man's knife and "with great force & violence wickedly willfully and maliciously assaulted & struck the Said John Richardson a great many violent strokes & blows on the head neck Shoulders arms breast hips thighs & leggs." Such attacks and other violent acts prompted a group of western Tennessee slave owners to admit that "Slaves who are dissatisfied frequently commit capital offenses."
Neither age nor gender was a determining factor in predicting who might resist in such a manner. One elderly slave married couple threatened to harm their owner if he did not desist in ordering them about. The master, an older man himself, sent the two to live with his son-in-law on a plantation in an adjacent county, but apparently the new master also had difficulty controlling the slaves. They remained with him less than a year before running away and returning to their original master. At the other end of the age spectrum were two Maryland slaves twelve-year-old Sarah of St. Mary's County, and fifteen-year-old Henny of Baltimore who were "so bad & unmanageable," so "notoriously vicious and turbulent," that it seemed impossible to reform their behavior.
Black women had a unique perspective on what was tolerable, especially when it came to protecting their children. In such cases, they were likely to refuse to do certain jobs, disobey orders, speak out, or react violently. Even though Elizabeth had "grown up" in a South Carolina slaveholding family, they could not "train her up to be useful" as a handmaiden to a white teenager. She had two children of her own, she asserted, and would not act in such a capacity. Another South Carolina slave was ordered in a deed of trust to care for a young white girl "of a weak and sickly constitution, an unfortunate cripple, incapable of assisting herself, and requiring constant care, and the best attention." The woman refused to care for the sickly white girl since it would interfere with her caring for her own son. In other instances, slave women responded after being transferred to a new owner. When Maria and her two children were transferred to a South Carolina tailor as part of a trust estate, the slave became intractable and disobedient and on one occasion Maria slapped the tailor's wife. In Frederick County, Maryland, one slaveholding man described his female slave Matilda as malevolent, a woman who had on several occasions attacked both him and his wife, "striking and otherwise acting in a vicious and turbulent manner."
Even slaves who were thought to be mild mannered and obedient sometimes reached a breaking point. Having never reacted violently, the house servant of a Louisiana woman "returned the blow" as she was being physically chastised by her owner, threw her mistress to the ground, and "beat her unmercifully, on the head and face." The white woman's face swelled up and turned black. "I could not have known her, by seeing her," a visitor at the plantation said a few weeks later, "poor little woman is confined to her bed yet" and remains "dangerously ill." The slaves who resisted in such a manner lived on small farms and large plantations, in towns and cities, in the Lower and Upper South; they included field hands, skilled artisans, house servants, and hirees; they were men, women, boys, girls, and the very old.
Slaves and Overseers
Slaves often bore particular resentment toward overseers. After all, overseers were white but had done little with their position of advantage and were as subject to the owners' whims as were the slaves themselves. Slaves resented being chided, scolded, chastised, punished, and whipped; they disliked being supervised during their work day by young, inexperienced white men who moved to the next plantation within a few months or years; they bitterly resented threats against their families if certain work was not completed satisfactorily within a certain period of time.
On some plantations, slaves attempted to undermine the overseer's authority in subtle and surreptitious ways, while on others they criticized him openly, complaining to the owner about harsh or unfair treatment. At times, the tensions between slaves and overseers or between slaves, drivers, and overseers erupted into verbal and physical confrontations. On some plantations, such clashes occurred so often that it was difficult for overseers to inflict punishments for every incident; on other estates, interracial disputes occurred less frequently, but punishments were systematic and severe.
On a few plantations, overseers were even afraid to chastise slaves. One of the approximately thirty slaves owned by the children of a Middle Tennessee planter who died in 1851, Jim worked as a field hand on a 400-acre tract of the family property. During the 1850s, the widow hired a new overseer every one or two years. Each of them experienced difficulty with Jim, who sneaked out at night, broke into neighbors' homes, and stole various items. But it was more than the thievery that concerned the overseers. "I know the boy Jim and have known him since he was a child," Archibald J. Strickland, a fifty-seven-year-old overseer who spent most of his life in the profession, said in 1860. Jim was about twenty-five years old, large, strong, healthy, and weighed between 160 or 175 pounds. His disposition was "very bad, he is very difficult to control, and is disposed to & does resist those who control him, and it is dangerous to attempt to correct or chastise him, without being prepared with weapons to subdue him." Jim had a violent temper, and an overseer ran the risk, "in every difficulty with him, either of being killed by him, or of being compelled to kill him, or inflict upon him great personal injury in self-defense." Nor was Strickland the only overseer who had experienced difficulty in handling Jim who, a second white manager said, was violent, quarrelsome, aggressive, and "disposed to & does resist those who attempt to control him, and will fight with anything he can get."
In fact, many overseers were forced to deal with slaves who were quarrelsome, difficult to control, and disposed to resist. That boldness such as Jim's persisted for so many years can only be explained by the fact that it was not especially unique. There were more than a few overseers and masters as well who feared a possible violent response by the slaves. Their anxiety was more than justified. When Phillip and James became dissatisfied with conditions on Chatham Plantation, Stafford County, Virginia, they assaulted William Fitzhugh's overseer and attempted to escape. Phillip was shot by a member of a local militia, and James drowned attempting to swim the Rappahannock River. Local residents called the turmoil at Chatham an "insurrection."
Although violent reactions against overseers occurred in every region of the South, they were particularly widespread in the Lower Mississippi River Valley. The endless toil of clearing land, planting grains, cotton, and sugar, coupled with the unhealthy climate and the stifling heat during the summer months, made life at best a continuous, grinding routine of work. During the harvest season on sugar plantations, slaves labored in gangs sixteen hours a day, cutting stalks, grinding, boiling, and manufacturing the final product. Nor were slaveholders in the region as likely as in the rice planting sections of South Carolina and Georgia to implement the task system. Not unlike the Caribbean, some masters believed it was more profitable to buy new slaves, work them incessantly, hoping they would survive five or six years and pay for themselves before they died. As a result, there were rumors that along the Red River, and other tributaries of the Mississippi, conditions were so bad that census takers were not permitted to count the inhabitants.
Most slave owners in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, knew that the slaves on Charles Stewart's Magnolia Plantation were "notoriously rebellious insubordinate & disorderly." It would have been a difficult task under the best of circumstances for an overseer to manage the slave labor force, but the proprietor made it even worse by failing to support his overseers, who came and went almost every winter. One of them was Samuel Cowgill [also spelled Cowgil], who was hired as superintendent in March 1826 and dismissed in September of that same year. Determined to establish discipline, Cowgill believed that it was his "duty to himself & his Employer to inflict punishment." This plan lasted less than two months when he chose the wrong slave to punish. Pompey picked up a plantation axe, swung it at Cowgill, slashed his wrist and made a "long & deep incision" cutting the tendons. Cowgill never regained the use of his hand, which, he later said, hung by his side in "a most awkward position."
Nonetheless, a month later, he again sought to perform his duty by correcting Cato, who, "armed with a long Knife & a club" sought to kill the overseer by making several passes at his body but in the end only cut the little finger off of his left hand. Indirectly, the plantation owner encouraged "overt refractory Conduct," Cowgill charged, because the owner "actually accredits & listens to every idle tale, which said slaves may carry to him about the Overseer."
On some plantations, conflicts between slaves and overseers created tumult in the quarters. In 1857, a Louisiana sugar planter employed an overseer and as part of the bargain promised to pay him extra if he brought along a slave family he owned. The overseer agreed, but when he took them to the plantation they refused to work. The defiance of the overseer's slaves, one observer noted, caused great "disturbances among the negroes." On the plantation of Mary Weeks in the sugar country of the Attakapas region, two slaves were shot "and dangerously wounded by the overseer." Receiving word of the shootings, Weeks's sister in West Feliciana Parish, Rachel O'Connor, lamented that one of the slaves was Harry, whom she had once owned. "I am afraid the overseer is to blame," she said, "so many turn out bad." The accusation, however, apparently did not take into account the fact that Harry had run away twice in two years, which perhaps complicated the relationship between Harry and the overseer.
In an atmosphere of such animosity it was little wonder that "so many turn out bad." Slaves confronted overseers with verbal assaults and physical force; they also attempted to intimidate their white managers. While such defiance was more common in some regions than in others, there were few plantations where slaves worked diligently and willingly under the direction of an experienced, discerning, and sagacious overseer. Far more common was an undercurrent of distrust, hostility, anger, confrontation, and periodic eruptions of violence.
What slaves did and what they conspired to do, of course, were two different things. That whites became terrified at rumored conspiracies should not be cited as evidence that no such schemes existed. Indeed, some of their fears were fully justified. Several large-scale plots were uncovered before they could be implemented, including Gabriel's in 1800 and Sancho's in 1802, both in Virginia, and Denmark Vesey's in South Carolina in 1822. Two slave revolts actually took place, one in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana Territory, in 1811, and the other, the famous Nat Turner revolt in 1831. But each of these spawned other conspiracies, and there were a number of instances where slaves secretly planned, or at least discussed, violent retribution against their owners and other whites.
In the same year as the Sancho conspiracy, for instance, fifteen or twenty slaves were arrested and jailed in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, following rumors that they were plotting to poison whites. Only two were found guilty: the "very artful" Frank, described as having a "vicious disposition" and being "proud & malignant, with great impudence" and Dick, who was under Frank's influence. Eight years later, in Edgefield District, South Carolina, a slave was charged with having knowledge of a planned slave rebellion. Another South Carolina plot was discovered in 1829 on the testimony of a slave owned by Ann Paisley of Georgetown District. As the accused were being held under sentence of death, whites heard that a slave "Connected with the plot in Charleston in 1822" was planning to rally his brethren at the gallows on the day of the scheduled executions and rescue those condemned. As a consequence, between July 23, when the plot was uncovered, and November, the court ordered special guard units of ten men to watch over the town twenty-four hours a day.
Also in 1829, but not connected with the Vesey plot, was a scheme uncovered in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. During the Christmas holidays, slaves from several plantations living along Thompson's Creek began to make plans for an insurrection. Before the design could be brought to fruition, however, a black woman who had overheard the plotting informed her master. The slave owners responded quickly, and according to a local planter, put a halt to the "wickedness by hanging two negroes." A search was made for one or two white men who might have been involved, but by January 1830 nothing had been proved. Two more slaves were later caught. They, too, would have been hanged "if justice had taken place," a local man observed, but their owners "were rich, which proved excuse enough to save them."
There is little doubt that some of the insurrection scares were the result of panic-stricken whites fearing the worst. Such was the case in October 1831, in the wake of the Nat Turner revolt, when a Louisiana white woman spread the word that "all the Negroes on little Robert Barrow's plantation had armed themselves and claimed there [sic] liberty." Upon hearing the news, one plantation mistress "instantly started screaming & crying as loud as she could" and the general of the local militia rode off to the plantation "where he found the overseer, and the negroes very busy gathering in the crop, as peaceable as lambs, and not one word of truth in the report." An observer said that the slaves were all "shockingly frightened at the Patrols being ordered out."
But there were probably as many actual plots as imagined plots. The uncovering of several conspiracies in the early 1840s was probably no mere coincidence. In 1840, Kentucky antislavery leader James G. Birney ran for president on the Liberty Party ticket. During the campaign, the debates about halting the expansion of slavery into the territories and the gradual abolition of slavery filtered into slave quarters. There was a remarkable communication network among slaves, and such debates may well have contributed directly to several conspiracies.
"Since you left we have information that a number of Negros in the neighborhood of the Barrow settlement and Bayou Sarah [West Feliciana Parish] have been detected in a conspiracy and rebellion," Moses Liddell, a Louisiana planter, wrote to a relative 21 July 1841. The relative, John Liddell, owned a plantation on Black River near Harrisonburg, Catahoula Parish, a safe distance away, but both planters were very much concerned about such news and how it might affect their slaves. About eighty had already been captured and jailed, and several white men had offered "confessions and disclosures." The discovery was made in mid-July, but in all probability more conspirators would be exposed since, as Liddell wrote, "the second of August was the time appointed by them" to put their plan into operation.
Standing near a slave cabin in 1841, a visitor at John D. Thomasson's sugar plantation in West Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, accidentally overheard a conversation between a black man and woman. He was surprised when the woman asked the man, Harry, who was visiting from a neighboring plantatation, if he had "made use of the barrel of powder." He replied that he had; she asked him how many musket balls he had made. He said that if Jerry, a slave, had made five the night before "there must be one hundred and fifty." She asked where the powder and balls were hidden. The powder was "in the Sugar house under the cooler in the ground" and the balls were in Jerry's cabin, hidden in the loft covered by corn, as well as in the sugarhouse. A noise prevented the listener from hearing whether or not the slaves had "a weapon," presumably a musket or knives, but he did hear the end of the conversation:
She asked him, "are your going to Kill every body?"
And he answered "Yes."
She Said "it would be a pity to Kill the little children."
And he said "we will burn the roofs down on them."
If the chances of a white man's eavesdropping outside a slave cabin and hearing a conversation about plans to burn down roofs over the heads of women and children seemed remote, perhaps even more farfetched was the possibility of black conspirators writing letters about a planned insurrection. Considering that only a small fraction of the slave population was literate, and writing down any plan was extremely dangerous, the letter written 6 October 1845 by an anonymous North Carolina slave was truly unique. Though at times difficult to decipher, the meaning was clear:
we rite to you to let you know that we have concluded to wate till the night before the jeneral muster before we make the trial to get aur freedom, thar was a good manny black wons from rowan aver here last night evry thing is redy thar they ar all a gaing to meet Sailsbory and brake the jail apen the first thing they doo and take the pepl out and then come to river and gard the bride and all the ferreys they will shot evry man that wont go with them
He said they would obtain guns, powder, and shot in Salisbury. He expected three hundred slaves to participate, the plotters having appointed unit captains. When they arrived in Lexington, they "must tye all the whites the first thing," he instructed; "dont kill nun if you can help it." He said that the slaves should be provided with liquor "make all the men drunk an you can make em doo any thing" and told his coconspirators to "be reddy by dark and we will com by midnight all the runnaway blacks jines us that night." Meanwhile, he added gravely, "dont let a Single whit person see this or we will all get Killed the blacks is redy all over the cuntry."
While few slaves wrote out their plans, there were a number of other plots. "We had a small move towards an insurrection not long since but we stopped it instanter," a Louisiana planter wrote in 1848, "no damage done." In the same year, however, some damage was done when seventy-six slaves from the District of Columbia slipped on board the schooner Pearl in the early morning hours. They forced the three white seamen to cast off and, catching a good wind, sailed silently down the Potomac River toward the Chesapeake Bay. When it was discovered the following morning that the slaves were missing, a group of slave owners expressed fear that if the fugitives were overtaken they would offer a "desperate resistance," but a large force of armed men on the steamboat Salem overtook the schooner and "succeeded in recapturing and securing" the slaves.
In the fall of 1856, an insurrection panic swept across the South from Texas to Virginia. Many slave owners were certain that the rumors were true, and so, too, were political leaders. At John Bell's ironworks along the Cumberland River in Tennessee, sixty-five slaves were arrested and nine executed. "Quite an excitement here at this time about the insurrection of the negroes," a Virginia man wrote his brother a few days before Christmas. "It was to have taken place tomorrow night but I hope it has been timely arrested." The scheme was known to slaves "all over the state," he said, and Governor Henry Wise had sent cannon and ammunition to Alexandria "to quell the Negroes in that place."
The Price of Dissidence
Neither the "trial to git aur freedom" outlined by the anonymous North Carolina slave in 1845 nor subsequent movements toward insurrection ever came to fruition. Even so, they were more than figments of any master's imagination. There is little doubt that slaves conspired at various times to seek retribution against their owners and obtain their freedom. Some of the plans never went beyond a slave cabin or a small group of conspirators, while others were known about by tens and hundreds of possible recruits. A case in point is free black David Walker, a Boston resident formerly of North Carolina. His Appeal, in Four Articles in 1829 not only condemned slavery but urged on all people in bondage to rise up against their masters. Although the Appeal did not result in any known conspiracies, it caused fear and consternation throughout the South. In 1830, Walker died rather mysteriously, and some believed that he came to his end "otherwise than by the usual visitation of the providence of God."
It was not known exactly how many slaves were influenced in 1839 by Virginia slave Jarrett, who circulated a "certain writing denying the right of Masters to property in their slaves and inculcating the duty of resistance to such rights." The Loudoun County Court believed his influence was significant. The five justices found Jarrett guilty and sentenced him to be "transported and Sold beyond the Limits of the United States."
Most plots and conspiracies were either discovered or collapsed in the early stages of planning. That only a few revolts came to fruition was not due to the "paternalistic" attitudes of masters who permitted slaves so much autonomy that few wanted to rebel. Rather, they found other means to demonstrate their dissatisfaction. That so many did individually or in small groups reflected their conviction that the chances of success were significantly greater than with large-scale resistance.
Whether alone or with others, however, those who challenged the system paid a heavy price. The argument that slaves were not treated harshly because they were valuable property ignores the conviction among most slave owners and many other whites that severe chastisement would serve as a deterrent. Those who openly defied the owner, plantation manager, or overseer were usually dealt with quickly and ruthlessly. They were whipped, beaten, cropped, branded, and sometimes tortured. They were sold away from their families or watched as their children were turned over to slave traders. Those found guilty or sometimes merely accused of serious "crimes" arson, assault, rape, attempted murder, conspiracy, poisoning were banished or hanged.
Typical responses of whites to some of the slave rebels were the following:
"Harry & Roberson I caught," a Louisiana owner wrote, "I stake Harry and gave him 175 lashes and Roberson 150."
Despite his "getting old," and the master's lament that he would bring only $850, Tennessee slave Big Ike was auctioned off to a slave trader for $1,110.
The young South Carolina man Ephraim was sold.
A receipt told of Davy's fate: "To Materials viz. Wood, tar, post & chains &cet: furnished for the Execution of a Negro fellow named Davey found Guilty of & Sentenced to be burnt for Robbery & Murder."
The overseer on the Louisiana plantation where Big Sandy worked said: "I had him secured and flogged him."
The Alabama slave Sam was sentenced to be hanged.
The man who administered the punishment on the South Carolina slave Elizabeth for refusing to serve a young white girl said he whipped her until she was in excruciating pain.
Shortly after slapping her mistress's face, South Carolina slave Maria was sold away from her children. The tailor used the money to purchase a new sewing machine.
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Meet the Author
John Hope Franklin is James B. Duke Professor of History, Emeritus, at Duke University. He is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the author of numerous books, including the epic From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, which boasts more than three million copies in print. Loren Schweninger is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.
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