Violent Rebellion: 8 Times American Slaves Revolted

Violent Rebellion: 8 Times American Slaves Revolted

Donna Patricia Ward - August 8, 2017

Slaves resisted their bondage. Low acts of resistance were everyday occurrences such as breaking a tool, work slowdowns and stoppages, faking illness, running away for a few days, and maintaining African tribal cultures. Overt acts of resistance were revolts, hitting an overseer or master, running away to freedom, hiding, and even suicide.

Stories of resistance were passed down through the generations, influencing more slaves to resist their bondage in their own way. Slave owners failed to realize that for those people enslaved, freedom was a value worth achieving at any cost. Below are eight acts of American slave resistance.

1. Stono Rebellion 1739

Rice plantations traversed the coastal regions of South Carolina. The British colony supplied most of the food to its sugar island Barbados. Cultivating rice required a large labor force. To harvest the grain, the rice fields were flooded, and slaves stood in the water, baking. Hats provided little to no protection from the sun’s rays that literally baked the slaves to death or blinded them. Most slaves in South Carolina during the 18th century came from the Kingdom of Kongo, a Catholic region, where they were warriors, and generally worked a season or two in the Caribbean before being transported for sale in the Carolinas. Owners failed to understand that their human bondsmen were well trained in the art of warfare.

Violent Rebellion: 8 Times American Slaves Revolted
Artist image of the Stono Rebellion in 1739. Google Images

Under the leadership of a slave named Jemmy, 22 enslaved Africans gathered near the Stono River, just 20 miles southwest of Charleston, on Sunday, September 9, 1739. As families were in church celebrating the Virgin Mary’s nativity, slaves marched on the road chanting and carrying a banner that proclaimed “Liberty!” At the Stono River Bridge, slaves attacked two shopkeepers in the Hutchenson store and took guns and ammunition. As the 22 men marched toward Florida, more slaves joined their ranks. The destination for the slaves in rebellion was Spanish Florida, which as an enemy of Great Britain, was a refuge for escaped slaves.

With the group now at 81, they continued their southward march to Florida. Along the way, they burned six plantations and killed somewhere between 23 and 28 whites. As onlookers saw the rebellious slaves, they ran to warn of the impending danger. A militia of plantation owners set out to confront the mob of slaves. They intersected at the Edisto River where 23 whites and 47 slaves were killed. White colonists took the head of the dead slaves and mounted them on stakes and then placed them along the roadways as a warning to other slaves thinking about joining the revolt. Slaves that had survived the encounter were either executed or sold to sugar planters in the Caribbean.

In the aftermath of the Stono Rebellion, the colonial government in South Carolina passed the Negro Act of 1740. Slaves were not permitted to gather in groups, on a plantation there must be one white for every ten slaves, they could not learn to read or write, and the slaves were prohibited from raising their own crops, livestock, and selling any of these goods. The Act also attempted to control the brutal behavior of masters who either worked their slaves too hard or beat them excessively. This behavior was difficult to prove since only whites could bring about such charges. Plantation owners were also required to teach Christian doctrine to their slaves, something that most of them were already well versed in.

Violent Rebellion: 8 Times American Slaves Revolted
Negro Revolt of 1741 or the New York Conspiracy 1741. Google Images

2. New York Conspiracy 1741

New York City was cold during the winter of 1740-41. Since early October, the weather had been harsh. Fires burned continuously to heat homes and businesses, most of which were made of wood. Dockworkers—white, black, mixed-race, free, indentured, and enslaved—suffered through cold winds, snow, sleet, and ice loading and unloading ships. Taverns were a saving grace where people of all races, gender, and states of servitude could socialize and get warm.

John Hughson migrated from Yonkers to New York in search of work. When he could find no work due to slave labor undercutting wages for whites, he opened a tavern along the docks. He and his wife Sarah rented rooms and operated the Hughson’s Tavern, which became well known as place to sell stolen goods.

Rebecca Hogg operated a shop near the tavern dealing mostly in luxury goods. One February night, a white sailor told three slaves, Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee, that the Hogg shop was well stocked. The slaves entered the shop and stole money, jewelry, and a pair of silver knee buckles. Caesar immediately went to the Hughson’s Tavern where he sold his booty; Prince and Cuffee remained low. The next day, city officials began investigating the crime. They interrogated Hughson’s indentured servant, Mary Burton, who gave up the three slaves. After hours of further interrogation, Mary also stated that the Hughson’s participated in illegal activities. Prince and Caesar were arrested for burglary. Shortly thereafter, a fire broke out at the garrison on Fort George destroying the governor’s mansion, the chapel, the barracks, and governmental offices.

Over the next month, fires erupted throughout New York at a suspicious pace, with four fires set on April 6th alone. Judge Daniel Horsmanden held a grand jury for the Hogg robbery and interrogated Mary Butler under oath. After intense questions, she proclaimed that the fires were being set by slaves and poor whites to burn down the city. She then stated that people openly met at the Hughson’s Tavern, at the request of John and Sarah, to discuss the conspiracy. New Yorkers were shocked and hysteria ensued. Prince and Caesar were found guilty of the robbery on May 2, 1741.

The next day, several suspicious fires erupted. Two black men were seen fleeing a fire, quickly captured, and burned at the stake without arrest or trial. To rid the city of the conspirators, the city council began offering large rewards for important information about the conspiracy. Whites could get £100 while slaves could get £20 plus their freedom. A prostitute at Hughson’s tavern, Peggy, was found guilty of burglary. To save her life, she began naming people who frequented the Hughson’s Tavern. As blacks and whites were arrested and held in the city jail, more fires were set.

On May 11, 1741, Prince and Caesar hung near the Poor House, never giving up any names of their supposed fellow conspirators. Between May 11 and August 29, 160 blacks and 21 whites had been arrested. 17 blacks and 4 whites were hung, 13 blacks were burned at the stake, 70 blacks were banished from New York, and 7 whites were deported. Slave owners were never compensated for their executed property.

Violent Rebellion: 8 Times American Slaves Revolted
Slaves hiding in Louisiana. Google Images

3. Point Couppe 1795

The French founded Point Couppe, roughly 150 miles north of New Orleans, in 1717. Census records indicated that in 1788 there were 1,500 slaves. The slave population increased to 1,600 in 1797. There were three slaves to every white in the region. In 1791, a slave insurrection on the Caribbean island of Saint Domingue, present-day Haiti, began, causing concern for slave owners in French Louisiana.

Skilled slaves such as blacksmiths, sailors, drivers, woodsmen, and carpenters were highly valued, worth a considerable amount of money, and trusted by their owners. Often they were granted more freedoms than field slaves who were responsible for the backbreaking work of planting, maintaining, harvesting and refining sugar.

For owners, a slave hierarchy was essential in maintaining an effective and successful plantation. They believed that their trusted slaves would never do anything to disrupt life on the plantation or put them in harms way. Beginning in late 1794, trusted slaves in Point Couppe Parish, with permission from their owners, traveled from plantation to plantation. Unbeknownst to their owners, as the slaves went between plantations, they planed and gained support for a rebellion.

In April 1795, Spanish officials found out about the slave conspiracy and quickly found 57 people guilty of preparing for a rebellion. Of the 57, 23 were executed with their severed heads placed on pikes and displayed throughout lower Louisiana as a means to force slaves with thoughts of rebellion into submission. Three of the executed were white and two were free people of color.

One man, Joseph Bouyavel, was found to have a copy of The Declarations of the Rights of Man in his possession. Not only did having this document prove that some slaves could read, It also demonstrated that many understood the ideas of freedom and self-government. The small number of slave owners were terrified, and rightly so.

The plans for slave revolt centered on the plantation of Julien Poydras. An overwhelming number of his slaves hailed directly from Africa. Slave owners long held the belief that slaves directly from Africa were the most troublesome and had to be convinced through means of terror and violence, that being submissive and obedient was the best thing for them. After uncovering the plans for revolt, the Spanish authorities created slave patrols.

These slave patrols would search all slave quarters for anything that looked like it could possibly be influential in planning a slave revolt. Items taken were letters, newspapers, and bibles. The institution of slavery only worked if the enslaved were kept ignorant and submissive.

Violent Rebellion: 8 Times American Slaves Revolted
A sketch of Gabriel Prosser. Google Images

4. Gabriel’s Conspiracy or Gabriel’s Rebellion 1800

Slavery was a massive labor force. In 1800 eastern Virginia, tobacco prices had dropped and the soil had been depleted, causing planters to “hire out” their skilled laborers. Gabriel was born into slavery in 1776, trained by his father as a blacksmith, and owned by Thomas Prosser a tobacco planter in Henrico County. At 22, Gabriel was over six feet tall, could read and write, and was considered “of great courage and intellect above his rank and life.” Thomas Prosser hired Gabriel out of the foundries in Richmond. As Prosser benefited monetarily from Gabriel’s labors, the slave interacted with free blacks, racially mixed people, and Europeans. Through these interactions, Gabriel was made acutely aware of the juxtaposition of slavery in a Republic.

Gabriel began planning his revolt in the spring of 1800. People in bondage placed freedom as their ultimate goal, a reality that owners continually failed to recognize. Through his contacts in the foundries, Gabriel had recruited several slaves to participate in his planned revolt and mass killing. Under strict instructions, Gabriel told his followers not to harm any Methodist, Quakers, or Frenchmen. The French had already abolished slavery in their Caribbean islands in 1794, and the Methodists and Quakers were actively seeking complete abolition of slavery while helping slaves escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

Owners were suspicious that something odd was happening with their slaves. When rain postponed the planned August 30th revolt, two slaves got nervous and informed their master, Mosby Sheppard. Sheppard sent a dispatch to the Virginia governor, future president James Monroe, who called out the state militia to arrest Gabriel, his two brothers, and all other slaves involved in the revolt. Gabriel had taken a boat from his former overseer. The overseer had converted to be a Methodist and repeatedly overlooked information about a fleeing Gabriel.

Gabriel traveled along the James River from Richmond over 100 miles to Norfolk. The governor had issued a $300 reward for information that would lead to the capture of Gabriel. A slave in Norfolk lured by the monetary reward saw Gabriel and turned him in. The slave received only $50 of the reward. Upon his return to Richmond, Gabriel was interrogated but provided no testimony. Gabriel along with his two brothers and 23 other slaves were hung for their planning of Gabriel’s Rebellion.

Violent Rebellion: 8 Times American Slaves Revolted
A postcard depicting Moonlight on the Dunbar River, St. Simons Island, Georgia known as Igbo Landing. Public Domain

5. Igbo Landing 1803

The Igbo people originated in present-day Nigeria. Since the 15th century, Europeans negotiated with African tribal leaders in the Bight of Benin along the Slave Coast. Europeans perceived that the Igbo people made good slaves as they were less troublesome than Africans from different regions. The reality was that it did not matter where the captives came from, they all demonstrated resistance to forced servitude in different ways.

As Europeans waited in the Gulf of Guinea, sailors converted the ship from a merchant’s vessel to one that could accommodate a large number of human captives. Captured slaves embarked upon a forced march to the slave castles and forts near the gulf. After tribal leaders and the ship’s captain agreed to terms, the African captives were transported via canoe or small boat where they were forced to climb rope ladders onto the awaiting vessel.

Sailors segregated the captives by sex with only very young children remaining with their mothers. Male captives were placed below deck while female captives were placed closer to the officers’ quarters where many were often raped. As the ship set sail across the Atlantic the captives knew exactly what was happening and where they were going. The Middle Passage was full of routine and boredom for captives, sailors, and officers. Sailors had to clean out human waste from below deck while the captives were forced to wash the deck.

Each day, the captives were forced to dance as a way to ensure that they exercised. It was imperative to the captain, who worked for the merchant that owned the ship, to ensure that no one fell ill or died during the voyage. Death or illness meant that the ship would be held in quarantine and money lost.

In 1803, a ship landed near Savannah, Georgia filled with Africans headed for the local slave market. John Couper and Thomas Spalding had their agents purchase 75 of the Igbo at $100 a piece from the ship. The captives were chained together and placed onto a small boat destined for St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia. During the voyage, the Igbo took over the small boat. During the chaos, the boat ran aground near Dunbar Creek, now known as Igbo Landing.

Under the leadership of a presumed Igbo chief, the chained men and women began to walk into the creek to drown themselves. Slave traders nearby pulled all but the 10 or 12 that drowned out of the water. The surviving Igbo were sent to their new owners and the slave traders that rescued them were given $10 per head from Couper and Spalding. For the Igbo, death was a better alternative to enslavement.

Violent Rebellion: 8 Times American Slaves Revolted

6. German Coast Uprising 1811

German pioneers settled the German Coast in the early 18th century, located north of New Orleans and east of the Mississippi River. The region was ethnically diverse, had a large free black population, and contained numerous sugar plantations. The area became a part of the United States in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase, yet most residents were French speakers. The enslaved population far outnumbered the white population. Commodities traveled along waterways, which were prevalent along the German Coast. Despite the use of violence and terror, slaves created intricate networks or communication between plantations. In late 1810, the slave communication network was abuzz with talk of insurrection.

On January 8, 1811, 15 slaves arrived at the Andry plantation located 30 miles upriver of New Orleans. With “the stroke of an axe” they wounded Manuel Andry and killed his son gilbert. The slaves in revolt then traveled to the next-door plantation of Jacques and Georges Deslondes. A field slave, Charles Deslondes, came from that plantation as testimony identified him as a “principal chief” of the revolt. The slaves in revolt marched to a drum going from plantation to plantation along the German Coast harming planters, their families, and homes. After marching from 14 to 22 miles, the slaves reached Cannes-Brulees, a plantation about 15 miles north of New Orleans. Throughout their march, they passed larger and larger sugar plantations and more and more slaves joined in the revolt.

Witnesses estimated that anywhere between 200 and 500 slaves participated in the largest slave revolt in United States history. Planters fled to New Orleans and the other side of the Mississippi River. Residents of New Orleans heard about the insurrection the next morning and began raising a volunteer army to fight against the slaves. A battle took place around 9 am on January 10th where 40 to 45 slaves were killed with the remaining 200 to 500 escaping into the woods. Charles Deslondes, the believed leader of the insurgency, was captured on January 11th. Instead of being tried for his crimes his hands were chopped off, each thigh was shot at until the bone broke, and then he was placed on “a bundle of straw and roasted” before he died.

Parish officials held three tribunals for the slaves captured after the suppression of the insurrection. At one tribunal, 18 slaves were executed by firing squad and their heads placed on pikes. One observer stated that the heads decorated the levee, “all the way up the coast” looking like “crows sitting on long poles.” Support of the insurrection was not universal among the slave community. Some rebellious slaves escaped into the woods and avoided punishment, while others were simply returned to their masters to be punished as their owners saw fit. Most of the known participants were men from 20 to 30 years old and performed the most strenuous labor required on a sugar plantation. The Orleans Territory government granted $300 compensation to owners for any executed slave. Planters along the German Coast accepted a permanent US military presence to ensure their protection from the enslaved majority. No historical markers identify the largest slave revolt in American history.

Violent Rebellion: 8 Times American Slaves Revolted
Harriet Ann Jacobs circa 1894. Public Domain

7. Harriet Ann Jacobs 1835-1842

Women in slavery suffered immeasurable abuses. Prospective buyers a the slave market would examine female slaves by handling their breasts, forcing open their legs for inspection, and even raping them while standing on the selling block. After purchase, female slaves endured a journey riddled with sexual advancements and violence. Upon arrival at the plantation, the female slaves became field hands or house slaves. Those that went to live in the big house endured immeasurable sexual advances from male members of the household while the women of the house treated them disdain and cruelty.

Slavery in all forms was ruled with terror and violence. Sexual assaults against male and female slaves ran rampant and rarely resulted in justice for the slave. Instead, most were forced to submit to acts of sexual harassment and advancement or lose their children that often resulted from such encounters. This placed slave women in a precarious place. They either had to endure unwanted and violent sex acts to remain near their children, or they could flee and lose their children forever. Harriet Ann Jacobs did both.

Born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813, Harriet Ann Jacobs was a mixed-race girl. Her father was a free European and her mother was a mullato slave. Slave states had a law that proclaimed any child born to a slave would be a slave and legally freeing a slave became increasingly difficult. At six, Harriet’s mother died and she was sent to live with Margaret Horniblow. Under Margaret’s ownership, Harriet was taught to read, write, and sew. When Margaret died, she willed Harriet, now 12, to her five-year-old niece, the daughter of Dr. James Norcom, who became her de facto owner.

Upon her arrival in the Norcom home, the doctor routinely sexually harassed Harriet. When Harriet entered into a relationship with Samuel Sawyer, a white lawyer, Norcom continued his advances. Samuel and Harriet had two children that were also slaves. Norcom threatened her with the sale of her children if she did not submit to his advances. As the years went by, Harriet’s life became unbearable. At 22, Harriet escaped Norcom, finding refuge in another slave owner’s home, where she could keep an eye on her children. After a short stay, Harriet left, traveling through a swamp, to live in her grandmother’s attic.

Samuel Sawyer purchased his own children from Norcom and then went to live with Harriet’s grandmother. Harriet hid in the attic for seven years, her children never knowing she was above them as they grew. In 1842, Harriet went to Philadelphia. She was now a fugitive slave, but instead of hiding, she became involved in the abolition movement. She wrote her narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, using the name Linda Brent, which became an important piece of African American literature, a key publication for the abolition movement, and one of the few narratives that focused on the struggles of female slaves.

Violent Rebellion: 8 Times American Slaves Revolted
Harriet Tubman circa 1885. Public Domain

8. Harriet Tubman 1849-1860

Harriet Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross on a plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland. Born between 1800 and 1825, she was one of nine children. Her enslaved father worked as a woodsman and her mother worked in the “big house.” Despite the pleas of her mother, Minty’s older siblings were sold, which impacted the young girl. When Minty was five years old, she was hired out to work as a nursemaid. Her task was to watch over a sleeping baby. When the baby awoke, it cried, and Minty was whipped. As an adult, the scars from her early whippings remained evident.

As Minty aged, she moved from caring for children to working in the fields. Her master often hired her out to work on other plantations. On one such occasion, Minty was running an errand and was hit with a heavy metal weight. Bloody and unconscious, she was carried to a weaving room where she laid for two days without medical care. Forced to return to the fields, her head continued to bleed. The planter returned Minty to her owner proclaiming that she was not worth a penny. The untreated head trauma caused Minty to experience headaches and seizures for the rest of her life.

Around 1844, Minty married a free black John Tubman, after which she changed her name to Harriet Tubman. Edward Brodess, who owned Harriet, attempted to sell her away from her family. When she fell ill in 1849, her value as a slave diminished making a sale impossible. When Brodess died, Harriet Tubman decided that only she would determine her fate. On September 17, 1849, she escaped and became a fugitive slave. With assistance from abolitionists, Quakers, and sympathetic whites, Harriet was shuttled in false-bottom wagons from safe house to safe house. When she arrived in Pennsylvania, she later recalled that she felt like she “was in Heaven.”

Liberty and family was the most important thing to Tubman. Over the next 11 years, she traveled back to Maryland, using deceptive tactics to avoid capture, to assist 70 people to freedom. With the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, Tubman and any slaves she was assisting could be captured and sold to new masters or returned to their old masters. This made her work especially difficult, yet she was determined to help as many family members to freedom as she could. In 1859, Tubman purchased land near Auburn, New York, where her newly freed family members lived.

During the American Civil War, she spied for the United States Army, determined to help end slavery for good. In 1869, Tubman married a man 22 years her junior and adopted a baby girl. Money that she earned from working and later her military pension went toward supporting her family. Her biography was published for which she received some income, but friends and strangers sent her monetary support. Late in her life, she joined the women’s rights movement. Harriet Tubman died in 1913.


Sources For Further Reading:

Catholic News Agency – The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Encyclopedia – The “Great Negro Plot” Trial: 1741

The Washington Post – Gabriel’s Revolt: In 1800, He Was Savvy, Armed and Determined to End Slavery in Virginia’s Capital

World Atlas – Gulf of Guinea

History Channel – Louisiana Purchase

Smithsonian Magazine – How the Louisiana Purchase Changed the World

Smithsonian Magazine – How a Nearly Successful Slave Revolt Was Intentionally Lost to History

SF Gate – Her Tale Was Brutal, Sexual. No One Believed A Slave Woman Could Be So Literate. But Now Harriet Jacobs Has Reclaimed Her Name.

Folks Magazine – The Brain Injury That Helped End Slavery

BBC – Harriet Tubman: Former Slave Who Risked All to Save Others

History – After the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman Led a Brazen Civil War Raid

OZY – Harriet Tubman’s Last Great Humanitarian Act