Servant and Slave Resistance in the Colonial Chesapeake


In 1739, a major slave uprising was uncovered in Prince George's County. According to a contemporary account, approximately a "well laid" scheme was designed for 200 slaves "to rise and massacre all the inhabitants on this shore." It was revealed by a slave who had overheard the planning. It put into place, at least temporarily, a new troop of horse that could "muster forty good horses at a quarter of an hour's warning." Fears of slave insurrections waned thereafter but escalated with a wave of violent crimes committed by convict servants and slaves between 1751 and 1755. Each was described in graphic detail in multiple issues of the Maryland Gazette, further feeding fears of insurrection. Not only did crimes of violence escalate, but two or more servants or slaves acted together in more than half the incidents. Reacting to reports of slaves being involved in stabbing, rape, and arson, in 1751 the Maryland legislature passed additions to the slave code "to keep them in proper Bounds and due Order." Two years later a purported conspiracy among slaves in Somerset County to "destroy the principal Families" resulted in the execution of one slave and in the whipping and pillorying of a free mulatto. In 1754 slaves and servants burned down houses and in four instances killed one or more free whites. Further robberies and murders followed in 1755, including the death of a member of the legislature who was allegedly poisoned by a white servant in concert with two slaves. Almost all the offenders were captured, tried, executed, and their bodies chained and displayed as a deterrent to others.

Fears of slave insurrections grew again on the heels of Major General Edward Braddock's defeat at the Battle of the Wilderness in July 1755. Shortly after news reached Annapolis, Governor Horatio Sharpe summoned the council and wrote "Circulatory Letters to have the Slaves, Convicts &c well observed & watched & given Orders for the Militia of the several C[oun]ties to be prepared to quell it in case any Insurrection should be occasioned by this Stroke." In addition to anxiety about slaves and convicts taking advantage of the chaos that would accompany an invasion by the French and their Indian allies, Maryland Protestants also feared that Roman Catholics in the colony might foment a servile revolt. Such fears were reinforced by the apparent greater success that Catholic slave owners and Jesuit priests had in converting blacks than did Protestant denominations. County justices of the peace were ordered to investigate "tumultuous Meetings and Caballings among the Negroes," as well as possible plots by "Persons of the Roman Catholick Persuasion." No plots or conspiracies were discovered, crimes of violence diminished, and fears of insurrection waned once it became clear that the French would not invade Maryland.


Although no slave insurrections broke out in Virginia in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, ideas of having a right to freedom and of rebelling to obtain it were circulating in Virginia slave quarters. In 1752 in Northampton County on the Eastern Shore, Abimelech Webb, a free black, was suspected of "combining with sundry Negros in a Conspiracy against the white People of this County." He was punished with 39 lashes and required to post a bond of £100 for good behavior. Two months later the county court convicted James, an enslaved man, of the same crime, sentencing him to 20 lashes. Also in 1752, in Brunswick County, Peter, Harry Cain, and James were tried for insurrection and conspiracy to commit murder. Peter, their leader, was hanged and the others punished with 39 lashes for "being privy to an Opinion entertained among many Negroes of their having a Right to their Freedom and not making a Discovery thereof." Two months later in Surry County, Nicholas Thompson's slave, Will, was found guilty of insurrection and conspiracy, apparently for talking rebelliously. In 1753, York County officials asserted that Tom and Harry, slaves of the Goodwin family of Yorkhampton Parish near Williamsburg, "feloniously did consult, advise and conspire to rebel and make an insurrection and did also plot and conspire the murder" of whites. Tom was convicted of the misdemeanor of rebellious talk and given 25 lashes. (There were also numerous cases of slaves being tried for poisoning, another form of rebelliousness, in Brunswick, in Surry and adjoining Sussex, and in York counties in the 1750s, 1760s and 1770s).

As in Maryland, news of Braddock's defeat in 1754 spurred rumors of slave risings, such as one in Lancaster County. Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie feared "the Villainy of the Negroes in any Emergency of Gov't." He ordered the sheriff to investigate and the county court to try and make an example of one or two ringleaders to deter insurrections that would require keeping the militia at home to control slaves instead of going to fight French and Indians on the frontier.

In 1769, a woman in James City County overheard slaves discussing a plot "against the white people, which they intended putting in execution very soon." Five alleged plotters were punished with 25 lashes apiece, another got 39 lashes, and a seventh was hanged. At Christmas the same year in Hanover County, an altercation between an overseer and a rebellious slave escalated into a battle between some 40 to 50 slaves and armed whites who killed the ringleader and several others on the spot.

In 1772, Governor John Murray, earl of Dunmore, (who would later free slaves to enlist them to fight against their rebelling masters) worried about the threat of slave insurrection. He thought that in time of peace the enslaved could be controlled through "unremitted observance of their conduct, a rigorous exertion of the Laws relating to them, and the most exemplary punishment of all the refractory." Prosecutions of slaves in county courts for a variety of felonies and misdemeanors reached a record high in 1775, reflecting a level of increased unrest among slaves that was perhaps related to escalating transatlantic political crisis.

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