Lesson Plan 3 | Early Slave Rebellions (1712-1831)


In lesson one, we learned that the first legal sanction of slavery (1664), in the New World, occurred when Anthony Johnson, a freed black slave, asked the court to award him John Casor, a black man, as a slave and won the case. After this court case at Northampton County Court in Virginia, the practice of slavery becomes a legally recognized institution in British America. Soon colonial assemblies begin to enact laws known as slave codes. These slave codes further restricted the liberty of slaves and protected the institution of slavery in the new world.

From 1662 – 1669, the Virginia Slave Laws were passed to restrict the rights and liberties of slaves further. If a child was born to a slave mother, the child remained a slave regardless of the race of the father. Corporal punishment was allowed against runaways, and if that punishment resulted in the death of the slave, the perpetrator was not charged for the crime. Finally, a slave could no longer be freed because of the blessed sacrament of baptism in the Christian faith, as perhaps, Anthony and Mary Johnson were.

From the earliest days of slavery, slaves counterattacked at every opportunity, even while onboard slave ships.  Onboard insurrection was ordinary, some slaves took their lives by jumping overboard while others fought the crew. Once on shore, slaves tried to escape to the North, disrupted their work, or conducted outright slave rebellions. We will take a look at the most severe slave rebellions before the Civil War.


To understand that the resistance to slavery began before arrival in the New    World
To understand the ways slaves resisted the institution of slavery in the South
Read and interpret 18th Century documents
Continue to develop a comprehensive picture of slavery
To examine the major slave rebellions from 1712 – 1831

Time: This lesson plan designed for two class periods.


Early Slave Resistance:

Illustration 1.
early slave resistance

Illustration 2.
early slave resistance

Guiding Questions:

What do you see in these two images? What kind of evidence supports your opinion?
Where do you think these altercations occurred? How do you know?

Early Runaway Slave Advertisements and Excerpts:

Slavery in the colonial period has supported several myths, and one is, that slaves did not resist their enslavement. The following excerpts from the Virginia Gazette and runaway slave advertisements tell a story about the extent of effort that slaves took to run away and gain their freedom from their masters, and how desperately the masters wanted their “property” back.

Runaway slave advertisement, February 17, 1737 – Philip Alexander
Runaway slave advertisement, February 17, 1737 – Philip Alexande

Transcription of The Virginia Gazette, Runaway Slave Advertisement 

May 5, 1738. Ran away from the Subscriber's Quarters on Sapponic, in Prince George County, 14 or 15 Weeks ago, a Mulattoe Man Slave, named Tom, 25 Years old, about 5 feet 8 or 9 Inches high, thin-faced, and bushy Hair, if not cut off; he is very apt to grin when he speaks, or is spoken to; had on an old dark Fustian Coat, with plain yellow Metal Buttons; Hath been several Times taken up, and escaped again before he could be deliver'd to the Quarter whereunto he belon'd; and the last Time shackled, Handcuffed, and an Iron Collar about his Neck, with Prongs, and to some of them Links. Whoever will deliver him to me, in Charles-City County, shall have a Pistole Reward, besides what the law allows; and if brought from any great Distance a farther Reward suitable to the Trouble, by John Stith.

Runaway slave advertisement, April 23, 1765 – Joseph Royal
Runaway slave advertisement, April 23, 1765

Transcriptions of Virginia Gazette, Runaway Slave Advertisements

May 2, 1766. Run away from the subscriber, in Mecklenburg county on Wednesday last, a fellow named Jack. It appears he has been principally concerned in promoting the late disorderly meetings among the Negroes and is gone off for fear of being prosecuted for many robberies he has committed. He is a low squat made fellow, bow-legged, his eyes remarkably red, has been branded on the right cheek R, and on the left M, though not easily to be perceived. It is supposed he intends for Carolina or Georgia. Whoever apprehends the said slave, and will deliver him to me, shall receive 50s. If taken 50 miles from home and 6d [pence] a mile for a greater distance, by Robert Munford.

Oct. 10, 1767. Prince George, Sept. 28, 1767. RUN away from the subscriber, the 22d of this instant, three slaves, viz. JUPITER, alias GIBB, a Negro fellow, about 35 years of age, about 6 feet high, knock-kneed, flat-footed, the right knee bent in more than the left, has several scars on his back from a severe whipping he lately had at Sussex court-house, having been tried there for stirring up the Negroes to an insurrection, being a great Newlight preacher. ROBIN about 25 years of age, a stout fellow, about 6 feet high, has a film over one of his eyes, a sore on one of his shins, and is brother to Gibb. DINAH, an old wench, very large, near 6 feet high; she has a remarkable stump of a thumb, occasioned by a whitlow, by which the bones of the first joint came out and is mother to the two fellows. They carried with them a variety of clothes, among the rest an old blue duffil great coat, one bearskin do. a scarlet jacket, and a fine new linen shirt. It is supposed they will endeavour to make their escape southward. Whoever takes up, and conveys to me the above slave, shall have a reward of 50s. for each of the fellows, and 20s for the wench, if taken in Virginia; if any other government, £5 for each of the fellows, and 40s for the wench paid by George Noble.

Oct. 20, 1768. RUN away from the subscriber in Chesterfield, the Wednesday before Easter last, a bright mulatto wench named Jude, about 30 years old is very remarkable, has lost one eye, but which I have forgot, has long black hair, a large scar on one of her elbows, and several other scars on her face, and has been subject to running away ever since she was ten years old. I have great reason to think she will pass for a free woman, and endeavour to make into South Carolina. She is very knowing about house business, can spin, weave, sew, and iron, well. She had on when she went away her winter clothing, also a blue and white striped Virginia cloth gown, a Virginia cloth coperas and white striped coat, besides others too tedious to mention. Whoever conveys the said slave to me shall be well rewarded for their trouble, by Mary Clay.

Runaway Slave Advertisement, June 1830 – Edward Hammett
Runaway Slave Advertisement, June 1830

Guiding Questions:

  • What did you learn about the skills that some of these slaves had?
  • How were these slaves treated? What evidence did you find that provided you that information?
  • What did you learn about the ages, genders, and tenaciousness of the runaways?

Major Slave Rebellions in the Colonial Era from 1712 – 1831

1712 – Northern edge of New York City The city had a large population of black slaves due to the years of trade with the West Indies. The slaves lived in a small area at the southern tip of Manhattan and worked with free men, far different from the situations on the southern plantations.

On April 6, 1712, approximately twenty-five slaves armed themselves with guns, hatchets, swords, and clubs and set fire to a building on the northern edge of the city. The fire quickly spread, and when white colonists gathered to extinguish the blaze, the slaves killed nine colonists and another six were injured. Soldiers from a nearby fort were summoned. Eighteen slaves were brutally killed and eight committed suicide. The revenge far outweighed the crime committed by the rebelling slaves.

This event prompted action resulting in stricter laws concerning slaves. No longer could more than three slaves meet, any slave with a firearm would receive twenty lashes, and any involvement in a conspiracy to kill would result in execution. These laws would, in the end, prove to be pointless, for in 1741, New York would see another uprising.

The New York slave Rebellion, April 6. 1712
The New York Rebellion, April 6. 1712

1739 – The Stono Rebellion, or Cato’s Conspiracy, originated in Stono, South Carolina, on September 9, 1739.  It was led by a literate slave named Jemmy, referred to as Cato, who led some eighty slaves that took up arms and attempted to march to Spanish-ruled Florida. England was at war with Spain at the time and the slaves were promised their freedom and land at St. Augustine. Spain attempted to destabilize England’s hold on North America by this action. A battle ensued, and the slaves were overtaken by whites, some forty-four blacks and twenty-one whites were killed.

After the deadly Stono Rebellion, South Carolina reduced aggravations for rebellion. Authorities penalized masters for imposing excessive work and punishments against slaves and imposed an extreme duty on the importation of new slaves from Africa and the West Indies. Then South Carolina passed the Negro Act of 1740, which restricted assembly, education, and movement of slaves. This act tightened control over the enslaved.

stono slave rebellion south carolina 1739

1741 –The New York Conspiracy or the Great Negro Plot - After a series of mistrustful fires in New York City, inhabitants feared an arsonist plot and suspicion focused on the city’s enslaved population and its multi-racial working-class community. The government offered a handsome reward and a pardon to anyone who would name names. A sixteen-year-old white female indentured servant claimed to have knowledge of a slave conspiracy. She was promised her freedom and 100 pounds if she revealed the plans for the conspiracy.  As a result, thirty-one slaves and four whites were executed. To this day, no specific plot was uncovered, or certainty of a conspiracy ever existed.

1741 –The New York Conspiracy or the Great Negro Plot
New York Conspiracy, 1741

1800 – Gabriel’s Rebellion - Gabriel Prosser was a Richmond blacksmith who opposed slavery in the rhetoric of rights of man and the Declaration of Independence. Gabriel and his brother, Martin, worked together to organize the rebels. Martin organized slaves at funerals, secret religious meetings and used biblical stories to justify rebellion. Gabriel as a skilled artisan had more autonomy and mobility than the average slave, so he could move around and contact slaves from surrounding plantations to plan the march on Richmond. They planned to kill all white residents except Quakers, Methodists and the French who were opposed to slavery and friendly to liberty.

Prosser planned to initiate the insurrection on the night of August 30, 1800, but earlier in the day two slaves alerted the Virginia authorities about the plot; that same day a storm washed out the roads to Richmond and delayed the uprising by 24 hours. Governor James Monroe alerted the militia. Realizing that their plan had been discovered, his followers scattered. No whites were killed in the revolt, 27 blacks were executed, including Gabriel.

1822 – The Denmark Vesey ConspiracyDenmark Vesey, a slave carpenter, was a resident of Charleston, South Carolina who purchased his freedom in 1800.  He was a leading figure in the black church and felt that slavery and bondage were against the Bible. Vesey followed the debates in Congress over the expansion of slavery into Missouri. From 1821 to 1822, Vesey recruited more than 1,000 free and enslaved blacks from rural areas and plotted an attack on Charleston sometime in July 1822. The plot to kill all whites and free enslaved blacks was betrayed by George Wilson, a loyal slave, who told his master about the plot to seize the city.

Following a lengthy trial, Vesey and thirty-six others were hanged. The executions were accompanied by massive protests from free and enslaved blacks. This conspiracy helped politicize black communities and leaders like Frederick Douglass against slavery.

1831 – Nate Turner Rebellion One of the largest slave rebellions in American history took place in Southampton County, Virginia, in an area of small farms rather than on large plantations.  It played an important role in the development of antebellum slave society.  

Nate was a slave preacher and something of a mystic. In the 1820s, he started seeing visions in the sky of black and white angels fighting. He felt that God chose him to be the Moses of his people to liberate them as well as gain his own freedom. In 1831, without a plan or clear objective, he launched his rebellion with eighty slaves, and moved from farm to farm, killing nearly all women and children in his path.  At the time, most of the area’s adult males were at a nearby religious revival.

By the time the militia curbed the rebellion, approximately sixty whites lay dead. Turner escaped and was finally captured and executed. The state legislature of Virginia considered abolishing slavery, but in a close vote decided to retain slavery, continued to support a repressive policy against blacks, chose to tighten the slave codes which further limited the movement of blacks, and made it illegal to conduct religious services without a white being present.

Afterward, fear spread through the white population and white mobs turned on blacks who had played no part in the rebellion and murdered them. An estimated 200 blacks were killed after the rebellion.

Composite of scenes of Nat Turner’s rebellion. Caption reads:
The Scenes which the above Plate is designed to represent are — Fig. 1. A Mother entreating for the lives of her Children. — 2. Mr. Travis cruelly murdered by his own Slaves. — 3. Mr. Barrow, who bravely defended himself until his wife escaped. — 4. A comp. of mounted Dragoons in pursuit of the Blacks.

Guiding Questions:

  • In what ways were the rebellions in New York different from the rebellions on the farms and plantations?
  • We know that whites outnumbered slaves on American plantations. How do you think that affected slave rebellions in the colonies?
  • Do you think that Nate Turner was a hero or a madman?
  • Can you justify Turner’s brutality?
  • What is your opinion of the vigilante justice used in Virginia? Was it justified? 
  • What can you learn from the woodcut of Nat Turner’s rebellion?
  • What were the causes of the rebellions? What were the results?