During the 1790s many white Virginians believed that living conditions for slaves had improved since the American Revolution (1775–1783). Governor James Monroe said as much in his report on the slave plot to the General Assembly. Indeed, the state had banned the importation of slaves from Africa and the West Indies in 1778, private manumissions had become possible in 1782, and religious groups such as Quakers, Methodists, and to some extent Baptists had questioned the institution or condemned its worst practices. Two Virginians,and , had presented plans for the gradual elimination of the institution, but both tied their schemes to expectations that freed people of color would be forced out of the state. Neither proposal garnered much support, nor did private manumissions or moral criticisms of slavery ever really threaten the existence of the institution. But if slaveholders believed their slaves were better off and that the institution was generally secure, the uprisings and rebellion that began in 1791 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue increased anxieties over its potential influence on Virginia’s enslaved population, especially after hundreds of white refugees, some with their slaves, began arriving in Virginia in July 1793.
Later that month a conversation was overheard in Richmond among several black men who, it was alleged, were discussing what property would soon be theirs; their purported reference to Saint-Domingue stirred up authorities in the capital. Concern spread after a letter was found a few weeks later on a street in Yorktown from the “Secret keeper” in Richmond to his counterpart in Norfolk; it contained references to men ready to rise in rebellion as far away as Charleston, South Carolina, and mentioned stockpiles of arms. According to the letter, the plot was to begin “in every town in one nite.” Officials in Richmond, York, Norfolk, and Petersburg informed the governor of local fears or solicited arms for local militias, and Virginia authorities sent a warning to South Carolina. But the scare passed without further incident.
Several years later, on December 3, 1797, Richmond authorities charged Jacob Valentine, a white man who had been an officer during the Revolutionary War, with “committing and encouraging an Insurrection among the Slaves of the City of Richmond.” When he couldn’t produce a bond on December 11 to guarantee his good behavior, the court incarcerated him for several months, but nothing else seems to have come of this incident. To many southerners, slave unrest seemed to arise from sources other than the slaves themselves.
When Gabriel and his co-conspirators came together in the spring and summer of 1800, other issues were creating tensions in Virginia’s social and political order. The outbreak of war in Europe following the French Revolution had divided Americans and contributed to the emergence of party factions. During the administration of President John Adams, a Federalist, the failure of a diplomatic effort to secure peace with France had led to congressional restrictions on speech—the Sedition Act (1798)—and an increase in the United States armed forces in anticipation of war with France. Opponents of these and other measures believed the federal government had exceeded its powers and that a future under the Federalists would lead to monarchical government. Federalists, on the other hand, viewed opposition to the federal government as both illegitimate and inspired by the worst ideals of the French Revolution.
As the campaign leading up to the election of 1800 intensified, some Virginia supporters of the Republican candidate, Thomas Jefferson, saw the stationing near Richmond of some of the recently raised federal troops as an attempt to intimidate Virginians at the polls. They also worried that the troops’ presence was designed to influence the outcome of the sedition trial held in Richmond of, a harsh critic of the Adams administration. To enslaved men in the area, the undeclared, so-called Quasi-War with France (1798–1800) and the divisive nature of politics as reflected in the political campaigns of 1800 may well have made it seem an opportune time to rebel. This was especially true when, in June, the federal regiment demobilized, an event the conspirators noted.
Late in the spring of 1800 a group of enslaved men who were held on plantations in the neighborhood of the Brook, north of Richmond, initiated a plot to obtain their freedom. Sam Byrd Jr., a slave of widow Jane Clarke, seems to have been the one to propose the original plan. He found sympathetic ears among George Smith, an enslaved man of another widow, Ann Smith; Gilbert, who was held by William Young; and Ben Woolfolk, a hired slave who also worked at Young’s plantation. Also in on the plot was Jack Bowler, also known as Jack Ditcher, a large, powerful man who apparently worked in the neighborhood despite being owned by a widow in Caroline County. And of course there was Gabriel, also a large man and a blacksmith owned by Thomas Henry Prosser. Each man used his connections—his friends, acquaintances, and relatives—to find other conspirators and thereby shape the geographical spread of the plot while leaving its core leadership in the neighborhood of the Brook.
It is not clear how Byrd’s plan might have changed over time as the conspirators periodically gathered in the shade of bridges, near springs, at religious gatherings, and after a funeral. But by August a plan had been devised that included a nighttime attack on Richmond. A party of about fifty men would slip into the lower part of the town and set fire to the area’s predominantly wooden structures in order to draw the city’s residents into fighting the conflagration. Meanwhile, the main column of men would first attack the white residents of the Brook and then swarm into upper Richmond, overcoming the few guards who watched over state arms on deposit at the Capitol and penitentiary, as well as at the public magazine. These men also intended to seize Governor Monroe, if not actually kill him. Once fully armed, they would destroy the exhausted firefighters as they struggled home.
Because their plan to overrun the guards did not require that most men be equipped with firearms at the outset, blacksmiths like Gabriel, his brother Solomon, and Thornton, who worked at a forge at Hanover Court House, refashioned scythe blades into swords; one witness claimed that twelve dozen such weapons were created. In addition, Jack Bowler reported that he had made fifty pikes, or spears, by affixing bayonets to the ends of poles. Bowler, Gabriel, and another plotter gathered gunpowder, and Gabriel and his brother Martin made musket balls. While the men already secretly possessed a handful of firearms, they also planned to seize a small cache of militia muskets stored at a neighborhood tavern. In early August, Gabriel and two other men actually slipped into the Capitol to survey the weapons there. They obtained keys to the building from Robert Cowley, once a slave of the Randolph family but now a free man who served as the keeper of the Capitol and doorman to the Council of State. A later investigation exonerated Cowley of any complicity in the plot.
Although their plan did not require the conspirators to be fully armed when they rushed into Richmond, it did demand a force large enough to overwhelm the guards and hold the town. Recruiting a sufficient number of men while maintaining secrecy proved to be a major challenge. Trial testimony, which provides much of the evidence about the plot, tends to focus on this aspect of the conspiracy, because in order to condemn a defendant to death the state had to prove only that he had joined the conspiracy—not that he had committed any acts in its furtherance. As a result, witnesses testified about how men were recruited and, in particular, what words had lured them into the conspiracy. Often they were falsely told that many others had already joined. Too small a group would be suicidal, so recruits needed to be assured that they were part of a substantial force. Sam Byrd Jr. stated he had found 500 who had joined. Another recruiter said the force had reached 5,000 men, and another witness claimed Gabriel had asserted that 10,000 had been enlisted. On the day the attack was to begin, Solomon said he expected 1,000 men to gather that night, a figure that still would have required a large portion of the able-bodied men in the area.
Needing the assurance of large numbers may have been why Gabriel allegedly said at one point that he expected poor whites to join the rebellion, and why the plotters also relayed rumors of an invading French army, which supposedly had landed at South Quay, an inland port on Virginia’s Blackwater River. Different scenarios may also have been presented to different recruits. For most, the uprising was portrayed as a war for freedom waged by blacks against white people. The slaughter would be indiscriminate. Others were told that people friendly to freedom—Quakers, Methodists, and Frenchmen, and even poor white women with no slaves—were to be spared. Like recruiters for any cause or organization, individuals were told what they needed to hear. Some were warned that anyone who did not join would suffer death. Largely excluded from the plot were enslaved women, though recruiters did not explain why.
In the end, the rendezvous scheduled for the night of August 30 never took place. That morning, Pharoah and Tom, slaves owned by members of the Sheppard family, made their way to Richmond and told Mosby Sheppard of the plot. He passed on the warning first to family members and, who ordered patrols to be sent out. Toward sundown a massive storm of wind and rain made any gathering of conspirators impossible, so the leaders, unaware of the betrayal, postponed the attack for one night. By then, patrols had already begun detaining suspects; the conspiracy collapsed. Gabriel and Jack Bowler, the two most senior men in charge, disappeared.
The warning from Mosby Sheppard sparked patrols from Richmond and sent a warning to Petersburg, where rumors of a revolt had already surfaced early in August. Men from the Brook were soon taken up and placed in the public jail and penitentiary, and more were arrested as the evidence mounted. Two Henrico justices interrogated them as they were brought in, and on September 11 the commonwealth’s attorney presented the Henrico Court with a first batch of more than thirty so-called informations, or indictments, for conspiracy and insurrection. The trials immediately opened before the judges who sat as a Court of Oyer and Terminer, which had criminal jurisdiction. The judges, not a jury, decided guilt and innocence and a unanimous verdict was required for conviction. Different such courts convened in different jurisdictions, depending on where the alleged crime had occurred.
By December 1, seventy-two men had been tried: fifty-eight in Henrico County, three in Richmond City, nine more in Caroline County, and one each in Louisa and Dinwiddie counties, assuming the latter two trials were connected to Gabriel’s plot. Of these seventy-two, twenty-six were found guilty and hanged (all but one in Henrico and Richmond), eight were later transported, thirteen were declared guilty but pardoned by the governor, and twenty-five more were acquitted by local judges or magistrates.
Both Gabriel and Jack Bowler were among those captured and tried. After boarding a vessel downstream of Richmond, Gabriel had sailed to Norfolk, possibly with the connivance of the schooner’s captain, Richardson Taylor. On September 23, in Norfolk, one of the vessel’s enslaved crewmen turned Gabriel in. Gabriel wason October 6 and hanged in Richmond on October 10. Jack Bowler, meanwhile, surrendered on October 9, was convicted on October 29, and was transported out of state.
More than two dozen enslaved men and one enslaved woman testified at the trials, the overwhelming number giving evidence of a defendant’s participation. Three men in particular provided the bulk of the testimony. Two of them were not prosecuted: Ben, a slave of Thomas Henry Prosser who worked with Gabriel; and John, held by Sally Price but hired out in Richmond. The third, Ben Woolfolk, was owned by Paul Graham of Caroline and Hanover, but had been hired to William Young. Woolfolk was found guilty, but in exchange for a pardon he confessed and surrendered many names. Prosser’s Ben, unlike Woolfolk, was later manumitted after a group of private subscribers raised the funds to purchase his freedom from Prosser.
Pharoah and Tom, the two men who revealed the plot, were rewarded with their freedom after the General Assembly authorized their purchase and manumission. Two black men—one a slave, the other a freeman—were given small rewards for their roles in securing Gabriel and Jack Bowler. Richardson Taylor, captain of the schooner on which Gabriel was captured, was forced to appear before the mayor of Richmond, but with no white men available to testify against him, he was apparently released. Prosser sued Taylor for harboring Gabriel on his ship, but later dropped the suit, probably because no incriminating testimony could be produced.
Executions were public affairs designed to instill fear and terror. After fifteen men had been executed at what court records describe only as the “usual place” in Richmond—five on September 12, five on September 15, and five on September 18—some citizens petitioned to have the gallows moved. They argued that their families found the hangings offensive; however, no evidence suggests that the execution site was changed. Indeed, on October 10, the last day of the Henrico executions, Gabriel and two others were hanged at the usual place. Seven others, though, were taken that day to two other sites outside of Richmond, most likely to serve as warnings to the areas’ larger slave populations.
Once the first ten men had been hanged, Monroeon September 15 as to how many executions might be necessary to prevent another uprising. On September 20, by which time another five men had been executed, Jefferson that his neighbors thought there had been enough. He added that if the state went beyond “absolute necessity,” then the rest of the country and the world at large would condemn them for seeking revenge rather than justice. Monroe proposed to his council that condemned men be reprieved until the next meeting of the assembly, but the council refused. Still, as more men were sentenced to death, the expense of reimbursing owners for the loss of their slaves grew uncomfortably steep, and executive pardons began to replace trips to the gallows. In the end, pardons and transportation saved the Commonwealth almost 45 percent of what it would have paid owners if all slaves found guilty had been executed.
The reimbursement of owners for executed slaves represented only part of the state’s financial costs in suppressing the conspiracy. Regiments in Chesterfield and Henrico counties, as well as the Richmond Horse, had been mobilized to guard against the uprisings, and some remained active into mid-October of 1800. Militiamen were sent to secure the state arsenal at Point of Fork in Fluvanna County, militia companies were called up in Suffolk and Nansemond, and guards were placed on duty to watch captured conspirators and escort witnesses in Richmond and at Bowling Green, in Caroline County. The costs involved drained state coffers. Local patrols submitted larger than normal claims for pay to county courts. For many whites, another kind of price was paid as a result of the discovery and suppression of the conspiracy. As oneput it, “no person can repose in security and safety.” Consequently, he felt “bereaved of the blessings of civil liberty, namely, ‘security of property and safety of person and life.'” Of course, such concerns were also felt by the enslaved community, especially by the families of those men who were executed or transported.
As the conspiracy unfolded and was then crushed, it became part of the larger political struggle between Federalists and Republicans. Testimony that two Frenchmen had been the instigators of the plot, combined with the favorable attitude the conspirators had toward the French, allowed Federalist editors outside of Virginia to intensify their attacks on Jefferson’s candidacy for president. (Jefferson was perceived to have pro-French attitudes.) Federalists charged that if Jefferson and his party came to power, America’s future would be marked by slaves revolting under the banner of French revolutionary ideals. In other words, nothing less than the safety of the nation was at stake. But with the execution of Gabriel and the passing of the election, larger interest in the conspiracy quickly faded.
Gabriel’s Conspiracy provoked the General Assembly to adopt several measures, many of which were refinements of laws already in place. Some confusion had arisen over the admissibility of slave testimony against free blacks—it had been permitted in one case but not in others—and it was. Local magistrates were to send out patrols; lists of free persons of color and their residences were to be annually compiled; militia arms were to be to Virginia’s towns; the state arsenal was moved from Point of Fork to Richmond; and legislators for the capital city. In addition, a renewed effort to quash the self-hire of slaves was enacted; transportation as an alternative to execution in some capital crimes for slaves ; and for the freeing of Pharoah and Tom. The General Assembly also instructed Monroe to inquire of the president of the United States about the purchase of lands outside of Virginia to which persons “obnoxious to the laws and dangerous to the peace of society” could be sent. Further communications on the matter reveal that this resolution referred to both enslaved criminals and free blacks.
This effort on the part of Virginia officials to deport from the state any African Americans they deemed dangerous may have contributed to the later emergence of the American Colonization Society. However, public references to Gabriel were few until Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831) prompted an essay titled “Gabriel’s Defeat,” which was published first in the Albany Evening Journal, and then in some other northern newspapers, including the, which printed the piece on September 17, 1831. The essay’s romanticized view of the conspiracy provoked a , on October 21, 1831, from the editors of the Richmond Enquirer, who described it as “a barefaced attempt to impose upon the public—a vile tissue of fabrications.” The same original essay reappeared in the Philadelphia Press in 1859, this time in the context of John Brown’s raid on . Then, in 1862, the abolitionist minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson published a , also titled “Gabriel’s Defeat,” in the Atlantic Monthly‘s September 1862 edition.
Among African Americans, meanwhile, Gabriel’s plot appears to have remained a blueprint for conspiratorial whispers, especially in the years immediately following the aborted plot. In 1802, rumors of a planned insurrection circulated again in Henrico County, and in two separate incidents, four men were tried for conspiracy and three convicted. “General Gabriel,” meanwhile, became a name revered in story and song. The article printed in the Liberator mentioned an African American “song called ‘Gabriel’s Defeat,’ and set to the tune of the same name,” reportedly heard in Virginia. Such a song, calledand possibly dating to sometime after 1831, was anthologized by folklorists in the twentieth century. In 1840, the British naval officer Captain Frederick Marryat published Poor Jack, which contained twenty-two verses of a song, performed by an African American fiddler called Opposition Billy, extolling the exploits of “Gin’ral Gabriel.” In ‘s novel (1859–1862) a fugitive slave encounters the name Gabriel among blacks living in Virginia’s Dismal Swamp. It was “held by them in sacred reverence” and “as a talisman.”