By the 1660s, the Virginia colony had transformed into an enormous tobacco-producing operation dependent largely on the labor of English and Irish indentured servants and, to a lesser extent, enslaved Africans and. Approximately four out of five servants were men, and they suffered a high mortality rate due to disease and ill treatment. In fact, their masters’ treatment of them was so poor as to provoke an aside in otherwise concerned with runaways by which servants were granted the right to take to the courts complaints of “harsh and bad usage, or else for want of diett or convenient necessaries.”
In 1661, forty servants in York County, angered by the lack of meat in their diets,rather than take their case to court. Led by a servant named Isaac Friend, they planned to use force of arms to secure their freedom, but they were betrayed and arrested. The York County Court delivered stern warnings to Friend and to his master, who was encouraged to keep closer watch on his servants. That same year the General Assembly passed two acts, one requiring better treatment of servants and the other requiring better treatment .
Only two years later, when another conspiracy was uncovered to the north, in Gloucester County, did colonial officials became truly alarmed.
On September 1, 1663, nine indentured servants met secretly at a small house belonging to Peter Knight in the woods near Cooks Quarter in Gloucester County. After appointing William Bell and John Gunter their leaders, the men agreed to meet again at midnight the following Sunday, September 6, at a place called Poplar Spring. Each would bring what weapons he could scavenge and steal in the hope that they could eventually arm a company of thirty men. From Poplar Spring the group would then march to the home of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Willis, a member of the, to seize arms and a much-needed drum, the group having recruited a drummer from the militia company commanded by Major John Smith, another councillor.
The servants may also have planned to raid the nearby home of the widow Katharine Cook—indeed, William Budellthat they had intended to “march from house to house”—but all agreed that their ultimate destination was the Green Spring mansion of Governor Sir William Berkeley. Thomas Collins told authorities that, with weapons brandished, they would make clear to Berkeley their “desire to bee released of one year of their tyme w’ch they had to serve,” and, should the governor refuse, “that then they would goe forth of ye Land if they Could to an Island.” Budell even implied that they might be prepared to kill Berkeley should it come to that. In any event, their plans set, the nine pledged “an oath of secresie,” according to Budell, the violation of which would result in death.
The men’s attempts at secrecy failed, however. A servant named Birkenhead revealed their plans to the governor, who arranged for the conspirators to be ambushed at their meeting place, a result that Berkeley later attributed to “Gods hands,” which had delivered “so transcendent a favour as the preserving all we have from so utter ruin.” The General Court tried the captured servants for treason, accusing them of attempting “utterly to deprive, depose, cast downe and disinherite” the governor and, further, to wage war against Virginia in an attempt to “wholy submit and distroy” the colony., four were hanged.
Most of what is known about the Gloucester County Conspiracy comes from a handful of primary documents and a single secondary source, The History of Virginia, written byin 1705. These sources agree on some of the important dates associated with the conspiracy, but not on others. For instance, all agree that the conspirators first met secretly on Tuesday, September 1, 1663, with the intention of carrying out their insurrection the following Sunday, September 6. All sources similarly agree that the conspirators were arrested as they congregated again, but before they could carry out their plans. But these sources imply that day was September 13, not September 6. What’s more confusing is that the depositions of the arrested conspirators are dated, variously, September 8, 9, and 13. One possible explanation for this discrepancy is that the plotting servants were, in fact, arrested on September 6, with their depositions taken a few days later. If that is correct, then colonial records that suggest September 13 as the date of arrest do so in error.
Gone were the days when the colonial government might merely shake its finger at a reputed rebel like Isaac Friend. Upon thwarting the Gloucester County Conspiracy, the House of Burgesses rewarded Birkenhead “his freedom and five thousand pounds of tobacco,” making sure to compensate his master for the loss of his labor. The House“that the thirteenth of September, the day this villanous plot should have been putt into execution, be annually kept holy.”
The historian T. H. Breen has suggested that Virginia’s response to the conspiracy “appears excessive unless one considers it in the context of the strained relationship between the major tobacco planters and colonial laborers.” Robert Beverley’s history provides another clue to the motives behind the response. He writes that the servants included “several mutinous and rebellious Oliverian soldiers,” or supporters of Oliver Cromwell during the. The loyal subjects of Charles II, whose father had been beheaded by Cromwell’s men, may have been wary of such an element in their midst, and the historian Anthony S. Parent gives credence to these concerns by pointing out that the servants appeared to have military training: “The plot’s martial structure betrayed its New Model Army provenance: companies were formed, captains elected, drummers recruited, marching orders given, and arms and ammunition strategically collected.” Although the servants’ politics and training are not mentioned in any of the surviving government documents, Charles II was sufficiently alarmed, according to Beverley, to command that a fort be built at to protect the governor. Still, Beverley reports that “the country, thinking the danger over, only raised a battery of some small pieces of cannon.”
The rebels also may have included, or criminals swept from English jails to work in Virginia. On April 20, 1670, Berkeley prohibiting the worst felons from being imported to Virginia, citing “the horror yet remaining amongst us of the barbourous designe of such villaines in September 1663.”
The Gloucester County Conspiracy occurred during the uneasy transition in Virginia from a reliance on indentured labor to an even greater reliance on enslaved labor. Whether the Gloucester rebels included enslaved Africans or Virginia Indians is unclear, but when authorities in Westmoreland County uncoveredin 1687, the culprits by then were only slaves. The General Assembly responded swiftly and firmly.
In 1898wrote the romantic novel , set in Gloucester County in 1663. The book’s servant conspiracy is led by “Oliverian soldiers” and includes convicts, slaves, and Indians. The leader, a man aptly called Landless, is both an Oliverian and a convict. Echoing how historians often interpreted (1676–1677) as an early cry for liberty, Johnston as a proto–Founding Father.