Late in the seventeenth century, Virginia had been the site of a number of planned and actual revolts. On September 13, 1663, a conspiracy in Gloucester County that included African slaves, white indentured servants, and Virginia Indians was betrayed by one of its members. Known as the Gloucester County Conspiracy (or, sometimes, the Servants’ Plot), it resulted in the leaders being hanged. In April 1670, several residents of Gloucester, York, and Middlesex counties, presumably still worried about the intentions of their servants, petitioned the authorities to exclude from the colony any potential immigrants “who for notorious offenses have deserved to dye in England.” In 1676, Bacon’s Rebellion, although led by Nathaniel Bacon, a member of the governor’s Council, nevertheless included many laborers in the insurgents’ rank and file, raising additional fears of servile revolts.
In Westmoreland County, meanwhile, planters long worried that they were vulnerable to slave uprisings because of the county’s isolation from the more densely populated areas of the colony. In the absence of visible patrols or militia forces, scores of enslaved men and women had escaped, and authorities were concerned that others might be planning revolt. In the years leading up to 1687, the number of enslaved Africans in the county had risen steadily, mostly through new “saltwater” imports, or slaves brought directly from Africa rather than from the Caribbean. The enslaved population increased to the point that contemporary observers and a handful of historians have claimed that the Northern Neck counties had equal numbers of white and black inhabitants at the time of the Westmoreland plot.
On June 8, 1680, the General Assembly passed “An act for preventing Negroes Insurrections.” Coming just four years after Bacon’s Rebellion, in which white Englishmen had rebelled against the colony’s authority, the act was nevertheless concerned with the intentions of enslaved Africans and African Americans. It began by noting “the frequent meeting of considerbale numbers of negroe slaves under pretence of feasts and burialls,” suggesting this to be “of dangerous consequence.” It worried about slaves who “lye hid and lurking in obscure places,” and prohibited any slave from arming himself “with any club, staffe, gunn, sword or any other weapon of defense or offence”; in addition, a slave could not leave his master’s property without a certificate, and could not “presume to lift up his hand in opposition against any christian.”
This law did not alleviate the planters’ concerns. In November 1682, the General Assembly amended the act to prohibit enslaved persons from gathering at plantations not owned by their masters for more than four hours at a time. In 1686, an additional “byll Restraining Negroes going armed” was read three times in the House of Burgesses before being rejected on November 3.
On October 24, 1687, a panicked Nicholas Spencer provided Virginia governor Francis Howard, baron Howard of Effingham, and the governor’s Council with an account of a suspected slave conspiracy. Spencer, who lived in Westmoreland County, was himself a member of the Council as well as secretary of state. According to the Council’s journal, he provided “Intelligence of the Discovery of a Negro Plott, formed in the Northern Neck for the Distroying and killing his Maj[esty’s] Subjects the Inhabitants thereof, with a designe of Carrying it through the whole Collony of Virg[inia] …” The journal further reports that Spencer “by his Care Secured some of the Principall Actors & Contrivers,” and that only “by Gods Providence” were they captured “before any part of the designes were put in Execution.”
Members of the Council, in response, hearkened back to the colonists’ long-standing fears of their slaves moving too freely. In particular, they regretted “the great freedome and Liberty” masters had afforded slaves “on Saterdays and Sundays and permitting them to meete in great Numbers and making and holding of Funeralls for Dead Negroes.” Such occasions provided slaves the opportunity “to Consult and advise for the Carrying on of the Evill & wicked purposes.”
On the same day he received word of the alleged plot, Effingham created a special commission to try the suspected conspirators. The commission—which included councillors Spencer, Colonel Richard Lee II, and Colonel Isaac Allerton, all of whom resided on the Northern Neck—may have been the first oyer and terminer court impaneled in the history of British North America. Employed in times of extraordinary circumstance, such courts became the principal judicial mechanism by which suspected slave rebels were tried and sentenced in Virginia, from the 1687 plot to Gabriel’s conspiracy (1800) to Nat Turner’s revolt (1831). In this particular case, Effingham wanted a speedy trial for the “present Safety” of the county and colony. Anticipating that the proceedings would result in public executions, he hoped to “deterr other Negroes from plotting or Contriveing” to kill or harm whites. Though no records of these proceedings or their outcomes exist, in all likelihood this impromptu tribunal found the slaves guilty of conspiracy and sentenced them to public executions.
The Council journal, finally, notes that members “Thought fit that a Proclamacon doe forthwith Issue, requiring Strikt observance of the Severall Laws of this Collony relateing to Negroes,” especially those preventing slaves from attending funerals or other public gatherings. Soon after, on November 5, 1687, Effingham issued just such a proclamation, reminding planters of the prohibitions contained in the 1680 act. He scolded masters for “not restraining their Negroes from walking and rambling on broad on Satterdayes and Sundayes,” and reiterated that slaves were not to be armed and were not to leave their masters’ plantations without written permission from a master, a mistress, or an overseer. Violations would be met with severe punishment, and neglectful owners could face fines or imprisonment. Lest any in the colony again forget the law, Effingham announced that the 1680 act “bee published every six monethes att the respective county courts and parish churches within this collony.”
Fears raised by the suspected plot in Westmoreland County spread to other parts of the colony. A slave belonging to a master in Warwick County was arrested and briefly imprisoned on the charge of conspiring with other slaves in Charles City and New Kent counties. Then, on April 26, 1688, Sam, the slave of Richard Metcalfe, of Westmoreland, was found guilty in James City County of having “several times endeavoured to promote a Negro Insurreccon in this Colony.” Sam and a handful of other conspirators were severely whipped by the James City sheriff before being transported back to Westmoreland County, where they were whipped again. Sam, as the leader, was additionally ordered to wear a heavy iron collar affixed to his neck for the rest of his life. And “if he shall goe off his said master or masters plantacon or get off his collar then [he is] to be hanged.”
The Westmoreland County slave plot compelled lawmakers to create a series of restrictions aimed at preventing further conspiracies. On July 26, 1690, Virginia lieutenant governor Francis Nicholson issued a proclamation ordering that the 1680 act be publicly read at all county courts and parish churches every six months. The following year, on April 3, 1691, the General Assembly passed “An act for suppressing outlying slaves,” which granted county sheriffs, their deputies, and any other “lawfull authority” the ability to kill any slaves resisting, running away, or refusing to surrender themselves when so ordered. For each slave killed in this manner, owners would collect 4,000 pounds of tobacco from the colonial government. The act further sought to prevent the “abominable mixture and spurious issue” of mixed-race unions by prohibiting English men or women from marrying any “negroe, mulatto, or Indian man or woman bond or free.”
As the first conspiracy in British North America not involving white supporters or participants, the Westmoreland plot confirmed long-held fears among planters while provoking new ones. Their concerns were now focused more sharply on enslaved African Americans, helping to show how Africanized the colony’s labor force had become since the Servants’ Plot of 1663. Servitude in Virginia had become a condition largely dictated by race, and, in the future, servile revolts would be planned and executed almost exclusively by blacks. Indeed, until John Brown‘s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, white support for slave revolts in Virginia was minimal at best. In the meantime, the clear and present danger of slave insurrection remained a persistent theme in colonial and antebellum Virginia history.