York County Conspiracy (1661)


The York County Conspiracy was a plan by indentured servants to rise up against authorities in York County in 1661. Led by Isaac Friend and William Clutton, the servants were angered by the lack of meat in their diet, but their conspiracy apparently was revealed before they could act. The county court warned Friend about his behavior and encouraged his overseer to watch him more carefully. Clutton was ordered arrested for delivering “seditious words & speeches,” but the result of the county’s legal action is not known.

The two servants at the center of the conspiracy, Friend and Clutton, belonged to Major James Goodwin, of York County. A servant named Thomas T. Collins told the court that he and his fellow laborers were “talking of their hard usage, & that they had nothing but corne & water, & were not kept according to the Law of the Countrey.” That was when Friend stepped up and suggested they should “Joyne in a petition to send for England to ye king to have it redressed.” When an objection was raised as to how such a petition would be delivered, Friend changed tack. Instead, the servants should recruit “a matter of fforty of them toge[th]er, & get Armes & he [Friend] would be ye first & have them cry as [th]ey went along, ‘who would be for Liberty, and free from bondage.'” Friend promised they would kill anyone who opposed them. Meanwhile, John Parkes, an overseer working for Goodwin, testified that the servants in his charge were “very well sattisfyed till William Clutton” made it known “that servants ought by ye custome of ye countrey to have meat 3 times a weeke.”

Friend did not deny to the court that he had made such speeches, noting that “hee might speake such words when [th]ey were all together,” but he insisted that he had not intended to actually lead a rebellion. The court responded by warning that Parkes “take speciall care, & have a strict, dilligent eye uppon Isaack friend his servant, who appeares of a turbulent & unquiett spiritt.” Friend, however, appeared to avoid punishment. Clutton, by contrast, was charged with having “spoken mutinous & seditious words.” The court ordered his arrest.

The York County Conspiracy came at a time when indentured servants were the primary labor source in Virginia, although the colony was slowly transitioning to enslaved African labor. The General Assembly passed a flurry of laws late in the 1650s and early in the 1660s designed to address the concerns of mistreated servants while also controlling their behavior. Concern about a large-scale rebellion was low until, in 1663, servants in Gloucester County were caught conspiring against the governor, Sir William Berkeley. By 1687, when a planned uprising of slaves in Westmoreland County was foiled, Virginia authorities took the possibility of insurrection as a serious threat.

January 24, 1661
The testimonies of several indentured servants and one overseer are entered into the record of the York County Court. They reveal a plot in which the servants, angry about the lack of meat in their diet, planned to rebel.
September 8—9, 1663
A group of indentured servants, arrested in Gloucester County on charges of treason, provides testimony to the General Court about their conspiracy.
October 24, 1687
Nicholas Spencer informs fellow members of the governor's Council, as well as Governor Francis Howard, baron Howard of Effingham, of a suspected slave conspiracy in Westmoreland County. Effingham creates an oyer and terminer court, with Spencer, Richard Lee II, and Isaac Allerton to serve as judges. The trial's results are unknown.
  • Breen, T. H. “A Changing Labor Force and Race Relations in Virginia 1660–1710.” Journal of Social History 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1973): 3–25.
  • “Proceedings in York County Court,” William & Mary Quarterly 11, no. 1 (July 1902): 34–36.
APA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. York County Conspiracy (1661). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/york-county-conspiracy-1661.
MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "York County Conspiracy (1661)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 May. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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