Today is the 212th anniversary of what might have been a large and bloody uprising of slaves—had it not rained.
Slaves who lived north of Richmond had been surreptitiously meeting since late in the spring, recruiting members, and devising a plan that was nothing if not ambitious: They would attack Richmond at night, setting the lower part of town on fire as a diversion. Then, in the upper part of town, they would steal arms from the Capitol and the penitentiary, kidnap Governor James Monroe, and kill the exhausted firefighters as they struggled home. And that was just the beginning!
As it happens, the conspirators planned to strike on the night of August 30, 1800, but a rainstorm forced them to postpone. At the same time, Pharoah and Tom, slaves owned by members of the Sheppard family, made their way to Richmond and informed Mosby Sheppard of the plot. He passed on the warning first to family members and then to Monroe, who ordered patrols to be sent out. Pretty soon the whole conspiracy collapsed, with twenty-six captured slaves being hanged and eight more being transported, or sold outside the state. One committed suicide before he could be arraigned.
The entire event came to be known as Gabriel’s Conspiracy because the de facto leader was an enslaved blacksmith named Gabriel. (Although the history books sometimes call him Gabriel Prosser—he was owned by Thomas Prosser of Henrico County—it’s not clear that Gabriel actually used the last name.)
Our newly published entry was written by Michael L. Nicholls, professor emeritus of history at Utah State University and author of the excellent Whispers of Rebellion: Narrating Gabriel’s Conspiracy, new this year from the University of Virginia Press. In addition to Nicholls’s retelling of Gabriel’s story, you’ll find the following in our entry:
- Mosby Sheppard’s letter to James Monroe warning him of the conspiracy (see image above);
- Testimony from Gabriel’s trial;
- A letter from Monroe to Thomas Jefferson asking how many hangings is too many hangings;
- Jefferson’s hedging response;
- A long newspaper essay praising Monroe but proclaiming that now “no person can repose in security and safety”;
- The text of numerous laws passed by the General Assembly to address these questions of safety;
- A law passed just to free Pharoah and Tom;
- Years later, after Nat Turner’s rebellion, an essay in the Boston Liberator remembering Gabriel;
- A sharp fact check of that essay performed by the Richmond Enquirer;
- A short history of the conspiracy published in the Atlantic during the Civil War; and
- An African American folksong, dating sometime after 1831, called “Uncle Gabriel.”
We are confident that whether you are a teacher, a student, or someone who is just generally interested in history, Encyclopedia Virginia is the best online source for information about Gabriel’s Conspiracy.
IMAGES: The first page of the letter from Mosby Sheppart to James Monroe warning him of Gabriel’s Conspiracy (Library of Virginia); Slave Uprising in Saint-Domingue, 1791—this is what Virginians feared would happen to them.