The Stono Rebellion

Early on the morning of Sunday, September 9, 1739, twenty black Carolinians met near the Stono River, approximately twenty miles southwest of Charleston. At Stono’s bridge, they took guns and powder from Hutcheson’s store and killed the two storekeepers they found there. “With cries of ‘Liberty’ and beating of drums,” historian Peter H. Wood writes in the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, “the rebels raised a standard and headed south toward Spanish St. Augustine…Along the road they gathered black recruits, burned houses, and killed white opponents, sparing one innkeeper who was ‘kind to his slaves’.”

Detail showing Stono River. A compleat description of the province of Carolina in 3 parts. London: Edw. Crisp, [1711?]. General Maps. Geography & Maps Division

Thus commenced the Stono Rebellion, the largest uprising of enslaved people in the British mainland colonies prior to the American Revolution. Late that afternoon, planters riding on horseback caught up with the band of sixty to one hundred insurgents. More than twenty white Carolinians and nearly twice as many black Carolinians were killed before the rebellion was suppressed. As a consequence of the uprising, white lawmakers imposed a moratorium on slave imports and enacted a harsher slave code.

Ariel view of the countryside along the Stono River south of Charleston, South Carolina. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer, May 1, 2017. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive. Prints & Photographs Division

Enslaved people resorted to insurrection, first in the British colonies and later in the southern United States. At least 250 insurrections have been documented; between 1780 and 1864, ninety-one African Americans were convicted of insurrection in Virginia alone. The first revolt in what became the United States took place in 1526 at a Spanish settlement near the mouth of the Pee Dee River in South Carolina.

The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia. Richmond: Thomas R. Gray, publisher, 1832. Rare Book Selections. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Between 1800 and 1831, African Americans instigated several ambitious rebellions in the American South. Among these were Gabriel’s Revolt, which began north of Richmond, Virginia, on August 30, 1800, and Vesey’s Rebellion, an 1822 conspiracy to incite as many as 9,000 plantation and urban enslaved people in the vicinity of Charleston, South Carolina. Nat Turner’s Rebellion, the most effective revolt, erupted in Southampton County, Virginia, on the night of August 21, 1831. Nat Turner and his followers killed nearly sixty white people as they moved toward an armory at Jerusalem, Virginia. Halted mere miles from their goal, the approximately seventy-five insurgents were soon killed or captured by the militia. Turner’s November execution failed to assuage fears of continued insurrection. Across the South, renewed legislative efforts to forbid education and greatly restrict movement and assembly further constrained the lives of enslaved people.

Horrid Massacre in Virginia. Illus. in: Authentic and impartial narrative of the tragical scene which was witnessed in Southampton County. [New York], 1831. Prints & Photographs Division.

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